Dropping the F-Bomb

When I graduated from university I gave that year’s graduation speech. I would like to say that this was a logical choice, but it really wasn’t. For weeks before the event I was grilled by lecturers who were terrified that my potty mouth would make an appearance during the ceremony.

It did.

Now, I tried, I really did. I’m not usually known for my delicate vernacular, so the fact that I got through fifteen minutes of pressure, being the centre of attention in a group of students, parents, university associates, and assorted special guests – several of whom I was hoping would give me a job – was enough to stress out even the most level headed of us all.

To my credit I only swore once. And, although she covered her eyes and I could hear her groan from the stage, my mother was quite proud of me for trying to keep my language appropriate. And while I’ll never be a primary school teacher, I learned a lot about the appropriateness of the language we use.

And that brings me to the topic of the day – profanity!

profanity[prəˈfænɪtɪ]

npl-ties

1. the state or quality of being profane

2. vulgar or irreverent action, speech, etc.

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

I’ve been asked about profanity in fiction quite a lot lately. Mostly from YA writers who aren’t sure how much is allowed, if any. And, like so many of these things, there no set answer.

That said, there are several factors that determine how appropriate the use of profanity is. Take a children’s picture book – I think it’s safe to say that under no circumstance is it acceptable to use profanity (and yes, before anyone points it out, there are exceptions, such as – Go the F**k to Sleepby Adam Mansbach).

Some writers are more known for their foul language than others (you never heard %#@* in Jane Austen, did you?) like Ernest Hemingway who held the F-word in some regard. And I agree, when used well, swearing works. But how do you know when to use it?

Lets break this down a bit further –

Consider your genre – I fully expect that the characters in a tense thriller will swear. I mean, if I was trying to outwit government agents, spies, assassins and computer hackers, I’m sure I’d find it hard to settle for ‘fudge’.

Genteel romances? I think maybe not. After all, how attractive is a character who’s every other word is of the Four Letter variety?

Children’s and YA books can be a bit of a minefield in terms of profanity. I remember a P6 (about 5th grade) teacher using a marker to blank out the single curse word in a copy of one of our reading books. Even then, it seemed like a massive waste of time, given the lexicon of profanity that we had already developed. Looking back, it was probably to keep parents happy.

Of course, the swearing, or lack of, in a YA or children’s book is really dependant on how edgy it is, what the characters are like and why they do it. I could go into the psychological aspect of swearing, and how it’s empowering, and how children use it to gain social status, push the boundaries and shock. But to be honest, I can’t really be bothered.

A trend that makes me smile is, often in sci-fi, to make up swear words. Farscape had ‘dren’ and ‘frell’, Battlestar Galactica had ‘frak’, Firefly had ‘gorram’ (and lots of Chinese). This practice isn’t new, and many authors have used it over the years, which can have a great effect when used.

Also, consider the time period and setting too – what swear words were used, how acceptable are/were they? Are there words that are considered to be acceptable? Taboo?

Consider the character – do they swear? If they do, that’s fine. Some people don’t, and some people do. Is it the sort of character who would swear casually? Only if stressed?

Now I’m not a prude by anyone’s standard, but sometimes a word will grate on me and be enough to pull me out of the story. An example was a scene in Robin McKinley’s rather excellent ‘Sunshine’ (well worth a read btw) where, during a rather passionate and well written scene there was a line that went something like ‘My c**t was aching.’ The use of that word there changed the feel of the passage, and it seemed to out of place to me. Out of place enough that I have remembered it after all this time.

There is a thinking in some circles that you should never use any word that might offend or upset someone else – even if it fits the character and situation. And while, in general, it’s a pretty nice thought, is the very act of a writer holding back so they don’t offend, offensive in itself?

It brings us to the main question, WHY are you using/not using profanity? I suppose the question could really be ‘Why are you using ANY word?’ to which the answer should be ‘Because it advances the story.’ That, I think, is the key to this whole debate really.

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