Monday, April 5, 2010

Whipple on Words That Make Your Mama Mad

Natalie Whipple of Between Fact & Fiction opines about one of my favorite subjects -- profanity in fiction. Excerpts:
We as writers spend ridiculous amounts of time removing excessive that, was, just, even, like, has, and other verbal ticks like adverbs and favorite adjectives and quantifiers from our writing. We know that when people read, those kind of repetitious words and phrases stick out and mess with the flow of a reading experience.

Why does cussing sometimes get such an obvious free pass?

To me, swearing is like caviar or a really good bleu cheese -- a little goes a long way. You don't need it on every page to establish your book's tone. It just gets old, honestly. And then when a writer uses it when it should have had weight, it doesn't. It's just filler. "Edgy" filler.
Read the whole thing. Anyone who has seen an interesting concept ruined by a surfeit of four-letter words understands Whipple's point. The entire reason for profanity is to transgress, to violate a boundary and therefore show something meaningful about a character or situation. But when we make it normative through endless repetition, we undercut its very purpose. Sparing use shocks; overabundance numbs. The Wall Street Journal's Nancy deWolf Smith sees the principle in action in the new hardboiled television drama Justified (which, for those interested in personal ephemera, happens to be set in my hometown). "As for four-letter words," she writes, "they're in refreshingly short supply on [the show], which doesn't need them to telegraph something rough and raw." And there's where the writer's craft comes in. We can communicate more about transgression through a sideways glance or a hand on a holster than all the obscenities in the world.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
Billie Hara; Hat Tip: Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent)


Unknown said...

I've mostly seen this coming from the other direction. That is, people whinging about any cussing at all. I remember a Pseudopod episode - "I Am Your Need" - which was about this sort of weird parasitic entity attached to Marilyn Monroe. The story flipped between Marilyn and the Need, and the Need's sections were quite full of profanity. To me, the contrast was obvious, but it still got people complaining about "having so many curse words." It's like... sometimes there are characters who DO use curse words in place of being able to be actually shocking, either because they don't understand, or they don't have the tools at their disposal, or because they simply don't see the difference. I think using curse words judiciously is good, but sometimes using them to excess is also necessary for a particular character.

I've never personally run across a work of fiction which caused me to be irritated by the amount of profanity in it. Unless the author is using it in the narration or is obviously incompetent, I tend to just chalk it up to characterization and assume that the author is telling me something about the creativity or sensitivity of the character in question.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Natalie's post is excellent, I agree. I have a few bad curse words in my book, Monarch, but I've made sure they are there for the right reasons.

Loren Eaton said...


I remember that Pseudopod episode. I was doing lawn work while listening. The profanity didn't throw me for a loop so much as the sexual content. One description left me thinking, "Holy mackeral, that was unnecessary." Weird ending, too.

I get the point about portraying potty-mouthed characters as they actually are, and while I can't remember being particularly offended by such examples, I don't think any of them did it particularly well. The Coen brothers' Ladykillers is a good example of one that went over-the-top for effect and just fell flat.

On a far more controversial note (which I left out of the original post), casual portrayls can have a social effect. I'm not a big fan of profanity in real life and don't exactly want to encourage it. Reflect it? Well, sure. Hard to draw the line, though.

Loren Eaton said...


A little bit of bad language can prove quite effective. It's just the constant hammering of it that gets tiresome.

Unknown said...


The Big Lebowski.

The Wire.

Loren Eaton said...

Alas, that shattering sound is the destruction of my genre credibility as I sheepishly confess to never having watched either.

Oh, wait, is that a YouTube link I see?

[3:46 goes by ...]

Well, hmmm, I'm of two minds. On one hand, that was really well done. Very well acted and directed. On the other hand, by the time it hit the 2:30 mark, I was trying not to laugh. I get what they were trying to do. Is it bad that I found it comical instead of intense?

Loren Eaton said...

Post Script: Anyone clicking on a video during a post discussing the relative merits of bad language in narratives knows what to expect, right? 'Cause that bit from The Wire ain't proper for the kids. I'm just saying ...

Unknown said...

It *is* kind of comical. The whole show is really full of this sort of dark, bleak humor. Gallows humor. You're supposed to smile and feel awful about smiling at the same time.

Loren Eaton said...

I was thinking about that clip this morning while shaving, and I believe I understand that crux of the difference in approach. It goes back to one's fundamental view of profanity. You see, I don't think it's a good thing. So when I see it in literature, I'm expect it to be transgressive, shocking, accompanied with a negative connotation. For others (I suspect), profanity might not have that moral weight. They simply believe that some people use it while others don't. Hence that bit from The Wire, which appears to attach no moral import to the word whatsoever.

If I had written that scene, I probably would've had only one profanity at the very end when they find the bullet and replaced that particular selection from George Carlin's Seven Words with something like "man" or "huh" or "hmmm." That avoids the distastefulness while retaining all the nuances of the repetition. A single profanity breaks through the repetition at the scene's climax and would feel much more powerful.

Of course, if I were writing The Wire, I'd probably have additional concerns, like how to spend all the money I'd be making ...

Unknown said...

And thus you come back to the realism aspect. Cops, like dockworkers and soldiers, curse up a blue streak. Having a cop show without profanity would be like having a doctor show without any medicine names. It'd be close, but something would be off. "The Wire" was super-hardcore devoted to realism and capturing reality; a fair number of the cast members actually WERE drug dealers and gang members, and they helped make sure things sounded and looked like they really do sound and look.

As you say, some people find it transgressive, others don't. Personally, I think it's better to have characters who *wouldn't* find it transgressive use it a lot. But then, I don't care much about profanity and don't find it particularly shocking or upsetting; I'd rather have things sound right than sound proper.

Conversely, profanity can be used lazily (as can any sort of quirk or character trait, really), and that offends me... but only because of the bad writing. Somebody trying to spice up a mediocre scene by having one character curse up a storm is DOIN IT RONG. Likewise, neutering the language of characters who by all rights shouldn't care or be restraining themselves - such as two homicide cops on an upsetting crime scene by themselves - would strike me as equally wrong.

I have, in fact, been "offended," or at least irked, by authors using trailing off or workarounds like "Man!" to avoid writing the Dreaded Four Letter Words. It feels awkward and unrealistic to me. If the characters logically wouldn't care, then neither should the author. If your audience would be offended by that language, then that audience probably shouldn't be reading about such uncouth people in the first place. I mean, what, it's okay to describe murders or theft or corruption or rape, but foul language is just too far out there?

Now, the original article was about YA fiction, and I can see an argument there, at the bare minimum from a marketing standpoint; the kids aren't the only ones picking what they read, and schools and parents are likely to be fussier about things. Likewise, impressionable teens tend to imitate what they think is "adult" behavior, and if one conveys that being an adult entails cursing a lot, then you are in fact likely to alter their behavior in unacceptable ways. I'm far less likely to be as strident when people want to avoid corrupting the youth (even if I don't think profanity has much if any impact on any other behavior; it is, at the least, rude.)

Positing further, the neurological origins of profanity are fascinating in themselves. Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought" had an excellent chapter on profanity, its origins, its purpose, and the way it's expressed in culture and individuals. I heartily recommend that book in general and that chapter specifically if the concept intrigues.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Since I rarely use profanity in real life and have a husband who never does, parents who never did, I never feel natural using it. But I know I should-have to work on it a bit.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

"I was thinking about that clip this morning while shaving, and I believe I understand that crux of the difference in approach. It goes back to one's fundamental view of profanity. You see, I don't think it's a good thing. So when I see it in literature, I'm expect it to be transgressive, shocking, accompanied with a negative connotation. For others (I suspect), profanity might not have that moral weight."

I think you have a point there.

However, and this is getting rather off-topic, I think there's a difference between saying that words have moral weight and saying that language has moral weight. If someone really wants to control their language (say, because they believe that the tongue can act as the rudder of a ship or as a spark that ignites a conflagration) then I imagine there will be some words or phrases they probably won't use casually. (That doesn't mean that, in certain situations, using such words wouldn't be called for.) But I get scared when people complain about use of curse words simply because they want to feel like they are cursing.

For example: Saying that someone is "a waste of oxygen" is probably more dehumanizing than saying that he can be "pretty shitty sometimes." The difference is in language--usage--and context, not the letter-count of its constituent verbal components.

The extreme of the save-our-curse-words argument came up in a ludicrous Guardian article this week:
(Linking source: Robin McKinley's blog:

Where they mourn that a word referring to the female anatomy is loosing its obscenity and therefore impoverishing the ability of the English language to insult people.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, I found The Wire clip to be darkly funny, too. Partly because of the crudity, but partly just because a single word, used repeatedly in a variety of contexts, is inherently funny.

(It reminded me of my undergrad days, in which we determined that all men needed to communicate perfectly was three words: Dude, yo, and man. Then we would practice--to hilarious effect--detailed conversations with just those three words expressing everything from jubilation to disagreement to utter loathing.)

Unknown said...

I, for one, have no fear of the English language losing the ability to insult people.

And new curse words will always rise up to take the place of the old. I think we're seeing the rise of "rape" as a curse word, for instance, in which teenagers who wish to be shocking talk about various things "raping" various other things in terms of being dominant and/or being unpleasant to experience. Cursing is codified in a completely different part of the brain from regular speech, so until we lose that brain bit (along with the brain bits that fear violence and contagion), SOMETHING will be a curse word.

B. Nagel said...

Authorial purpose. Is the point of an author to portray life as it is or as s/he wishes it were?

The fact of profanity is inescapable, if only as a balance to divinity. And can we in good conscience put out an unbalanced product?

Many writers do, on either side of the equation. Those who float the middle end up lambasted from either side.
Forever, I have heard that profanity or "language" (in polite Southern vernacular) is only a social construct and the words themselves have no morality.

To which I counter that we live in a society. Goods for work, behavior on the roadway, these are all constructs. The exchange of coin for tome is a social construct that I am particularly interested in. Just because we can label it does not mean we can dismiss it.

Loren Eaton said...


You know, when I hit the publish button for this post, I wondered if it would cause some conversation. Seems that it has!

I'd rather have things sound right than sound proper.

I think we’d both agree that workarounds (“Golly, gee, buddy, put that .45 down!”) don’t do anyone any favors; profanity has a place in narratives. But there’s a lot of margin between a soft R-rated film and The Wire clip’s ten-obscenities-per-minute (which I’m not entirely convinced can be chalked up to realism). Where one falls on that continuum will depend on one’s views about morality and language; whether fiction is primarily mimetic or polemical; and the social responsibility of artists -- all of which are going in my blog tickler for future use. Ah, more content! Sir, I am in your debt.

Loren Eaton said...



Most of my early exposure to profanity was in the context of anger or ignorance. Interestingly, I never really used it until my three-year stint as a film reviewer, during which I was (naturally) watching a lot of movies containing a lot of foul language. I’ve worked very hard since then to curtail it.

Loren Eaton said...


Yay! CR returns!

I think there's a difference between saying that words have moral weight and saying that language has moral weight.

Good point. Didn’t someone once say that saying, “You fool!” to a person would impute greater guilt than simply using a strong word? I think that person was right! However, I’d argue that words themselves are equally as important as one’s purpose in using them. Words carry societally agreed upon connotations and denotations, and we can’t crowbar them away from them on our own. Notably, The Vagina Monologues tried to do just that with the word in that Guardian article; it didn’t really work. When morays change, it’s almost always slowly and gradually.

Loren Eaton said...


Just because we can label it does not mean we can dismiss it.

I couldn't have put it better myself!

Unknown said...

Anytime anyone starts talking about "social constructs" in a dismissive way, you can pretty much downgrade most of the rest of whatever they're saying to C priority or lower.

Loren Eaton said...

Terms like "hegemony" and "critical framework" and "post colonialism" also set the old pretentiousnessometer chittering.

You know, this is tied for the greatest number of comments I've had on a post. The other is a fragment that mashes the Cthulhu mythos with William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just to Say." Never saw that one coming.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

It's because it's controversial. ;)

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I guess so. But I'm not a troll, I swear it!

Chestertonian Rambler said...


"Just because we can label it does not mean we can dismiss it." Absolutely. But my point was that labelling cuts both ways: the main point of cursewords is how they work for an audience, and often they work, well, just how you'd expect.

(To paraphrase one of my more colorful Southern Baptist friends (from many years ago), "but if curse-words are not immoral, then what's the point of saying them, damnit?")

But I do think there are uses for words that are filthy (Paul's comment that he wishes certain opponents would castrate themselves fits the bill). I also think there really is contextual importance: if you know that "golly darn" is going to offend someone, and say it in order to do so, then there's a problem.

Finally, I think the concept of "realism" in fiction is more complex than people think. Read LeGuinn's "The Word for World is Forest," sometime, and you'll see one character who talks exactly the way most of us talk in real life. He sounds like an idiot, because we are so accustomed to hearing a certain type of (proofread, witty, terse, exciting) speech in books, movies and TV shows.

What shows like The Wire do (outside the clip we saw) is akin to T.S. Eliot's poetry or Raymond Chandler's prose--purposefully artificial, but also purposefully with shocking elements of crude and unsophisticated language. The result is an engaging hybrid--it feels "gritty" and "realistic" and "un-traditional" but not, say, "boring" or "poorly thought through" or "simple-minded."

So if you have to defend the scene linked from The Wire (and one can praise the show while dismissing that scene), it is because it combines one of the most obscene multi-purpose obscenities with the supposedly-sterile process of investigating a crime scene. CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Law & Order, and dozens of other such shows (dating back, I suppose, to Sherlock Holmes) have taught us that crime scene investigatiors are impersonal, disinterested, emotionally uninvolved, witty, and purely forces of intelligence. They speak in scientific terms punctuated by elaborate puns and jokes about their personal life. This scene isn't realistic--but it reverses the conventions shockingly. THESE investigators are so personally involved that they can only use the least scientific, most deadening word they know. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," and a triumphant "fucking a" when they finally catch a clue left sloppily by (presumably) the "fucker" who did it. In some ways, it's almost touching--the constant stream of crudity and pantomime making a kind-hearted counterpoint to the impersonality of other cop-shows.

Loren Eaton said...

Your Baptist friend makes me laugh. A lot. I repeated that quote to my wife last night, and she said, "That's really true, isn't it?"

One of the things we haven't really discussed in this post (although I briefly alluded to it) is the effect that various types of content have on a reader. Most of us would probably concede that if we talk about (or think about) a particular thing as we walk along the road and when we lie down or get up or what have you, it begins to seem more good and true to us. That has implications for the means we use to communicate our stories.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Interesting follow-up.

Loren Eaton said...

Some useful points there. I do with they'd highlighted CR's idea, though: We use profanity (in part) because it's transgressive. It's expressive shorthand.