As you may have guessed from my entry on the Oxford comma, or from reading other entries, or from knowing me in real life, I love language. Its ability to foster cooperation, its quirks and irregularities, its syntax and grammar, I love it all. But right now I’d like to take a moment to express my appreciation for a facet of language that gets a lot of usage, but not a lot of recognition: profanity.
Now, before you start glancing nervously around to see who might be reading over your shoulder, or closing your browser tab because of the filth that is about to assault your eyes, just give me a moment. I hereby swear that I won’t swear in this blog entry. (Seriously, please keep reading – it’s not going to get R rated, I promise – I’m just hoping to make a case for one of the less appreciated linguistic devices).
Let’s get this out of the way first: All language is arbitrary. It is unavoidable. The thing in your front yard with a trunk, bark, branches, and leaves is not the collection of squiggles on the page that we call the word “tree.” It is not the sound we make when we pronounce that word. It is a “tree” versus being an “arbre” or a “lignum” simply because a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time have decided to label it as such. Likewise, the “bad word” that starts with “sh” or the one that ends with “mn” is not inherently bad. Its use does not represent a violation of the fabric of the world or humanity’s moral fiber. As comedic genius George Carlin put it, “Bad words? No. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And words.” So the “sh” word is only bad, only worse than its friendlier cousins “poop” and “crap,” because we as a society have decided that it is.
That being said, the fact that the “sh” word’s significance is a result of our societal preferences rather than some metaphysical word magic does not make that significance less real, at least in an operational sense. Profanity can be jarring to hear, more so in some situations than others.
I wrote a short story once, called Thrift, which represents my only real success in writing fiction. Ever. It was during a creative writing class, and creative writing classes have the interesting characteristic of forcing creativity. The novel/collection Haunted, by Chuck Palanhiuk, features a group of writers who are locked into an abandoned theatre and told that if at any point they stop writing, they will no longer be fed, and instead left to starve to death. A creative writing class is a little like that, only with grades instead of food. It’s wonderful; you should definitely take one if you never have. (Absolutely no sarcasm there).
Anyway, I digress. I took the class in college, and the professor, author Dan Hoyt, gave us this advice about using profanity in our writing: He said that everyone in the room was an adult, that we had all heard “swear words” before, and that it was likely that many of us even used them from time to time. Furthermore, he told us that our writing is supposed to be believable, that in order to be believable it has to reflect real life, and that in real life people sometimes swear.
When I gave Thrift to several members of my family to read, I got…mixed reviews. Most of them liked the story, but one family member in particular criticized my use of some profanity throughout the story, including one instance of (gasp!) the f-bomb.
A brief interlude to talk about (but not to use) the “f word.” It is my very favorite swear word. It’s my favorite because I think it is the best illustrator of what profanity is good for. As an example, I’d like to point to a scene from the movie classic A Christmas Story, based on the novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Shepherd.
I’m a Clevelander, so that movie is important to me for a variety of reasons, but it also has the perfect movie moment to make this point. You probably know the scene: the flat tire in the snow. Ralphie is outside the car, helping his dad change the tire. The lug nuts are sitting in the hub cap, in Ralphie’s outstretched arms. Ralphie is a little too close, his dad hits the hubcap, and the lug nuts go soaring through the air.
“Oh fuuuuuuuuudge!” Ralphie exclaims, in slow motion. (Only he didn’t say “fudge.”)
Ok, now put yourself in little Ralphie’s snow boots. Dad is already not thrilled because the tire went flat. You had one job to do: keep the lug nuts safe and give them back when Dad needed them. Now they’re distributed throughout the snow bank on the side of the road, only to be found during the spring thaw. How are you feeling? Does “oh fuuuuuuudge” encompass it?
I would bet not.
And that, in a nutshell (or a hubcap) is why I appreciate profanity as much as I do. Because there are situations where “Well, shoot and darn it all” is simply not the best combination of words to describe what we’re feeling. It’s why that Cee Lo Green song (you know the one — if you’ve heard it on the radio you might know it as “Forget You” — spoiler alert: those are not the real words) is so satisfying. Most of us have been through a breakup or two or three. I have. And let me tell you, in those moments, “forget you” did not adequately sum up my point of view.
So when my main character told his girlfriend of two years, Elyse, that he was not in love with her, and that he’d met someone else, Elyse did not respond with “Leave my house. Just leave my house right now.” She said something a little bit stronger than that. It was real, and that’s why she said it.
Another reviewer pointed out that deciding to use profanity in a story necessarily limits the audience of that story, and he asked what goes in to making the decision to do so. I’m not sure if I have an easy answer to that question, except that sometimes the story dictates its own needs. He was right, though, and it brings me back to my professor’s other piece of advice about profanity: know your audience.
This one’s kind of a no-brainer: If I’m writing a children’s story, I won’t use the “f” word or the “sh” word or any other swear word. That’s horrible. As with anything else, there’s a time and a place. Maybe “appropriate” isn’t the right word, but there are certainly times when profanity is more or less acceptable than others.
So anyway, that’s my take on profanity. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, though! What’s the good word on bad words? Do you hate them? Tolerate them? Love them? Drop me a line.
In personal writing news, things are going well. My recent big idea, excerpted in last week’s entry, has remained big. It’s an article on video games as a storytelling medium, and I’m really excited about it. I’ll keep you apprised as it nears completion and (hopefully) publication.
As always, thank you for reading. More to follow.