bad words

I swear. I swear all the time. It feels good, so I do it.

I know they say that you will sound less intelligent if you swear.  (I think the juxtaposition of a highfalutin word with a swear packs a nice punch.)

They also say say that swearing is unprofessional. (I want to ask them how that applies to me, who has no profession. Or perhaps there’s a causal connection?)

They say that if you swear in writing, you will attract the wrong kind of attention, above and beyond the fact that if you put it online, people searching for illicit pleasures will type in some dirty word and find you. To some, writing swear words is tantamount to asking for it. For them, one single swear word will dirty every word in its vicinity.

I don’t feel proud of my smut mouth but I’m not particularly ashamed, either. Mostly, I’m curious. Because most people utter the occasional epithet but but they don’t do it in writing. Why not?

The other day on NPR I heard a fascinating story about Webster’s Third Unabridged Dictionary, published in 1961. (Click here to see the story.) Apparently, editor Philip Babcock Gove earned himself a s^!↑load of criticism for including and failing to condemn words like “ain’t” and colloquial items like “wise up” and “litterbug.” People vilified the dictionary for its “overly permissive approach to usage.” The story does not mention swear words but it could have.

The “Third stood in for all the forces ranged against art and high culture. It enshrined the kitsch and vulgarity of mass culture and the smug middlebrow consumerism of the Book of the Month Club. And it defended itself with the bloodless jargon of the social sciences.

I don’t want my writing to be a stiff, proper, or formal construct. I don’t want to waste energy trying to sound more highbrow than I am. I want to be real. There are not many satisfactory synonyms for “mΩ↑∏erFµ©≤er.” And yet also, I don’t want to burn any bridges.

What do you think?

Can words be bad? 

Did a word ever get you in trouble?  

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

57 comments

  1. I listened to that podcast, too! Words can of course be bad, but I think writers should have the freedom to use whatever words they want. I’ve found it interesting, actually, to see how swear words increase in teen writing, only to taper off in the late twenties. You can really see a teen experimenting and finding their voice when their writing is peppered with swear words. And, even as an adult, I’ve gone in waves, embracing swear words whole heartedly and then going another route. It’s just so liberating, every time.

    That said, I struggle with this too as I write both adult and children’s fiction. I want to say whatever I want to say, and yet….with everything findable on the web…It’s a good question!

    • In my house, the words “hate” and “stupid” are the worst words you can use. I know that sounds rather west-coast-la-la, but the emotion under those words feels more dangerous to me than the occasional release of energy some traditional swear word affords. Your word, “liberating,” is perfect.

  2. Courtenay Bluebird and I have discussed this quite a bit vis-à-vis the bloggerverse, which seems to have acquired, IMHO, a peculiar and rather stifling sense of puritanicalism that didn’t seem to exist six or seven years ago. Not that I endorse employing profanity as punctuation, but a writer should feel free to use the words that seem most effective in conveying an idea or state of emotion, or in putting a sharp end on a turn of phrase, profane or not.

    It seems absurd to have to endure shamed by folks who don’t approve of the occasional coarse phrasing or exclamatory f-bomb on the off chance that someone, somewhere might have their delicate sensibilities ruffled by rough language. In particular I find it ridiculous that I was taken to task for such usage in my last two posts by folks who don’t otherwise enjoy my style of writing to begin with.

    • It’s just a word, for heaven’s sake. It’s like wearing hot pink or using all caps or punching your fist into the air for emphasis. There are so many meaner, sharper, sicker words out there. Like “gentrify” or “genocide.” The regular swear words seem like a petty thing to worry about, when you think about it.

  3. I don’t believe there are bad words. There are simply words that some find offensive. (For me, those would be racial/homophobic/sexist slurs.) In the context of writing, I think it depends on whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. If a character in a novel swears and that conveys something about their personality, I see no problem. If the narrator in a work of fiction swears, that’s different. I write fiction and my characters swear but my narrators do not. That’s just my choice. In nonfiction, swearing reflects the character of the author, which may offend some readers but certainly doesn’t offend me, since I swear like a sailor. 🙂

    Here’s an interesting piece about this:
    http://www.powells.com/blog/guests/fk-should-writers-swear-by-jamesbernardfrost/

    Happy writing!

    • Garg! There you are!!! Please forgive techno glitch.
      You bring up an interesting idea, Laurel. I agree, if the narrator swore it might feel wrong. I wonder why. Is it because I expect the narrator to be smart, formal, and rather godlike, and that illusion can’t be achieved if s/he curses like a sailor? Or do swear words make too large of an impression, and I want a narrator without a face? You’ve given me something to think about.

    • And that article is brilliant. Exactly what I wanted to say, if I had a macro view and hadn’t gotten distracted by finding creative ways to disguise my swear words in icons. (I guess I just have to admit that swearing makes me feel young again and yes, adolescent.)

  4. Love your creative spellings of “bad” words in this post. 🙂 I was raised by parents who thought “butt” was a bad word (we were instructed to say “bottom”)… I still can’t say the f-word even now, though I have occasionally written it, which pleases me — to express something in writing that I have trouble speaking aloud! I think these words are like all other language; they have their place and their power. I’ve definitely heard people swear with artistry and it’s always a rich experience. 🙂 It makes sense not to sprinkle these words all over children’s books, maybe… I know as I’ve read Harry Potter, I’ve been really impressed (and often entertained) by the way Jo Rowling makes it clear that certain characters are swearing, without actually ever using the words themselves.

    • JK Rowling coud have invented her own naughty Hogwarts lingo. That would have been fun! When I hurt myself or break something, I feel much better after I yell a couple juicy phrases. It’s a huge relief. I can’t explain it.

  5. there are no bad words. just bad writing. truth comes in all colours. there is nothing worse than gey dull wiriting. bukowski swore yet wrote beautiffully. i dont know about childrens books … probably same rule applies as children dont like to be talked down to… maybe …

    • I’m thinking of a favorite children’s rhyme I sang while jumping rope. “Ms. Suzie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, and if you ever ring it, then you’ll go straight to hello operator, give me number 9, and if you disconnect me, I’ll kick your fat behind the ‘frigerator, there is a piece of glass…”. Great stuff. But it was never put in print, just passed along orally, with great glee. Hmmm. Perhaps this is the new thing for kids books. (Ha.) Thank you for your comment!

  6. I pretty much never use ‘bad words’ except in my head, but I’ve still got in plenty of trouble just for the ‘regular’ words I’ve used!

  7. We’ve talked about this recently, Anna, so I’m thrilled to see you writing about it. You’ve created an eloquent discussion about language, here. As you know, I’m lo-fi with the profanity on my blog. And I have more reasons than just the one we discussed earlier. Essentially, I think the language discussion comes down to two factors in blogging: Do you have a talent for writing profanity? Does the profanity keep with the flow of the story, or does it jar you out of it? (And, as a secondary point, does it jar you out of the story for a productive reason?) Love this piece— you cover a lot of ground in a short space.

    • I love the alternative swear-words (and other words) that you come up with, CB. You have a knack for finding other, equally rich ways of expression. If I could come up with a word that rivals “mΩ↑∏erFµ©≤er” in power and satisfaction, I would gladly use it.

      • At home, mothrafrakker (the real word, not this substitute one) is my FAVORITE word! (Look! Another reason why we’re becoming friends!)

        But, in certain company, that gets curbed— the usual circumstances— children, particular adults and elders, in general and in specific, unless directed otherwise.

        I think I got most of my fauxfanity style from reading Uncle $crooge and Tintin comic books as a child.

        Mothrafrakker is the BEST ONE. It’s got oomph, like a punch in the snot locker.

  8. aubrey

    People use coarse language. Some, it seems, almost exclusively (they’re a little boring). So it makes sense to use swear terms when writing dialogue. I don’t use these words, but I don’t write dialogue either – it’s chiefly descriptive and if I suddenly wrote in a swear word it would appear like a literary tourettes!

    In real life, I find myself saying things like ‘hell’s bells!’ or ‘shi**ers’.

    • Ha! Literary tourettes! Beautifully put. I agree that it sometimes gets boring, as does any excessive repetition. One can only pull off an occasional swear if one has the vocabulary to back it up.

  9. aubrey

    Sorry – I wanted to add something else, as that last bit seemed a little coarse (ironic!) but the computer cut me off!

  10. I’m slumped down in my chair in the back row, cracking my bubble gum. Words get me in trouble all the time, but I keep muttering them under my breath and sliding them into my paragraphs—because I just don’t give a fuck.

    XO

  11. My approach to writing is the same as my approach to making music, and music is a language all on its own. In the history of music there have also been vulgar phrases that were frowned upon. But I don’t write music to please the neighborhood musical regulatory commission – I write music because I have to, and I write what I hear … even when its an A and an E flat repeated ad nauseam.

    My writing is no different. I write fiction because I have to, and I write what I see in my head … even when its vulgar, in bad taste, and generous in its use of f-bombs. It’s my voice. This is MY language, my birdsong, my lonely howl in the night. I write vulgarity because I have to; not all the time, but not always when its appropriate either.

    My writing style is no different than my musical style. I rape my instruments, I bludgeon my drum set, I tie up my piano and violate it — and its beautiful because the sound is mine.

    Now in real life I never manage anything more vulgar than a “cripes” or a “jiminy christmas” — you just don’t feckin’ curse in public.

    • Interesting that for you, writing is less public than speaking (although if we tweak that and say it as art is more intimate or private than day-to-day business, I have to agree). I agree that it’s okay to do anything in your mind. What a relief that is. I know that some ideas should never be acted on, but I can think of a thousand worse things than swearing. In my mind, some swear words are old friends– I just don’t get the hoopla. And I wished I could hear an A and an E flat repeated while I read your response.

  12. Words matter. That is precisely why we should not censor.

  13. words shouldn’t be censored by society or class, but we should censor ourselves insofar as we should be careful to say only the things we actually mean. and outside of literature, i believe censorship is appropriate in some circumstances, like schools or public forums in which we should protect against harassment and slurs.

    • I guess I agree with you there. Although I would rather my daughter’s teacher said “shit” than used the n word or said something racist or sexist or cut her down. Yes, we should always mean what we say and day what we mean.

  14. Indeed; the coarse and brutish nature of this subject should never be subjected to those who have no wish to encounter it. I am vexed to see a conjuction of the subject in public discourse. This places me in the position of asking Anna to release me from my previous committment to share underwear stories. Your companion in vulgar ideas without using the actual words, Wicked Weird and Wild Waldo.

  15. As she gets older and interested in things other than Winx Club or nickjr dot com, I’ll have to hide my blog from my daughter till she gets a lot older, but that’s the only self-censorship I’ll ever do. As for any adult readers, f**k ’em, of course. I’m chuckling about the idea of you walking around your house with Tourette’s when you’re alone in the house. Your picture of the blackboard reminds me of something I saw on TV the other day; though I’m more of a “Family Guy” type, I caught the beginning of “The Simpsons”, where Bart was writing over and over on the blackboard: “I will not wear white after Labor Day.” Now that’s f^*king funny.

    • Absolutely, Kevin. My girls know I swear, so what, but certainly, there are many other things they don’t need to know until they are much older. Once when my youngest was 2 I was pushing her on the swing and she yelled, “Harder! Push f**king harder, mama!” And all the mothers turned and looked at me like I was on fire or something. One had the decency to giggle a little, bless her heart. I mean really. http://www.flickriver.com/photos/14531705@N00/4529445838/

  16. The way you wrote out that symbology to look like the MF word was way cool. Did you invent that? Genius.

    I find in some of my work I use (mostly) the “F” word a lot. My characters are all a little tied together, and in one instance a guy who was major in another book came on the scene and he immediately spoke with his south Philly mouth. I enjoyed seeing myself segue into that. I absolutely think it is a characterization issue and not a moral or social issue, at least in writing.

    In my personal speech, I find I am coming out of using it “every other word” to hardly ever saying it. I think I exhausted its cathartic properties.

    Wally is a scream. He is an artist with the 26 letters.

    • “Exhausted the cathartic properties.” NICE! I worry about that– when my mf loses its oomph, then what? Will I have to find something harder to give me the kick or will I have to go cold turkey?

      I agree, Wally is great.

  17. Because I spent most of my childhood outside my country of birth and only spoke my mothertongue with my family, I did not know any swearwords when I went back home as a teenager. So my classmates had to take me aside and teach me all of them, in alphabetical order. However, I still struggled to use them (no such problems using them in English or German though).
    Then, when I went on to study Languages at uni, I remember someone told me that I would soon be swearing like a trooper, because all those who study languages or philology or literature learn the ‘relativity’ of words and how to play around with them. And you know what? They were right.

  18. It is all about context. Words are words. In and of themselves they cannot be bad. And actually context is so subjective since it involves both the person hearing the words and the one saying them. Best bet, say what you feel and let the chips fall where they may.

    • Maybe it’s my context that’s to blame. Swearing seems fairly uneventful in my little pocket. It’s just when I go elsewhere or venture out online that I start wondering what’s the matter.

  19. Fuck. That motherfucker. Fucking bastards. Well fuck me. These are my 4 most used curses. I refuse to give them up. They’re the first words that come to me when my head explodes, and I go with them until I can wrap my mind around it better.

    You’re doing fine, Anna, just fine.

    P.S. Can you email me? I sent you a note a few days ago and it bounced back, so maybe I have the wrong address…

  20. I read somewhere that swearing helps reduce stress, some scientific study. whatever that means. i think you should go for it. although whenever i read my old blog posts riddled with swearing it annoys me. so i try to limit it as much as possible now

  21. Oh yes, words can be delightfully bad! And I have been known to have a horrendous potty mouth, especially when I’m fighting with software. I don’t always yank out the bad words, but at times, they slip into my speech as easily as toad slipping into a puddle. And they feel good. Except when I realize I’ve stepped across the threshold and shocked someone. For me the potty words spew forth like diarrhea, spontaneously and without malice aforethought. I guess I think a bit more when writing, so those words don’t pop into print very often.

    Funny about those ol’ Oxford dudes. They like to forget that language is evolving just as people and cultures are blending and evolving. Tee hee. Poor stuffy souls.

  22. I used to say ‘darn’ and ‘dang it’ and ‘shoot’. My husband would ask why I didn’t just swear because I was saying the words with the same emotion and the same meaning. It just sounded like a greater sense of loss of control, which anger used to be for me. Then I got angry. Now I swear and it feels good. Especially when a slamming door accompanies the word. I also had a publisher tell me one time that he’d publish my book if I took out the swear words. One character swore, and to me it was part of her personality and who she was. I decided I wasn’t going to sacrifice that character for the ability to say I was published. Still wonder some days if that was the right decision, but oh well. And that character is swearing her way through a sequel.

    • What an intense decision to make. I’m wracking my brain, trying to remember books I’ve read in which people swore, but really, swearing is such a non-issue to me I don’t think it would stand out as a memorable feature. Chuck Palahniuk is the only one that comes readily to mind. I find it hard to believe that swearing is still such an incendiary subject. Americans are so backward and uptight sometimes.

      • Todd

        What the fuck are you talking about? Didn’t you ever read any Bukowski? Try Notes of a Dirty Old Man. When I was a callow teen in a pampered suburb I used to think his stuff was tre cool. It had the grit and scars of reality and worldliness that I knew I didn’t. Now that I’m his age working in the greater Smell-A he wrote about, I think he was just another disgusting puke that happened to be a great writer. The question that comes up is, “If he wasn’t a drunk, could he have written?” The answer always seems to be that artists exist in response to their demons… or something like that. Actually, it’s been so long I can’t remember if he did use swear words, or if his subject matter was so filthy it just seemed like it…

        • The thing I remember about Bukowski is how low he went, not the words he used to get there. I’m thinking that some people I know have filthy minds but never, ever swear, and I know a couple clean and upright types who do curse (but you have to giggle when they do). But you’re right, Bukowski probably swore. Bukowski could probably make the word “wallpaper” sound gritty.

  23. gailytr

    words, for me, are like colors. and textures. i’d really hate to limit my choices, but some things clearly don’t go together.

    • The juxtaposition of high and low is one of my favorite things. Now that you mention it, I’ve rarely heard you swear and yet, in my mind, you are very outspoken, sometimes maybe even vociferous.

  24. Litterbug? Litterbug? Sigh.

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