Friday, September 25, 2009

Swearing in Fiction

I love swearing, in appropriate doses. In women's fiction and especially chick lit, there's a lot of good swearing as modern women are freer with their emotions. I will not be swearing in this post because I don't want my name plus the swear word coming up in Google searches (although I recognize that the likelihood of someone Googling my name plus the word is somewhat slim, and if someone does, then things are far worse than I thought).

So, when and where is it appropriate to swear in fiction? How to do it without turning readers off?

First, let's look at a few different ways to do it.

Swearing not the same in the UK
English and Scottish (and sure, let's go ahead and include the Republic of Ireland Irish even though they're not in the UK) people use swearing less as epithets and more as punctuation. In Scotland, the c-word (you know the one) is common place, with "ya cant" (notice the a) is commonplace when referring to one another. Example: "Afternoon, ya cant. How are you?" It's nice. Of course, Americans readers might not think so, so keep that in mind. I very, very, very much want to drop a "ya cant" in my stories, but I can't. :)

I recently read this Newsweek article about the c-word and how it's losing its "bite." The author starts out by saying she can't say it in front of her mother, and all I can say is that a) I've said it in front of my mother, b) it has NOT lost its bite, and c) yes, I still recognize the potency of its power. It's still the worst one.

Creative swearing
I once heard someone say that swear words are a lazy person's way of expressing what they don't know how to do with other words. Certainly, creative swearing can be hilarious and delightful. Let's take the Scots again. They prove you don't have to be dirty with the swearing to make an epithet. For example: "Away and boil yer head, you miserable shower of vomit." One of my favorite ways to swear without actually swearing is to say "Get to," which is the short hand version of "Get to f**k," a common insult in the UK. (It means "Go away, as you are a disgusting human and I do not care to hear any more of your drivel." Roughly.)

So, where does that leave us?
Every time I write a swear word, I feel a little flutter of excitement, like I've gotten over on something--perhaps my ladylikeness. (Right.) But probably no matter what, you'll offend a staunch non-swearer out there, one who doesn't appreciate, um, anything. You have to take that risk and weigh whether it's the most effective thing for the sentence. Swearing carries a heck of a lot of weight.

When swearing is used as a hateful tool, such as a racial slur, it is wrong and has no place in a civilized society, including stories. When it's used as spice where something else just doesn't suffice, then I think it works. Example: You fall down a manhole and break your leg. Do you say "Oh, dang it"? No. You scream out obscenities, starting with f, and ending with any variety of creative consonants.

I found these guidelines on another site about swearing. (I heartily apologize for losing the link. If I find it, I'll come back and edit this post.) I think they're pretty good:

  • Is this usage appropriate for the setting?
  • Does this usage achieve the message I wish to purvey?
  • Am I using this profane term because no other will suffice?
  • Am I willing to risk isolating my audience?
On the last point--yes, you'll always offend some reader out there who's uppity about swear words. Author Allison Winn Scotch recently tweeted about a review some soulless person left on Amazon who gave one of Allison's books a one-star review and said that it was "full of fowl [sic] language." I think most people agree: they don't want chickens like that person reading their books. That kind of reviewer will have her feathers up in a dander about anything, proving herself a real turkey. I cluck in distaste.

Cripes. I'm off to read some CHICK lit.

I'll stop.


Anonymous said...


coffeelvnmom said...

Okay. Here's my feeling in this. And it's funny, because I just added my first "actual" one yesterday, before I read your new post. (Actual because I do not count h*ll or d*mmit to be swear words, just words you shouldn't always use.) If it goes along with the storyline/dialogue and sounds more appropriate written in than not, it should be there.

I haven't read Allison's book yet, as you know, so I am not sure of the context in which she writes those words or what words they are, for that matter.

But I have a general rule that the "f" word needs to make sure it really needs to be there because it is the greatest offender, some may flinch when they read it, yet others might be just downright appalled.

Lizzy Mason said...

Fowl words--HA! That's priceless. :)

Great post, Sierra! I write YA, so I try to keep the cursing to a minimum, but c'mon--teens love to curse! So, to be realistic, I throw some "fowl" language in there from time to time.

Vivian said...

"Away and boil yer head, you miserable shower of vomit." Man. I LOVE this one. Great post.

CKHB said...

There's a comedian who does a piece about how there are only three "words of power" left in the English language. The c-word, the n-word, and LOVE. Those are the three words that can stop a person dead in their tracks (although the context in which "love" is used definitely affects its potential power).

My completed novel has almost no swearing, because when that MC curses, it MEANS something. She only says something horrible when she means it. The new novel, on the other hand, has plenty of swearing, because those characters are much looser with language. Which is much closer to the way I speak... which is probably not a good thing. Oh, well!

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