Choose Your Own Appropriate Language

English is a bleeping awesome language, isn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I love it. I love the depth of the language, the sheer joy of letting words play around in my mind and then spill out of my mouth in such a way that I can convey not only ideas and facts, but concepts and inferences. It’s exciting and exhilarating. And sometimes other words that start with ‘ex’. Like exasperating, excessive, exclamatory, excruciating, exhausting, existential, experimental, expansive, expedient, explicit, expressive, extensive, extreme, exuberant, and hundreds of others. (Although that last may be an exaggeration.)

But there are some words that elicit an immediate reaction in people, regardless of their context.

Whether you call them swear words, curse words, naughty words, or profanity, you know the ones I mean.

The words you wouldn’t say in front of your 80 year old grandmother.

The words that are more often referred to by ingenious pseudonyms in polite conversation. “The F-word”, “The C-Bomb”, “Sugar Honey Iced Tea” and their ilk. You know the ones I mean.

In real life, when I’m expressing my opinion verbally rather than in edited prose, I’ve learned to be careful with my use of offensive language. I used to swear. A lot. Then I had kids, and I rapidly replaced that profanity with less offensive alternatives.

Sugar Honey Iced Tea turned into a heartfelt Holy Dooley!

The F-Word turned into a loud Goodness!

And let me tell you, my children know I’ve really, truly had enough when their actions elicit an emotionally charged, “Goodness Gracious!” or, even worse, “For Goodness Sake!”

I wouldn’t swear in front of my children. I wouldn’t swear in front of other people’s children. I wouldn’t swear in front of my parents either, for the most part.

And that’s why I don’t generally use profanity on this blog.

I wouldn’t use profanity if I was having a conversation in a public place, where I could be overheard by people unknown. So I don’t use profanity here, in a public forum, where anyone can wander in and read what I’ve written. It’s pretty simple, right?

Um. No.

You see, I also write fiction. And when I’m writing a story, sometimes characters use language that I wouldn’t. Some characters do swear in front of children. And their parents. And even 80 year old grandmothers dying in hospital beds. Because (and this will hopefully not come as a huge surprise) not all people think, act, or feel the same as I do.

I made the decision a long time ago not to edit the character-appropriate profanity out of my fiction writing. And so when you read through the Flash Fiction posted on this blog (just click the link up the top there if you’re interested!), you’ll find the occasional naughty word.

As an artist, I’m not prepared to censor myself when it comes to the authenticity of my work.

But…

But it’s different when it’s me talking, rather than a character. It’s different when I’m writing an editorial post — an outpouring of my own opinion — rather than a fictional story.

And that’s why I really struggled with the question of profanity when I posted a poem a couple of days ago. You may have noticed that it included a naughty word. Just the one, yes, but even so. (If you didn’t read my poem, you can find it here.)

For the first time ever, I agonised about whether to edit a word out of my post. I argued with myself extensively.

“But it’s a poem. It’s art. I have to leave it in there.”

“But it’s not really fiction, is it? It’s just an editorial piece written in verse.”

“Yes, but that word needs to be there. It expresses the emotion more clearly than any other word would in its place. It’s not like it’s just filler.”

“But if I wasn’t writing in verse, I wouldn’t have used it.”

“Yes, but…”

“But…”

In the end, I took a deep breath and posted the poem as I wrote it. Even knowing that anyone could read it. (Even knowing that my parents could read it.) Because a poem is, after all, something more than the sum of its words. And no one would even notice, right? And if they did, they certainly wouldn’t comment.

The next day, when I was at school to pick Big Brother up, I ran into a friend who happens to read my blog. “Hi Jo,” she said. “You used a naughty word in your blog yesterday.”

Well, so much for no one noticing. I can still fall back on the art explanation, right?

Do you use profanity in your writing? Do you have rules as to when and where it’s appropriate?

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19 Comments

Filed under Opinion

19 responses to “Choose Your Own Appropriate Language

  1. I am a sweary bear, it must be said, and the density of profanity in my work and on my blog approaches a full deci-Wendig. (ie about 10% of Chuck Wendig’s swearingness in BLACKBIRDS.)

    I do veer away from profanity in some of my fiction, but it’s an active decision rather than a passive one; I have to turn the rudeness off rather than on. And it makes it harder.

  2. I don’t swear much in life (only when called for 🙂 ), but my characters swear or not, depending on whether they would. This is why I never identify my work as YA, even when it has strong YA elements (as my last story, Stevie One, did). I think a lot of people expect “YA” won’t have cussing. (Well, the story also has a few other elements which are probably not YA-appropriate).

  3. I edit myself in person, due ti having kids, but occasionally my characters swear. Not so much in this novel–or maybe not at all, come to think of it. There’s a lot more naughty, silly 19th century innuendo. (My character ends up in a brothel…)

  4. When I am drafting a story I make no attempt to censor, which usually results in several characters swearing using the same few words. When I edit I replace many of them with other less profane words to add variety and voice. If it is set in another world or future I usually replace all of them with in-world terms.

    My own speech is quite free of profanity unless I am really angry or making a point, although not as free as it used to be when I was appearing in court several times a week.

    • Like most things, swearing is a habit. Once you stop doing it, it becomes harder to do so — even intentionally. At least, that’s been my experience. So I’ve had to go back and actually add swearing into some of my fiction at times, because I’ve unconsciously censored myself as I went.

  5. One of those ‘hundreds’ of other ‘ex’ words you alluded to describe English is extraordinary, such as its ability to nick words from other languages and attribute new meanings to old words, so that our vocabulary, our word-hoard, is growing all the time.

    Which is why it always saddens me that when we Anglophones want to express irritation, aggression, passion, surprise or even a eureka moment we so often just come up with a mere handful of mostly four-letter words to impart those emotions or experiences. (Or use namby-pamby euphemisms such flipping henry, crikey or, yes, sugar honey iced tea, though I think that last is sweet!)

    Why can’t we be more creative with our exclamations? They don’t all have to be explicitly profane or scatological, do they? And is it the same in other languages and cultures?

    • I’m not an expert on profanity in other languages, but I do believe that you’ll find that most cultures and languages use similar expressions to the ones we use. Such exclamations are, of course, primarily used to express shock, anger, disbelief, etc, and so they’re supposed to be words/concepts that are distasteful and/or rude. And the most shocking words are always either sacrilegious or reference body parts/functions best kept to oneself.

      I remember reading a dystopian novel when I was a teenger (I wish I could remember what it was called!) where the F word was perfectly acceptable but the word ‘hate’ was so socially inappropriate that saying it in mixed company had major repercussions.

      • Can you remember the title of the novel? I have a vague memory of seeing a TV drama (maybe based on this novel?) some decades ago where violence in a future dystopian British community was partly averted by the practice of staging gladatorial bouts where combattants swore creatively (this would have been before four-letter words were countenanced on TV) and verbally abused each other until they ran out of steam or a sense of ridiculousness or humour took over. If only all antagonism could be resolved this way!

      • After spending almost three hours googling (because I’m that thorough. Or obsessive.) I’m about 95% sure the book I remember reading was ‘This Perfect Day’ by Ira Levin. The greatest insult possible in the society was to say, “Fight you, Brother-hater!”

        There’s also a comic fantasy series by Robert Asprin (The MYTH series) where the characters come across a world that outlawed war some time ago, and instead has an annual game (like a form of football) where the winning city are the country’s rulers for the following year.

      • Thank you, and sorry to cause you to obsess! Will look out for the Ira Levin book.

      • Haha. I don’t need an excuse to be obsessive. 🙂

  6. I used to swear a lot verbally, but similar to you, I began to edit myself once the kids started talking. My favorite replacement curse is “Sanctified Excrement!”

    As for my fiction, I find that swearing is a very useful tool. Some characters swear a lot because they are rough and rowdy. Others never swear because they consider themselves too genteel for such barbarism.

    But what I find truly interesting is the situations when the rowdy character chooses to censor himself because he wants to give a different impression or situations when the genteel character chooses to swear in either surprising frustration or ice-cold vengeance. This really strikes a chord because wherever we are on that expletive spectrum, we’ve all had those moments that take us out of our norm, and these exceptions can say more about who we really are than our day-to-day f-bombing.

    For example, the thug censored himself in front of the priest because even this violent thief has some lingering respect for the church. The governor dropped the c-bomb because he considered this particular woman to be of no social standing whatsoever. And the respected elder who just broke his knee let loose a torrent of expletives that harkened back to his days as a soldier.

    Once again… an excellent topic that I may shamelessly steal for my own blog.

    • Dan: exactly my approach as well. When do characters censor themselves and when do they cut loose – that can be very telling. I do that with smoking also. I have a character who smokes in many situations, including some which could be seen as inappropriate, but there are a few where she doesn’t, and it’s interesting to show that.

    • Steal away, Dan! 🙂

      I agree that situations where characters will choose not to swear are incredibly revealing. And, of course, you can intimate a lot about a character’s background and ideology by considering how much and when they swear, as well as what words they use.

  7. Pingback: Except… I Didn’t Say Fudge | Making It Up As I Go

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