Dirty Words

Cover your virgin ears, we’re about to dive into the vile netherworld of profanity.

This topic polarizes people. On one side are the folks who preface every decision with “is it good for the children?” On the other are the reasonable ones. Kidding. Sort of. Words have power because we ascribe it to them. Our little linguistic elected officials. It’s like the time I was doing the crossword and asked my mother for a four-letter word for a woman that ended in “U-N-T,” and she glared at me in disgust, only to learn that the missing letter was “A.” Who’s the one with the vulgar mind? Are your genitals actually evil, or is it just the fact that someone calls it a pussy that makes it so? (Yes, I squirmed just a little typing that word, myself.)

Same applies to writing. There are times when you want to go with the medically-correct terms to establish an atmosphere of sterility or professionalism. Other times, say if writing a sex/love scene, you might want to use sensual-sounding descriptors and the nouns that go with them. Even so, the same scene could be written in vile, dirty slang and convey something completely different even though the act itself was the exact same. It’s the teller’s point-of-view, and men and women are not exclusive to either style. The film A History of Violence has two such scenes where the tone is drastically different after the character has arced.

I personally find it difficult to relate to those who never curse. Yet I often think less of those who do it to excess, as it’s likely a compensation for a poor vocab. One friend starts off nearly every sentence with “Fuckin’,” his little Tourettic placeholder to buy time to formulate what he really wants to say, which could be about anything from spirituality to actual fucking. Then there are those who only curse around certain groups of people and not others. They are not to be trusted.

When I was a kid, it was not a child’s world. Our base needs took priority of course, but we were at the mercy of adults’ wishes, socially and behaviorally. People smoked in front of us, PG-rated movies had some adult-themed content, and it was completely appropriate for Uncle John to call me “a little shit.” Unlike now where parents use their kids as excuse generators, bow to their every demand, and Disneyfy their entire family’s existence in a coccoon of innocence. But that has the makings of a rant, and we’re here to explore so-called crude language. Sorry. Anyway, you’re not creating art if you compromise your work to not offend everyone. And we know that the more you forbid or repress a child, the more driven they are to rebel against it. If she’s not shielded from knowing what a bitch is, she’ll be less likely to snap and call you one at Thanksgiving dinner when she’s twelve.

Jeez, jeepers, jeesh, gee-whiz, Jiminy Christmas, criminy, etc. These are all exclamations that came about as a substitute for using Jesus Christ in vain. Used by the same people who choke out the word fiddlesticks or doggonnit after slamming their hand in the door. Their nostrils flare, neck veins bulging with just as much rage as any heathen would experience in the same situation, only they hold their breath first and struggle through that first syllable. They want to say it. And if you believe in the same type of god they do, don’t you think he knows that, too? They’ve already uttered it in their brain two seconds before, just as they mentally coveted their neighbor’s wife while procreating with their own, and then lied about it. Best to just say it and clear your conscience.

But . . . the fact that some don’t, makes the world just a little more interesting. The yang to Tarantino’s ying. For better or worse, repressed or liberated, puritanical or potty-mouthed, this is who they are and it’s part of their character that you can exploit to dramatic effect. Of course there’s the subtext that really tells you about them. The gritting teeth and near-aneurism underlying the “dagnabbit” says so much more than their words ever could.

I’ve got a detailed post about dialogue coming soon, but one hallmark of great writing is that attribution is almost unnecessary. The individuals’ speech patterns and verbal command should be distinct enough to tell the characters apart without needing “he said” after every phrase. Remember that the words themselves are rather meaningless; it’s context we’re after, so rather than generic expletives, consider having them reflect their owner’s personality, like, “ah, shit on a shingle” or “you cockblocking nerf-herder.” Or maybe they’re the timid type to disguise it, like “shittake mushrooms” or “motherfather.”

In case my overarching point was muddled, strong language has more impact when it’s not used to excess. This is why some stand-up comics have the audience howling the first time they say “fuck,” and others need it just to complete an unfunny sentence. But excess works if it’s in service to the character, as does abstinence. Aside from dialogue, it’s best to avoid most profanity in descriptive passages, unless written first-person or by another character in the story, as it calls attention to the supposed anonymous, omnicient narrator.

This message has not been approved by Ned Flanders.

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications as Word Riot, Black Heart, Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, and Warmed and Bound, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night.
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