Curse words are rolling around in my head right now. Could be because I’ve watched six episodes of “Orange is the New Black” in the last three days. For those who don’t know, OINB is a Netflix series that takes place in a women’s prison. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, it’s raw and wonderful. It has sex, violence and all the words you wouldn’t dare say at church. If my mother were alive, she’d be horrified. My electrician dad, whose language isn’t exactly bland, would turn away in disgust. But I love it, even if it does make me want to say F— in every sentence.
But should I say it? More important here, should I write it? It depends on the audience, whether in person or in writing. I have noticed that when I slip those juicy words into conversation, some people look uncomfortable. Even when I say “freakin’” instead of—you know. Most of them don’t talk that way. Since my day job is at a church, I know I have to keep my language clean when I’m at work or around work people. I also have to watch myself around children, my uber-Christian friends and in any situation where I’m not sure how a stream of curse words will be taken.
One of my favorite expressions (and my dad’s) is “son of a bitch.” It’s a great all-purpose release. Just in case, I’ve been dreaming up other words for the end, like “son of a bean” or “son of a beach bag.” Just like my best friend’s mom used to say, “Oh S….sugar.”
Ages ago, comedian George Carlin had a famous routine in which he listed the seven words you couldn’t say on TV. Now all but about three of them are being said on a regular basis. I’m still surprised when a sitcom character says “asshole,” for example.
The novel I’m reading right now uses all the good words, including the F-bomb. But the thing is, that’s how people talk. Not all people, but certain groups of people use all the forbidden words all the time, just like other people quote the Bible. It feels natural. It would be unnatural to offer plain vanilla language.
Certainly a factual article has no need for questionable language, unless a person being interviewed speaks that way. Even then you probably want to edit it out. In poetry, fiction, essays, and scripts, think about whether you need those words to make the point, whether they feel natural and necessary or awkward and ugly. Share it with someone you trust and see how they react. Are they offended? Uncomfortable? Do the words fit in so naturally that they don’t even notice?
You wouldn’t expect people in a prison, for example, to speak like nuns. Well, actually there is a nun in “Orange is the New Black.” She only curses when she gets really angry. Use the language that’s right for your characters. Some people never curse, some always do, and some make up colorful substitutes. People who don’t even believe in God will blurt out “Jesus!” in a stressful situation.
When you use the so-called blue words, some people will be offended and reject both you and your writing. Even a single word may earn you a rejection. So be careful. As with any question about writing style, read heavily in the genre you write and note the conventions. Does the romance writer refer to a woman’s “pussy” or just “down there”? Does she say, “I want to f— you” or “I want to make love”? If you did a search, would you find a single word your grandmother wouldn’t approve of? If you want to publish in that world, do likewise. Keep it clean or don’t, depending on the market. If you’re writing porn, go for it. If you want to publish the next bestseller from one of the major publishers, maybe you want to go easy on the R-rated words.
And if you decide to watch “Orange is the New Black,” don’t let your kids or parents watch it with you.
Here’s great article on the subject by Elizabeth Sims from Writer’s digest.
Another by Mark Nichol: “What the Hell Do You Do About Profanity?”
Now let’s go write.