My bad habit is something I’ve by now given up. Well, mostly.
Swearing. It’s coarse, tacky, definitely unladylike … but let’s face it, nothing vents pressure like letting fly with a really satisfying curse. The apex of my swearing history occurred during my news reporter days when, in certain situations, I would swear like a merchant marine. I’m a little ashamed to admit this when I consider certain people who have never heard me swear and would be shocked to imagine this filthy habit. But then, not really ashamed. It was situational: I wouldn’t swear in front of children, or people who would be offended, or during settings where professional, appropriate behavior was expected.
But newspaper people can be a boisterous, gruff bunch. And the beat that I covered at the paper, City Hall, meant I was often rubbing elbows with old-school politicians and union guys: at work, yes, but also at happy hour downtown or the neighborhood dive bar. I was acting like one of the boys. It wasn’t a calculated effort, it just happened. And I can’t lie, I’ll admit I enjoyed watching the union guys look shocked when I cursed right along with them. See, I’m of petite stature, and overall I’m a pretty boring, do-good kind of gal. There’s not much about me that’s shocking. It’s a rare treat.
Though the late George Carlin seemed to think the shock over swear words is pretty stupid, I think we have to admit that these words have power. Maybe their only power comes from the fact that they’re forbidden, but it’s power nonetheless. If there’s a word we are not allowed to say because it’s shocking and crude in polite society, when a really strong, sudden emotion comes up, it’s only natural to want to exclaim with one of those forbidden, powerful words.
Cursing is on my mind lately because I recently received a gentle admonishment from a relative about some swearing in Real Life & Liars. It went something like this —thoughtful and intelligent people find other words to use. Well, she’s right. But I fall back on the classic author defense: My characters were not behaving in a thoughtful and intelligent way when they cursed. I write realistic fiction, and the kind of people I write are fallible in many ways, occasional foul language being only one of them.
I’ll give you an example, but I’ll bleep it out because we have young-adult authors and readers around here. My character, Katya, is furious because Charles, her husband, seems confused and overwhelmed by what to do with his own children, and she thinks – she thinks it, does not even say it out loud – Tend to them yourself for once in your life, you lousy, selfish (blankety blank.) It rhymes with “what a trucker.” Not thoughtful or intelligent I’ll grant you, but honest and angry.
Recently, when working on my second book, I was writing an exchange of dialogue and in one character’s speech, the worst swear word I know came right out of my keyboard. Four letters, starting with C. Yep, that one. Even in my merchant-marine days that would have made me cringe.
The character uttering this vile word is a despicable, abusive cretin, and he was trying to be as vicious as possible. In other words, absolutely in character.
However, I deleted the word and used another expression that still drove the point home. You see, that word is the most shocking one I could choose and I fear that if I used it, the reader would be yanked out of the moment, shocked so badly that the one word would overshadow the whole scene.
Even in swearing, I choose my words carefully, and that’s what being a writer is all about.
Now. This post is supposed to be about Deb bad habits. I’m not a reporter anymore. I’m a mom, and as such I’ve (mostly) cleaned up my language. That means if I drop a pan on my foot I’m inclined to mutter, “Son of a.” and stop right there. (Which meant my infant daughter went around once saying something that sounded like “Suh-va! Suh-va!”)
I generally try to use thoughtful and intelligent language in my everyday speech (though it’s harder when I drop a pan on my foot). No promises, though, when it comes to my badly behaved, impulsive, occasionally crass characters.
[Brief aside: The fabulously successful and talented Jennifer Weiner had to confront this recently in the setting of a public reading, when a bookstore asked her to please tone down her language considering the Sunday afternoon time of the reading and the proximity to the children’s section. The whole story is here on Edward Champion’s blog. Looking this up allowed me to Google “Jennifer Weiner reading cock” by the way, which I thought was really funny.]
16 Replies to “In which Deb Kristina says “son of a %#&#*!””
Guilty! Guilty! What a trucker! You grass mole! I say them all–not in front of my kids, though, or students. There’s a time and a place for everything, I think.
I’ve always found that old “thoughtful and intelligent people find other words to use” adage to be so very untrue. Plenty of intelligent people curse. They just know when and where it’s appropriate.
You forgot to mention how much of that “potty mouth” you owe to your husband, who I think had a much more mispent youth than you did. 😉 Oh and, “Jennifer Weiner reading cock” is absolutely f*!@ing hilarious.
I know a couple of folks who use the word f*!@ing like it’s the ONLY adjective in the English language. Frankly, I get pretty f*!@ing disgusted with their f*!@ing descriptions of most f*!@ing things pretty f*!@ing quickly.
The last paragraph of your post has to be the best Google search suggestion ever!
Yesterday, my son informed me I’d used two bad words, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Sheesh. Must clean up my act. But aren’t swear words so satisfying sometimes? By the way, Kristina, I used to work at a newspaper, too. Definitely some inspired language!
Becky, “grass mole!” Love that one.
Thanks, Wendy, for acknowledging the existence of foul-mouthed smart people!
James, you’re right about the misspent youth, but I think my language has always been worse. Go figure. (I wonder if Jennifer Weiner checks her own Google alerts and will see this? If she does, Hi Jen, I’m a big fan.)
Eve, f*!@ing a-right. Moderation, people.
Ah, Sarah, you know that of which I speak! Newsroom language will curl your hair.
Hi Kristina – two thoughts
a) Re intelligent cursing – the movie “In The Loop” is full of creative and spot on cursing and satire.
b) Some linguists (including Steven Pinker) believe cursing may have been the precursor of all swearing (known in the business as poo-poo theory). Cursing (of the strong taboo variety) uses different and evolutionarily earlier parts of the brain (same parts used by animals for alarm calls). And many aphasics lose aspects of language while retaining the ability to curse.
Try wearing steel toed boots in the kitchen.
I honestly feel like there is not much more contrived than a character as strong as Mira saying something like “Oh, bullpucky”. When I watch gritty TV shows like Law & Order SVU, and they junkie they think murdered the prostitute uses some euphamism, it bugs the…well…sh*t out of me! It diminishes the realism of the character, so don’t change a thing!
I recently read an article that said it actually DOES make you feel better, if you stub your toe or whatever, to utter an expletive. It comes, like Jag says, from a different part of your brain.
That said, I’ve said my fair share of “son of a biscuit” variations. I actually enjoy the process of trying to think of a new way to express my fervent disapproval. But that only goes so far–sometimes the only thing that works is “another trucker.”
Jag…I can always count on you to have a fascinating insight! I love that, how it comes from the alarm center of the brain. That makes perfect sense. I wonder if that applies to even the most genteel person of an older, more polite era. I mean, would my grandmother curse if she, say, drove her car into my grandpa’s garage workbench? Actually, for all I know she curses all the time, but considers it inappropriate to swear in front of her granddaughter. (Yeah. I highly doubt it.)
Joelle, good tip. Better yet, I could hang onto the (blankety blank) pans.
Beth, I’m glad my cursing doesn’t make you reach for the smelling salts! For my kind of book and the characters I write, it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way.
Katie, there is definitely a cathartic feeling.
I think from now on though, I should say, “I must express my fervent disapproval.”
Swearing has it’s place in fiction and non-fic alike. Judicious use, of course. I wrote a HuffPo – that was pretty damn powerful (there I go!) and it was circulated among a large group. A reader responded, “I can’t read this because Kim swears in it.” I think I write “flurk” in place of the F-bomb. Swear? That said, I am trying to clean up my language – our new house is close to the neighbors and the windows are open!
Jiminy Cricket! is now my favorite swear. But it doesn’t feel as good as the real one!
Two follow ups –
a) mistyped yesterday – meant “cursing may have been the precursor of all LANGUAGE (known in the business as poo-poo theory).”
b) speaking of accursed quotes – Shakespeare got the causality the wrong way around but I love this from the Tempest
“You taught me language and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.”
Here’s a thought: If newspapers really do become a thing of the past, will up-and-coming writers stop cursing?
Among my bad habits are not only swearing, but swearing freely in front of my children! My son whispered in my ear the other day in Target, “Hey mom, I have to tell you something. F— a A.” And I said, “Where did you learn that?” and he said “You say it all the time.”
Comments are closed.