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profane

March 13, 2009

Growing up, my favorite person in the world outside my family was my best friend’s Mom, a wonderful woman named Connie whose appreciation for literature and overwhelming encouragement gave me confidence in my own future as a writer.

Connie was an English professor, but probably not like the one who assigned traditional literature and mundane essays in your college years. She truly believed that books were the gateway to salvation, an opportunity to grow as a human being. Her students frequently became her friends, and I never knew anyone who had a harsh word to say about her.

As young kids, my best friend and I picked up cursing just like most pre-teen girls, and whenever a SHIT or DAMN or ASS escaped our mouths in her presence, Connie would remind us to “use your words”.

I was probably sixteen or seventeen before I really started to consider the value of that advice. Use your words. I’d heard it so often that I’d never previously attributed any real meaning to it, instead just mentally translating it to, “Don’t curse!”

It was then that I began my love affair with linguistics and etymology. I started studying the finer points of language on my own time, became intrigued by the concept of morphology and how it relates to everyday speech. I even dabbled in psychology because I wanted to learn how human beings process language internally, particularly when it comes to semantics.

When I was a sophomore in college, I wrote a short story for a campus competition, hoping to win a $2,000 prize and perhaps stretch my wings as a writer. I took the third draft to Connie for a critique because her opinion was worth far more to me than my European literature professor’s.

She came to a point in the story where a character makes an exclamation of pain. I don’t remember what word I used, but she turned to me over her breakfast table and said, “Sam, don’t you think that ‘Fuck!’ would work better here?”

I can’t describe to you the shock that coursed through my body in that moment. To hear the F-word come out of Connie’s mouth was astonishing, but her emphasis on the word itself, as though she’d just whacked her funny bone on the counter, threatened to make my brain explode.

It was like the moment when you finally realize that your parents have HAD SEX. It throws your entire world into upheaval and you know you will never scrub that mental image from your mind.

After my heart started pumping again, Connie and I talked for what might have been hours about the situations in which curse words can be used effectively. She said, and I’ll never forget this: “First you have to learn to communicate well without cursing. Once you’ve done that, you can start injecting curse words back into your vocabulary.”

I curse, and I’m certainly not ashamed of that fact, but I’ve made it a personal policy to never curse during an argument. I’ve found that you can make a much more emphatic impression with other words, stronger words, and I think in some cases, people curse during arguments because they can’t think of a better way to say what they are thinking.

I’ve also discovered that I rarely use curse words in the context in which they were meant. I can’t remember the last time I used “fuck” to describe intercourse, or “shit” to describe excrement, or “ass” to comment on someone’s rear end.

Instead, I use them primarily as exclamations. If you happen to hear me spit “FUCK!” from between clenched teeth, it is most likely because I just stubbed my toe on that damned coffee table, and not because I’m inviting my husband to bed.

But what about literature? Whenever I’m writing a story, I think, “My grandparents are going to read this.” I automatically seek phrasing that doesn’t include curse words in my writing, but I know this isn’t the norm. How do you feel about cursing in writing?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2009 11:54 am

    I think Connie was right. There are occasions when profanity is the only thing that will make it “real”. People do curse, even well-educated people with staggering vocabularies will occasionally utter a swear word. To leave it out of your writing entirely seems to be a kind of censorship, like those old movies when women weren’t allowed to show a belly button. It’s just silly, everyone has one and we all know it. Not all characters need to swear, but some must, at least under certain circumstances, or they will remain two-dimensional. I don’t want all my characters to come across as plaster saints.

    • May 14, 2017 11:02 pm

      you forgot to add other weathers Rainy Weather: good excuse to order teaWindy Weather: good excuse to order teaSnowy Weather: good excuse to order te.raveEy excuse is good to order tea.

  2. Sam Tamlyn permalink*
    March 13, 2009 3:49 pm

    I agree: it’s far more authentic to curse when the situation calls for it. And a thriller/suspense novel calls for it A LOT.

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