Warning: Contains Language

Don’t read this post if you have a problem with vulgar language. You have been warned.

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It used to be, in English, that you had two reliable sources of offensive language. One was the body, especially its parts and cruder functions. The other, of course, was religion. (The very word “profanity” points to the importance of religion in our conception of swearing.) “Bitch” and “bastard” are two quasi-exceptions to this, but of course both of them also have technical, non-offensive usage: to indicate a female dog and someone born out of wedlock, respectively.

But words that used to be unspeakable really aren’t anymore. (And I’m not even talking about “God’s wounds/Zwounds” or other really archaic swearing.) Some people keep their language clean, but not, it seems to me, nearly as many as used to. How many of you still bat an eyelash if someone says “what the hell is that” or “this is going to cause a hell of a lot of trouble”? Or “damn it”? Or “shit”? (Probably not many of you reading this post, thanks to my warning above.) Those words have been creeping downwards through our movie-ratings system here in America, appearing more and more in films aimed at younger and younger audiences. Of course the MPAA doesn’t have a well-organized system for how it awards ratings, but I’m told you can even use the word “fuck” once in a PG-13 movie, provided it is an exclamation (“Fuck!”) not a phrase (“Fuck you!”). If you use it more than once or as a phrase, your movie will get an R. I don’t know if that’s true, but anecdotally I’ve seen evidence of it — though I can’t recall right now which movies.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost all our taboos. Here’s an experiment: try going into a business meeting and using the word “hell.” Note down the reaction you get.

Now try using the word “kike.”

I’ve been noticing for several years now that we’re developing a new class of unacceptable language. Call it terms of prejudice. A lot of racial slurs have fallen out of usage entirely (would the average person on the street even know what a “spick” is?), but some of them have acquired a powerful taboo. Here I am, typing this post, tossing around “fuck” without hesitation, but you know what? I really don’t want to type “the n-word.” I’ll default to a stupid euphemism rather than use it, even for the purposes of discussion. My aversion to it is that visceral.

Some counter-cultural groups have explicitly set out to “reclaim” words used as insults against them, in an attemp to rob those words of their power rather than sweep them under the rug. Some have worked better than others, at least so far. “Queer” used to be an insult; now it’s an academic area of study. But “cunt,” which some feminists are trying to reclaim, bothers me very nearly as much as “the n-word.” (I paused before typing it. Really.)

Racial and ethnic slurs. Insults based on sexual orientation. Gender-based insults; some of them are body parts, but the bodily connotation isn’t what bothers me. I hate seeing the word “pussy” used as an insult because it’s often aimed at men, and its offensive impact comes from the intent to feminize and therefore denigrate the target. The gendered dimension, not the bodily reference, is what bothers me.

Grammatically, these words don’t fill the same function as our old roster of four-letter words. Mostly they are insults, directed at a person, rather than exclamations or intensifiers for a sentence. (“Fuck,” in particular, has become our all-purpose Swiss-army-knife profanity, usable as very nearly every part of speech you can name.) But they really do seem to be picking up the offensive power those other words are losing.

This goes onto the never-ending list of Stuff Writers Think About because we have to decide what words we’re going to put on the page. I know a lot of foul-mouthed teenagers, but can you get away with representing that accurately in YA fiction? And it isn’t just an age thing. Even an adult story about racism may avoid the n-word, out of reluctance to offend readers — even if the character using that word is clearly the bad guy.

And then what happens when you’re writing about an invented society? There’s potential for world-building there, because maybe their notion of offensiveness is not the same as ours. But the flip side, then, is that the swearing they use may look silly to us, kind of like “zwounds” does today. Probably my favorite invented obscenity is in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy, where the planet’s high degree of seismic and volcanic activity has turned “vulk” (i.e. Vulcan) into the equivalent of “fuck.” I like that one because it fits the world and has a nice, sharp sound, plausible to me as profanity. Farscape’s “frell” always sounded too pretty for me to buy into it. Pamela Dean has a good one in The Dubious Hills, though, where “doubt/doubtful” is, for cultural reasons, considered inappropriate.

It’s a catch-22. If you invent a swear word, you have to use it for your reader to learn that it is offensive. But the more you use it, the less taboo it begins to appear. (See the above commentary on “hell” et al.) Striking that balance is tough. J.K. Rowling hit it perfectly, for my taste: “Mudblood” is instantly parsable as offensive, so all she had to do is use it once and then give it context for me to develop a suitable response.

Mostly I just use English swearing in my own writing, with maybe a couple of culturally-specific insults thrown in. The one exception is “Void” in Doppelganger and Warrior and Witch. I’m relatively pleased with how that one works, but daunted by the notion of trying to come up with something equally suitable for every setting I write. I’m curious to know who tackles this problem versus who avoids it, and what your favorite invented curses are.

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    Interesting commentary. The co-worker in the next office makes a point of saying, “Oh, bunny rabbits!” when she swears, so she won’t offend anyone. I asked her which swear word the phrase was a stand-in for, and she said, “All of them.”

    But I think you need to make more of a distinction between profanity and insults. Of course racial and other epithets are “unacceptable language.” They are aimed at people, not at the hammer you just hit your thumb with. If you listen to teenagers or New Yorkers in the street, you will hear language that you would never hear at a business meeting (not where I work, anyway). But even teenagers know that calling people denigrating names is a nasty thing to do.

    For the writer, having a character curse says one thing about him/her, but having them insult people based on their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or appearance says something else entirely.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Since my books lack organized religion, or even the concept of god, it leaves me at a complete loss when I’m looking for exclamations. How many times can you say, ‘Goodness!’ or ‘What on earth?’, even in a YA novel?

    Vulgarity and profanity have their uses.

  3. 3. Simon Haynes

    Re: ‘What on earth?’ – Because my novels are set in a distant future where Earth is unknown, I don’t use that one. I itch to use it, believe me, but I think it would yank the reader out of my book and into our own world.

    I don’t use made up swearing, either. When writing my first book it was intended for adults, so I used a lot of ‘shits’ but no ‘f–k’. (See? Can’t write it.)

    Then, during the rewrites, I realised my then 10-year-old daughter was going to read this book the minute it came out. So, I took every swear word in the book and dropped it one notch. I ended up with just 1 or 2 ‘shits’, and you know what? Because they were so rare they had the same impact as an f-bomb.

    The other nice side-effect is that my supposedly adult book was cross-marketed to YA/Teen, and even to older readers in primary schools, and there are now several hundred copies in school libraries across Australia. Thanks, daughter-of-mine!

    (I didn’t turn all the swearing into puff words, by the way. Often I just turned an exclamation into ‘Hal swore under his breath’, or similar. Again, it’s like using ‘yelling’ vs ‘shouting’ – if you do it once or twice instead of all the time, it has a much bigger impact.

    I don’t tend to swear in everyday conversation, so when I DO swear people know they should be running for cover.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Karen — yes, there is a difference between oaths and insults. I’m mostly interested in how the valence of taboo seems to have shifted from one to the other. Which isn’t, of course, to say that insults were all totally acceptable in the past; certainly there are times when insulting someone was a dueling offense! But mostly that applied to maligning men, or maybe somebody’s wife or sister.

    Sam — heh. Yeah, leaving religion out of the equation entirely makes it hard. Zuni has a couple of words (“tisshomaha” is the only one I remember, and I might be misspelling it) that have no actual lexical meaning — they exist entirely for the purpose of expressing a certain impulse — but it’s hard to get those to mean anything to the reader.

    Simon — I have an unsold book where the religion isn’t really based on gods, per se, and struggled with the phrase “an ungodly bang” in one scene. “An unholy bang” lacks that hard G in the middle, and an H just doesn’t convey the impact. But if there are no gods, can I use that word?

    Your work-around of mentioning swearing without spelling it out, is something I saw Rowling doing more and more in the later Harry Potter books. I’ll probably copy it, if I end up writing this YA idea I have; teenagers swear a *lot* more than I think you can generally get away with in YA publishing, and that gives you a way to be realistic without being offensive.

  5. 5. bob charters

    In a my manuscript that’s just been accepted for publication (my first) I have people saying ‘freak’n’ instead of the ‘f-word’ (I can’t bring my self to write it either). It gives the sentence the same feel i.e. ‘You just freak’n don’t get it, do you!’ Also, ‘bloody’ which is more of a British word gives colour.

    My very first novel, which never got published, was a historical novel set in the first century. There, I have a street urchin in a Greek city calling someone, ‘You slimy gorgon!’ In another situation, a street kid swears, ‘I’ll drown in the Styx if you didn’t!’ I’m sure that to a first century Greek, those would sound quite vulgar. Also, most readers who know their mythology would recognise them as definately dirty.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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