“Like they don’t hear it at school,” you say. “Or say it themselves.”
Yeah, I realize teenagers are fluent in profanity—I was in junior high and high school once. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook from preserving for my daughter, 13, and son, 16, one pocket in their lives where an elevated level of gentility and decorum are modeled. Not that I’m genteel. But relatively speaking, I’m Emily Post.
In the car on the way home from school the boy will occasionally drop the f-bomb or other four letter words, and I can tell you his sister is genuinely offended. You see, the men in her life, well, for the most part, reserve their use of profanity for extreme situations, like severed limbs or totaled cars. Near tears she says, “Jack, why do you have to say that?” I call him out, remind him, “Gentlemen don’t speak that way,” and he says, “Mom, it’s just language.” And if this is as rebellious as it gets, I’m fine, but it’s just language?
Language is everything. Words have power.
I was raised to feel that cussing is the communication equivalent of open-mawed mastication, talking with your mouth full (AGGG!) or elbows on the table during a meal. In my home growing up, the following words were banned:
- shut (with “up”)
It was natural to hear our mother respond from the kitchen to a smashed or sliced finger, in an amplified voice: “ESSS! AAAICH!” You knew it must really hurt if she got to “EEYYYE!” Never once heard her spell out the entire word, or say it. And my mother was, and is, no Stepford wife. She’s zany, well read, and filterless in her comments and opinions, but consistent in her relentless avoidance of profanity. (Though since Dad’s death she tends to overuse the “pissed.” I think it’s her way of coping. Widows gone wild.)
My dad, an articulate gentleman marketing exec who also happened to have served in the Navy during the Korean war, wasn’t quite as controlled in his profanity management. In fact, till we could read we thought our mother’s name was “GoddammitRuthann.” But he never tossed around the more vulgar sh^t or f*#k. He was no milquetoast, though. He was Don Draper, not Ward Cleaver. [<<<YOU HAVE TO CLICK ON THAT ONE. You’re welcome. End of aside.] I’m betting the farm he let the saltiest words fly on the golf course or with his fishing buddies on the St. John’s River, contexts that strike me as completely appropriate for unrestrained language.
Another appropriate—prescribed, even—occasion for well-chosen profanity, IMHO, is written dialogue. If a character in a work of fiction (or non fiction for that matter), swears like a sailor, and art reflects life, that character must not be muzzled. To pretend that people don’t really speak that way is ridiculous (CBA, I’m mean you). I’m not talking gratuitous swearing, but it is far more believable to read unsupervised teens expressing horror or surprise with “Oh my God!” than “Oh my Gosh!”; or disgust with a villain with, “She’s a total bitch!” vs. “She’s a real meanie.” Even if it’s not my own personal standard for my own children—that’s how certain normal people are going to talk in certain situations. I mean, hell, it’s realistic.
If a character in my novel witnesses a family member being maimed or killed, or she’s attacked by a bully, she might say something stronger than, “Gee whiz! That’s really bad!” In fact, Allison Lynn, my MFA Long Form Workshop professor, recently called me out for putting unrealistically soft language in my young teen girl characters’ mouths. Her assertion was that they didn’t sound real, not true to life, that in the absence of adult supervision they’d be experimenting with the vernacular. Because that’s what kids really do. (Dammit.)
And so do many adults, writers in particular. And that’s fine; I don’t judge them. It sounds just right when they say it, and they’re usually strategic. I take no offense—except that they’re far more successful than I am, and I worry that my reluctance to cuss handicaps me, branding me irrelevant.
It’s not my responsibility to groom or correct anyone who didn’t emerge from my womb. It just doesn’t feel right for me. And, I think the trendy swear words sound stupid coming out of my mouth. Like miniskirts: they just don’t look good on me. But Alicia Silverstone sure could rock hers. And how gorgeous are Scarlett Johansson’s lips in crimson? I look like a clown in red lipstick.
And there’s this: when I swear my spirit zings a little, no doubt because of the Bible verse installed in my memory as a child that reverberates anytime profanity slips from my mouth or fingers. This one: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV); and, from another version, “Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift.” Each word a gift. I like that. Another translation says it thusly:
“When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.”*
[Ask my husband: I am proficient in uttering “harmful things” with nary an f- or s- or b- or c-word in sight. But I’m working on it, constantly, and I strive to write in such a way that the words I choose will do some good. But that’s another matter. End of aside.]
I’m sure we’ve all heard, primarily from grandparents, librarians, and middle school English teachers, that “cussing shows a lack of intelligence” or is a sign of “verbal laziness.” There may be traces of truth in those statements, but I do believe there is power and exhilaration in the well placed f-bomb. Like, and we count on The Rumpus for such exhortations, on the mugs that sold out at the AWP conference in Boston quoting (the not at all lacking-in-intelligence or lazy) Cheryl “Dear Sugar” Strayed, seated next to Augusten Burroughs, concluded her presentation on the final night, with the charge to us eager writers to go forth and “write like a motherfucker.” Just freaking write was the point she was making, and her use of the electric MF word placed that advice in bold, punctuating it with a big loud exclamation point.
*Thanks, Cheryl Strayed, for the writerly kick in the bu#%. It was just the word I needed.