A Curse by Any Other Name

I admit it. I am a cusser. Cleaning up my language has been on my New Year’s resolutions list for the last two decades but has seen little in the way of improvement. My husband doesn’t swear. Never. He makes me look bad, but I’m glad one part of the parental force can be a good example in my household.

It’s interesting how a curse can define a society. The Swedes swear by the devil. Americans swear by divinity. The British swear by some of the strangest things. What does that say about those societies? I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to effectively psychoanalyze an entire country. But it is interesting to me.

All that said, I don’t swear in my books. I’ve written a few curses into a draft or two, then grumble, swear out loud, and delete those curses out of my drafts again. It’s not because I don’t want to reflect reality. It’s not because I don’t think real people swear. I am a real person and swear a lot, but found that I just don’t want to go *there* in my writing. I can’t commit to the curse.

Other authors have this same issue. Not all authors, of course. Some don’t have any issue with it at all, and their pages are littered with curses. Some authors want to put them in but don’t because, like me, they can’t commit. Some would rather tear out their eyes than use a curse. And some do something that I call Fakes.

I’ve seen Fakes done well. In the recent Whitney winning book, Paranormalcy, Kirsten White uses a fake swear and she does it in a way that works. The main character has a friend who is a fish and lives in a huge water tank. They communicate via a computer translator. The computer does not translate swear words. It instead replaces those words with “bleep.” So the main character hears bleep as a cuss all the time. It’s basically a part of her upbringing. So guess what swear word she uses?

Yep. That girl bleeps. It’s clever. It’s hilarious. And it’s believable because of the set up.

But I’ve also seen fake swears done so poorly it makes me feel embarrassed for the author. In a particular story we were given an antagonist so evil that he singlehandedly wiped out thousands of lives and didn’t even feel a tremor in his hand as he did it. This was the kind of bad guy who you’d expect to find in the park kicking babies and puppies around the soccer field just for fun. THAT kind of bad guy–the kind with no morals, no sense of value, nothing redeemable.

And his language?

Freaking. Wench. Darn.

Seriously.

It could have been played off if we’d been given more character development. Maybe he had a governess who beat him every time he cursed, so even though he was genuinely evil he couldn’t swear. But no such back story ever presented itself. All we know is that the guy who had no problem slicing a person’s throat couldn’t bring himself to utter a cuss word. It weakened the character. He became clownish. And because of that, the entire story was weakened.

Am I saying you should swear?

Absolutely not.

Am I saying you shouldn’t?

Nope. Not that either.

I’m not your mother. I won’t wash your mouth out.

I’m saying if you can’t commit fully to your language choice, then don’t go there AT ALL. No corny substitutes. No less-than-powerful interjections. Just a bad guy giving orders without unnecessary epithets. “Bring that wench in here!” is almost comical, like a pirate. Whereas, “Bring her in!” said in a low menacing voice from a guy who means to slice the girl to ribbons for her treachery . . . THAT can be powerful and frightening.

I am not saying you should swear. I am not saying you shouldn’t swear. I AM saying that whatever you decide to do, be committed to it. Be prepared to back it up. And you will have to back it up. If you use language that can be considered offensive, you will be called out for it, so make sure you’re prepared to deal with reviews, the emails, the feedback.

Because a curse by any other name still smells like . . . feet that were in soggy shoes all day.

Or, you know . . . whatever smells really bad to you.

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21 Responses to A Curse by Any Other Name

  1. Thanks, Julie. I appreciate your recommendation about committing one way or the other and not faking, and would like to share it on the Hatrack River Writers Workshop forum, on which we have this discussion every so often.

  2. Grant says:

    What I do is use phrases that have negative connotations in their culture. Some characters use “rot” as a curse, short for crystal rot, a particularly deadly occurrence where they come from.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    A-freakin’-men.

    Nobody can accuse me of not committing to it… Totally depends on the character, time period, and circumstance.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    So, Julie, what cuss word(s) do you use? You’re safe here. Reveal.

    When one of my best friends–you know: former RS pres, Primary Pres, and several time YW pres (that perfect woman in the ward)–admitted she let loose the “sh-t” word with regularity, I felt so much better about myself. I don’t use that word, though I will write it. So come on. ‘fess up. We’re all dying to know. No faking. :)

  5. Scott Hales says:

    I think it’s always fun to make distinctions between “mental swearers,” “textual swearers,” and “vocal swearers.” I’m definitely among the first, occasionally among the second, and among the third only when I can get a good laugh out of it. I guess you could also make distinctions between “emotional swearers”: “happy swearers,” “angry swearers,” “scared swearers,” etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone falls into at least one of these categories–even if they don’t admit it.

    Once, when I was seventeen, I totaled my car while I was out on splits with the missionaries. The first thing I heard when I came to was the missionary dropping the “sh” word. That was eye opening. The first councilor in our stake presidency dropped a “dammit” in his adult session stake conference talk a few years ago. He was telling a story. Nothing livens a stake conference up like profanity.

    Creative writers these days don’t seem to have too many qualms about using profanity. If it’s ever discussed, the question is not usually whether or not to use it, but rather how much to use. In Mormon fiction, how much is too much? Does a four letter word ever slip through the presses at Deseret Book of Covenant? I know Zarahemla Books is F-bomb shy, but seem to be generally OK with every other bad word. Profanity has been listed, also, as one of the reasons for “The Lonely Polygamist” not being nominated for a Whitney. It seems there’s a limit to the full commitment approach if you want to be published by a Mormon press.

    • Julie Wright says:

      I love the distinctions you’ve listed here. That is actually something I’d never considered before and adds some new light to the topic for me. I can’t speak for what the publishers allow since I’ve never tried to slip anything in. Someone else will have to answer that.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      I listened to Tom Hughes’ narration of Midway To Heaven earlier this year, just before the movie came out — which didn’t seem to play in many theaters. Dean Hughes doesn’t use profanity in his work. He usually says something like, “He let loose with a string of curses.” But in one of the interior monologues the main character allows as how he hardly thinks damn is a swear word at all.

      Here’s two sentences of a review Jeffrey Needle published Mar 11 on AML_List of a novel forthcoming from DB’s Shadow Mountain imprint.

      “What a surprise to find in ‘The Evolution of Thomas Hall’ not just some well-placed damns and hells, but even an extended discussion on why it’s wrong to say “Jesus!” but okay to say “goddammit”! Surprise!

      “To my knowledge, this is a first from *any* imprint of Deseret Book.”

      Gail Halladay from DB responded via iphone:
      “Overall a good review. He obviously doesn’t know what to do with an ARC, meaning waiting until closer to release date to review. I’d have guessed he’d be on the side of leaving in questionable language. Too bad that it’s part of his focus here…guessing he’ll be disappointed with final version.”

      In all the discussion that followed people talked about how to tread advanced reading copies and AML-List’s policy of getting reviews out within 30 days of receipt. No one addressed the issue Jeff brought up, and I keep wondering if Gail Halliday wasn’t trying to change the direction of the discussion.

      It’s healthy for a culture to have a discussion about taboos and why they’re taboo. Taboos are double-edged because the taboo against doing something can extend to even talking about it, which has caused great suffering for many victims of incest.

      Speaking of which, DB published a novel about incest and taboo almost 20 years ago, Jack Weyland’s Sara, Whenever I Hear Your Name.

  6. Jonathan Langford says:

    Many random thoughts…

    It’s interesting to me that many LDS readers appear to be more bothered by swearing than by relatively explicit sexual references, and certainly more than they’re bothered by violence. My theory on that is that since swearing is considered to be a linguistic sin, when you read swearing in a book, swearing is actually being enacted for these readers. In contrast, sex is not being enacted, but merely represented.

    Of course, it may be simpler than that. One reader I know said that for her, if she read a book with swearing in it, she had a hard time keeping that language out of her own thoughts afterwards. Or maybe it’s that as an LDS adult, depending on your workplace, you can choose to live a life where you never encounter swearing, and thus become highly sensitive to it.

    I don’t know what Chris’s general policy is at Zarahemla Books, but I know that with No Going Back, we avoided any references to deity in a swearing context. Even so, the swearing was one of the most frequently commented upon things among readers who look at things within the LDS market, even among those who liked the book. Readers outside the Mormon market, on the other hand — including Mormons who read widely in non-Mormon fiction — mostly didn’t think it was worth commenting on.

    The cussing used by my characters was substantially beyond anything I’ve ever been comfortable with using in real life. There were, however, some specific reasons why I felt it was more effective to include it for the specific story I was telling. There’s no question, though, that it limited the potential Mormon readership, perhaps even more than the theme of homosexuality and the relatively realistic treatment of that theme. I don’t regret that choice — but I don’t plan to include anything like that level of cussing in anything else I write, whether for the Mormon market or the national market.

    About made-up profanity: I’ve seen it used relatively well in a science fiction context. Anne McCaffrey’s “Shards!” has always worked well for me. Larry Niven’s “Tanj,” not so much.

    Swearing translates poorly from one culture to another. To this day, I don’t know why “pig dog” and “pig misery” are swear words in Italian. I do know that as a missionary, it was dangerously easy to start using language that wasn’t socially appropriate, just because it didn’t *sound* like swearing to us. Perhaps the most common instance of that is the use of “bloody,” which I understand is actually a lot worse in England than we Yanks are likely to realize.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      It’s interesting to me that many LDS readers appear to be more bothered by swearing than by relatively explicit sexual references

      I don’t think I agree with that, but that said, if there’s profanity up front, the reader may simply stop before they get to the explicit sexual references.

      In Eugene’s book, I don’t remember a lot of profanity at all, but what very little fade-to-black sexual references there were garnered a lot of heat from folks who thought they were inappropriate–and I’m talking about a wife gently seducing her husband, who happens to be a bishop. Why is this not appropriate? I’m still scratching my head over that.

      As for violence, yeah, it really bugs me that violence (even murder!) is viewed as the lesser of all literary/cinematographic sins.

    • Julie Wright says:

      In Sweden, the swear word is djavla which literally means devil. Worst thing you can say in that country and means absolutley nothing to me. I used it once . . . just to try it out because it actually sounds very pretty and rolls quite nicely on the tongue. Boy was I chewed out! I happened to be in a place with Swedes who overheard me. :) oops.

  7. Mark Brown says:

    This is an issue I struggled with a lot when I was in my MFA program. I was writing about teenage hooligans who ended up in juvie but I was afraid to commit to the language they undoubtedly would have used. Frankly, at the time, I was worried because A) I was the only Mormon most of my colleagues had ever met and felt like I had some kind of obligation to set an example and B) I knew my mother would read it. I eventually found a way around it – it was poetry, after all. Elision is the name of the game. But these days, I find myself worrying about it much less. I’m more interested in letting my characters be who they are and be authentic than I am in setting an example or upsetting someone else. I feel like I’m better for it and so is my writing.

  8. Mark Brown says:

    For the record, I kind of love to swear personally. I know I shouldn’t but there’s something so powerful, percussive, and satisfying about letting some profanity fly. I know, I know — it’s the last refuge of the inarticulate and all that. But I see it as one more tool in my verbal arsenal.

    • Julie Wright says:

      I acutally saw an article I think written about a myth busters episode where it proved that a fake swear was never as satisfying as the real deal. Very interesting.

    • C. M. Malm says:

      I don’t love to swear, but I do it. All through my teens, I winced even at the d-word. But in my early 20s, I went through some stuff in my life that was so horrible that expletives seemed to me to be the only words remotely BAD enough to convey just how horrible it was. I didn’t acquire my cussing habit casually or to sound “tough” or “grown up.” I acquired it very consciously–a selective and purposeful choice of vocabulary (driven, I admit, by intense emotion).

      I’ve tried in the years since to lose that habit. It isn’t easy. In moments of intense frustration, profanity pops out. And my characters swear, if they are inclined to it by personality and experience. I can’t seem to make them NOT swear (I do try to keep my characters’ cussing to a minimum, just as I do with myself), if in a particular situation such a word MUST come out.

  9. It always seems like fake swearing is easier in Speculative Fiction… even edgy shows like Battlestar Gallactica have fun with it.

    • Julie Wright says:

      HA! this is so true! in my middle grade science fiction the kid says “holy houdini” as a swear. He works in a magic shop and is a total geek when it comes to all things magical which makes his swear reasonable and yet something new and fun. I didn’t let myself get carried away with it because it could get overdone and idiotic really fast. but I enjoyed that aspect of writing speculative.

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Eh, Mormons are uptight. How bizarre that this conversation exists, especially on the long-term basis it does. Brigham Young swore, didn’t he? isn’t there a rumor that part of the reason his journals aren’t public is bc he swore in them? I sure hope that’s true.(And now how pathetic is that? That I have to point to a prophet for….for what? Validation that real people cuss? That people who write down words sometimes use swear words? Bizarre, says the convert.)

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