Allow me to preface the remainder of this article by making a confession:
I’m a rather phenomenal swearer.
I am not a belligerent swearer. I am not thoughtless with my mouth, or my words. I’m not the moron that you overhear on trains or on public streets. I’m not some idiot who would get the sack because I can’t have a difficult conversation with a client without dropping an F-bomb. I do not swear in front of my deeply religious extended family, my in-laws, the elderly, or any other demographic whom I believe would be offended. When I make a new friend, I’ll pick an appropriate moment to test their resolve, and will readily add an explanation. Something like: yeah, I swear. I hope that’s not a problem.
Usually, it’s not. Then again, I’m an Aussie. Swearing, in this country, is generally not considered offensive, even if we do have more respect for people who know the time and place. Indeed, we Aussie’s take pride in our ‘creative’ vocabulary, and some if it, if I may say so myself, is downright hilarious.
It wasn’t until my recent foray into online writing groups that I realised how contentious the subject is globally, especially in the USA. Time and time again, the question is broached.
Should I allow my characters to swear?
My instant reaction is, of course. People swear. It’s fact of life. Besides it being a differentiating trait that can give dimension to a character, it can, when used appropriately (and even sparingly), challenge a reader, bolster a point, or perhaps deliberately offend (something which should never be off-limits for any writer).
From a technical perspective, as a writer myself, I don’t find the question that hard to answer. As a literature major, I find it downright ridiculous. Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer who ever lived, loved to offend with his words and used Elizabethan profanity freely. Many of these words remain offensive to some degree. Piss, bloody, hell, damn, bitch, and bastard – among others, can all be found in Shakespeare’s plays. Read any tirade from a disgruntled Shakespearian character, and there is an acute sense that causing offence, and rousing the discomfiture of audiences, was precisely the point. It seems almost arrogant for any writer to question the use of profanity, as though it is somehow cheapening a narrative. After all, the Beatles are not bigger than Jesus, and no writer is bigger than Shakespeare.
One of my dearest friends is a linguist. She finds offence to profanity decidedly unevolved, and unintelligent. Ironic, since those who dislike swearing would state the same about its subscribers. Her perspective, of course, goes directly to an understanding of how language changes. Words that we freely use today, and some which we no longer hear, were once considered as offensive as our top five are now. Words like strewth (used to express surprise, and still used in Australia), sirrah (a lowly person), and even villain (taken from villager, to mean peasant – once considered so derogatory that it gradually came to be associated with criminals, as we use it now).
But if you truly want to understand how social evolution can twist and change the meaning of a word to be negative, you can’t go past the biggest, baddest word of all, and I’m not talking about the ubiquitous ‘Fuck.’ Rather, I’m talking about its C-stepping cousin – a word I refuse to publish in my own bloody blog, because my mother would rip me apart (text me direct ma, don’t comment).
The c-word is so contentious, that even those who do use it, are careful to check their company before doing so - even down under, in the land of the swearers. The word is so prolifically disliked, that the Netflix Series, The History of Swearing, hosted by Nichols Cage, doesn’t even do an episode on it. It was a great series, and well worth the watch, even as I found it rather pathetic that they clearly declined to bother covering it, likely believing they’d lose viewers.
Before you leave this page in disgust, it is useful to know that the dreaded c-word was once considered genial, even beautiful. It was a celebration of femininity, and certainly of female genitalia. That was, until the Victorian era emerged, denigrating female sexuality to the shame bin, turning the word sour. Today, there are all sorts of opinions on its usage. Some feminists, like Inga Muscio, want it revived. Others state that only women should be allowed to use it, since the word, at least in a man’s mouth, reeks of misogyny. Others would simply prefer to lock it away like it never existed. Defeatist, in my humble opinion.
Fuck comes from a group of Germanic words, meaning ‘to strike’ or ‘penetrate’. It was originally used specifically to convey this meaning, but it was far from a swear word. Impolite, certainly, but not offensive. Hundreds of years later, the word still refers to copulation but is used in a much broader sense. Fuck is probably the most versatile word in the English language, and it is in the dictionary now (sorry anti's). It’s the optional salt and pepper for every prospective sentence. The choice to use it is obviously personal, but there is no denying that it adds the kind of emphasis that no other word can. The fact that people find a word that represents sexual penetration offensive, speaks more to a social psychological hang-up on sex and shame, than it does anything tangibly offensive otherwise. After all, if the word itself meant absolutely anything else, it would not be derogatory. If fuck meant “to eat” or “to drive”, it would not rouse insult. I believe we would all do well to ask why we are so prudish, rather than denigrating the word itself. It is, in the end, just language; language that will eventually evolve itself out of contention. In Australia, it’s already occurring, with magistrates making rulings in favour of the word as acceptable national vocabulary.
Many people ask me how I approach swearing with my children. I have three boys, all under seven, and they hear their mother, and indeed their father, swear with what some might consider an unacceptable level of frequency (it’s not as bad as it sounds). Many people are surprised to discover that my children themselves, are not prolific swearers. Why? Because I have made it clear that such words are used only to compliment an already rich vocabulary. They are not to be used to replace vocabulary. Doing so, as far as our family is concerned, makes you stupid. I also teach my kids about context. My son, in one of the only times that I have ever heard him swear, did so within such a context. He dropped a tin of baked beans on his toe, and at that moment, feeling the pain shoot through his foot, he said ‘fuck.’
My partner and I exchanged a glance and discreetly smiled before proceeding to say nothing. When he misuses it, we will have a different conversation. I have often found that it is the children who live in profanity-free households that swear the most. Never in front of their parents, of course, who often deny it ever occurs. A good case and point here would be me. My mum, as many did in the ’80s and ’90s (and some still), would literally ‘wash my mouth out with soap' if I swore? Did it work? I promise you that it didn't. I also promise you, that I have been swearing for a very long time.
In the end, we all know what happens when you make something forbidden, or naughty. Rebellion is borne from such an environment. Just like with sex, you can face it head-on and have a real conversation, or you can shun the whole concept in the hope that your kid becomes the first to forgo its pleasures. Profanity, for those of us who use it, is a pleasure. It’s also a tool, which deserves respect and correct application. Truly intelligent people know how to swear. Declining to do so, simply because society has deemed it offensive – often for absurd and even repressive reasons - is simply not an intelligent position.
I often wonder how people who don’t swear even make it through the day. The researched benefits of profanity are well known. People who swear are less stressed, can handle pain better, form more honest relationships, develop better empathy, and are more adept at handling challenges. Swearers are also often better at relating to fellow human beings, breaking tension, and putting people at ease. I can relate to this, because I do it all the time. If things are too polite, too awkward, or too tense, I am the one that usually speaks first. My most recent line, as I stood in a circle of well-meaning mums who I had not met before, was “why is it so fucking quiet?”
The tension melts, instantly. After all, who is going to continue with pretence or self-consciousness when the chick across the circle just dropped the F-bomb to a bunch of strangers? Even if you don’t swear yourself, you can find yourself put at ease by someone who does. The ability to be comfortable with profanity, either as a listener or a user, enables one to be fluid and socially versatile. I can shove my swear words in as easily as I can pull them out. When you can’t pull them out at all, your social experience can suffer somewhat, as can your exposure to a wider demographic of individuals. As for the judgement often placed on people who swear, that’s just another form of misplaced elitism. No one likes that, and we certainly don't need it.
I was recently browsing through my copy of Post Secret. One of the entries was so profound in its relation to this topic, that I had to take a photo of it. It goes towards the repression of an individual who relieves their frustration by writing the word ‘fuck’ on a piece of paper repeatedly before they dispose of it in shame. How terribly sad that is, to be held to ransom by a word, or, if you will, the social
perception of language.
One of my main narrators in Banksia Close is a swearer. Damon is a typical Aussie guy, who doesn’t think twice about profanity, but his usage is not unintelligent. As he finds himself under pressure and angry, highly stressed, and fearful, his curse words serve as a valve to release tension, when he might otherwise resort to less healthy coping mechanisms, not the least of which could be repression, or worse. My mother, upon reading the draft, asked me why he had to be a swearer? My answer was simple: because swearing is human. Because profanity is real. Life is real, and people swear.
“But what if you lose readers?”
I shrugged easily. “If they can’t see swearing for precisely what it is, then they aren’t the audience I want.”
Most importantly, I’d hate to cultivate a disingenuous impression of who I am. We have enough of that already. I might meet some of my readers in the flesh one day, and they should know exactly who they are getting; exactly what they are getting.
I look forward to such a day, and when it comes, rest assured – you can swear.