I swear. I swear like a sailor on leave stumbling out of a bar after striking out with even the hookers. I can do it in two languages. I’m quite proud of that fact.
However, I’m also aware that it’s not always appropriate. I work with executives and graduate students, so I have to temper my language, unless questions about such language come up in the context of a lesson.
Now, the question has come up often on Scribophile, the online writing community where I workshop my stories: is this kind of language acceptable? My answer is a resounding “Yes, when it is acceptable, it is most certainly acceptable. When it’s not, it’s not.” In the spirit of this paragraph, please enjoy this tasty waffle.
Before I talk about writing, let me discuss the real world. My feeling is that they are only words, a kind of lingo common in certain social contexts or situations. The church lady who drops the Bible on her way to the pulpit will most likely say something like, “Darn it!” while the construction worker who drops his hammer on his foot will shout a “Fuck!” They are expressing themselves in the way they learned, with the words appropriate to their respective worlds. I wouldn’t expect them to trade their words. (Nor am I so naïve as to think that all construction workers and church ladies fall into such rigid categories; I’ve known some priests who are very proficient in the art of cursing.)
What are these words, exactly? Why is one word a “bad” word, but its softened equivalent is just fine? “Fuck” is the big one, the four letter word, but we can say “frig” and nobody will be offended. (Offended, no, but I think more than a couple of people in earshot will giggle at the silliness of it.) “Shit”? Oh, no. Say, “Shoot.” Of course, I understand that there are rules that most of us agree upon in a civilized society, so I’m willing to temper my language according to the environment. No big deal.
But what about in writing? Same rules apply, as far as I’m concerned.
I wrote a story once about a woman who wakes up to find her husband dead on the floor. She says, “Dammit, honey.” A critique for the story pointed this line out, asking me, “Does she really need to curse?” Um, yeah. I think even the church lady mentioned above would in this situation. (That was only half the shock for me. Is “dammit” really considered that bad of a word these days?)
- A teenage boy in a car with his father and his father’s friend. The adults are drinking beer while driving down a country road into town. Father’s friend convinces the boy to cut school to take him into town to a hooker, giving him whiskey on the way.
- A proper housewife, her love for her husband long gone stagnant, decides to slip away into the night.
First story: lots of naughty words.
Second story: she’s behaved herself so far. She might let a “damn” or “hell” slip, but I don’t think so.
My last point, I promise: Swearing or not swearing is not an indication of someone’s intelligence or class. I don’t believe this for a moment. I do believe that those who subscribe to this theory are missing out on knowing some very insightful people in corners of the world that they avoid because of this prejudice.
So what is your take on this debate?