Crude, Lewd, Prude, or Just Plain Rude? The Language We Read and Write

The conversation started with a fart. Well, the word, anyway – although it was an online conversation, so who knows what was going on the other side of our computers, right? Two of my friends were expressing disfavor with the use of the word “fart”, finding it too crude. To give some perspective, one is from Nashville, the other England. Southern belle and reserved? On the contrary. I laughed at them and said, you can bandy about “f*ck”, but not “fart”?

It was complicated, Ms. England said. Ms. Nashville said she grew up where talk of body functions was quite crude and uncalled for (Me too, I said, but then I married a man who grew up with 3 brothers and no sisters). In spite of my teasing, I do understand what they are saying, and the conversation that followed was quite valuable.

How do we react to the use of certain words in fiction? When I think about it, it is mostly only in middle grade novels and television sitcoms that I run into words like “fart”, “burp”, and “belch”. In other venues it would seem we do think it is too crude to use those words, and yet, in those other venues, it is perfectly acceptable to pull out any number of curse words – including those that are sexually suggestive to the point that they are either considered pornographic in some situations or highly offensive in others.

Is it necessary to use curse words in fiction? Ms. Nashville says yes, it reveals character and authenticity. Ms. England says it’s contextual and “depends on era, audience, characterisation and emotional plot point at hand.” I completely agree. I believe we are in an era that it is more common and almost socially acceptable to swear more. Certainly there are still social situations that dictate our word choices, but those situations are narrowing in scope.

Knowing our current society, I don’t have any issue with my characters using any number of curse words – some more than others. In my first novel, my main character has rough past and therefore has no qualms about throwing about “f*ck” in her language. However, she’s also an educator – a principal, no less – so through the process of her career, she uses it far less. It only comes out, really, when she is talking about her past. Her counterpart, on the other hand, is an actor. Have you seen the gag reels of movies and TV? Right, he still uses the word mostly in anger, but it is a part of his work environment. It does not hold the same taboo.

I’m currently reading one of my favorite Robert Ludlum novels, The Bourne Identity, and it wasn’t until I came to a line where it said someone could “go have sex with himself” that I was over halfway through and the only swear words I had encountered were “damn it” and “son of a bitch”.  This is a novel of extreme violence and people who have no scruples. They are assassins. The fact that it took an unnatural phrasing to finally alert me to that, however, is worth noting. If this novel were written today, it would be littered with far more extreme profanity than those I mentioned.

If profanity is about character, authenticity, context, and plot, then I should be feeling that Ludlum’s characters are false and unrealistic. I don’t. This demonstrates to me that maybe profanity isn’t necessary, that skillful writing proves above this. I firmly believe that it wasn’t necessarily Ludlum who chose to avoid profanity; rather, it was a publishing edit. This novel was published in 1980 – a different publishing era.

It could be the reader, too. Ms. Nashville and Ms. England might read this same novel and notice immediately that it lacks these language components (They certainly would, now!). I don’t swear very much in general, which could be why it is less noticeable to me.

I do not take issue with profanity, but I do believe it takes a bit of life experience and panache to use it effectively. Looking at television, we can look at the more liberating nature of networks like HBO and Showtime. HBO’s show, “The Wire”, covered Baltimore’s drug lords and the investigative police units. Extreme profanity in those environments is absolutely present and prolific in reality. However, during the first season, I found the experience jarring – and not because the usage shocked or even bothered me. It was jarring because it interrupted the story flow. There is a difference between fictional authenticity and reality. When we are getting a story, we want to hear the real deal, but there’s such a thing as saturation. Subsequent seasons balanced the language far more effectively.

I had a student submit a creative writing piece for his class last spring. It was about the mob, and he tried to incorporate profanity into it. Aside from the argument about whether or not it was school appropriate, I told him, on his draft, that it wasn’t working. Life experience and panache, right? Sure, he probably swears with his friends all of the time, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hang with the mob/gangster crowd, which means it lost contextual authenticity. It was my suggestion that he leave out the profanity altogether (especially since it was really only one word from the vocabulary set he was using) because it was better to leave it all out altogether than ruin the flow of the story with a few instances. (He didn’t take that suggestion, by the way… which also proves lack of life experience, no? He lost points on word choice.)

What am I proving at this point? That profanity is an important element in our word choice, like any other part of our lexicon. We must use it effectively. We can trust our instincts. Recently I wrote a line for a character that went like this – italics representing my thoughts as I wrote: “Why the f*ck hell would you jump to that conclusion?” Later, I thought to myself, why did I edit his words like that? Who did I do that for? Contextually, “f*ck” is far more likely to be his word than “hell”. I changed it.

Yes, characterization, plot, and context can determine which direction to go with profanity. Ms. England raises another point by saying, “I wonder if the author avoided it for the sake of his/her character or because it went against their own [the author’s] sensibilities.” Or in the case of television, because of network limitations. Are we in the dark with a character or dramatic scene without the profanity?

What are your thoughts? Are you more likely to use more or less profanity in your fiction writing? As a reader, how does the use of profanity affect you, if at all? Do you notice it?

(*By the way, I don’t normally write with letters blocked out of words. However, I’d rather not have this blog post jump to the top of searches for, um, other topics. By the way #2, can someone write a novel that uses the first line of “The conversation started with a fart” please? Thanks.)

It’s entirely possible that the writers of “The Wire” figured out their profanity issue as the first season went on. This is a classic scene where the only dialogue is some form of the word, “f*ck”. If you’re not a fan of the word or nudity, avoid the play button. 😉

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10 Responses to Crude, Lewd, Prude, or Just Plain Rude? The Language We Read and Write

  1. Sarah says:

    Good stuff! For me, it is the authenticity like you said. And I see fart as very juvenile. Not crude as in it offends me, but annoying in that it’s well…annoying. If we are keeping score, I have two sisters and one brother 🙂


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Well, see – girls outnumbered! We were even steven in my family, but my dad virtually never swears (and he was in the Navy, isn’t profanity military standard? I wondered what happened.), so it worked in my mother’s favor, I think. 😉

      Authenticity – for both author and character.


  2. I feel the need to defend myself a little- I don’t swear all the time! In fact, I was in my mid-twenties before I ever uttered a swear word (more of that Southern upbringing). 🙂 All of that aside, do I think cursing is necessary? No. In fact, I think it is often lazy, that you should find a better way to express yourself. That being said, there are people in this world who are going to curse every other word, and there are others who will always find a better way to say what they mean (or maybe they can’t do that either, so they’ll just say something lame). Then there are people like me, who alternate between options. My point is, the author needs to figure out which is true of her characters. This will definitely be informed by context and experience, but it is a character trait. I would take issue with an author who over the course of many novels for adults, never had a curse word…unless she was writing about Mormons, or the literati who value vocabulary and precision above all else. The Wire without f*ck? I’m not buying it. It’s not true.

    Just like a novel about middle school boys without the word “fart” wouldn’t be true, which is why I’ll never try to write one. That word is disgusting.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Haha – no defense necessary. I was hoping to validate both sides of the coin, here – and I agree, cursing can indeed be lazy writing. In Ludlum’s case, I think it would make his writing more precise because he does write a bit over the top. A balance the author has to find? Absolutely.

      I do agree about The Wire… they probably need the language, but I also appreciate that they learned the balance in their later seasons.

      So, you won’t use that first line for me? Drat. I shall seek others…


  3. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    Plus we only have three boys and no girls in our house!
    I’m really surprised when I find myself swearing a lot. It seems to be context. I’m around people that either swear a lot, or, probably more often, I think they swear a lot. Or, even worse, I think they expect me too, or I think it’ll impress them or something. Swearing in a college classroom certainly gets the students’ attention, I’ll say that.
    I feel like I notice swearing in the books I read, many of which are the modern versions of the Bourne trilogy (or universe, as I’m sure Hollywood would like us to think). I would guess that I notice it most when it feels least authentic, but then I wonder where I get that notion of authenticity when reading about types of people I don’t really know.


  4. Fascinating read, Janet! I enjoyed this one very much. The video (I normally don’t play them but hey, you drew me in) was ridiculous. I would have turned the channel.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      True, that video clip IS ridiculous… but I think they were pretty much mocking themselves, which actually made the whole thing amusing to me when I got to that episode.


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