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Posted: Oct 16 2016, 08:35 AM
How much is too much? How do you know when you’ve gone too far, or not far enough?
First, let’s consider the rich palette of risqué words available to us and clarify their technical differences, so we know what’s what. Once you can differentiate among profanities, curses, obscenities and the like, you’ll be better equipped to determine how, why, and if you should use them.
Although it is often used to denote any objectionable word, profanity literally means words that are considered profane - that is, words proscribed by religious doctrine. (Proscribed generally means forbidden by written order.) In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this primarily means taking the Lord’s name in vain (that is, not in prayer).
-- “For the love of God, stop complaining.”
-- “Jesus Christ, look at the size of that thing!”
A curse calls upon a deity, or fate, to visit harm on someone or something.
-- Mild curse: Damn this zipper!
-- Strong curse: Goddamn her!
To be “damned” is to be condemned to hell.
“Hell” can also be used as a curse—
-- Go to hell!
—or as mild profanity—
-- Oh, hell, the Potomac’s polluted again!
To swear literally means to take an oath, or to proclaim an oath. (An oath is a resolution or promise, usually calling on the deity’s assistance in carrying it out.)
-- As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!
-- By God, I’ll show you!
Swearing can also be used to bear witness:
-- I swear, you’re the best cook in Memphis!
Obscene means something disgusting or morally abhorrent, often connoting sex. The f-word is considered the most objectionable of these. (Adding “mother” as a prefix ups the ante.)
Non-objectionable variants of the present participle form of the word:
(To be honest, I really don’t know why that “u” is so important.)
“Screw” is a milder word. Notice that both the f-word and “screw” are used not just to literally describe the act of intercourse, but to connote “taking advantage of”.
Words referring to the pelvic area, male and female, are also considered obscenities.
Vulgarism is a great word that covers a lot of bases. If it’s crude and objectionable and falls outside the aforementioned categories, you’ve got yourself a vulgarism.
Casting aspersions on the circumstances of a person’s birth qualifies as a vulgarism. “Bitch,” “son of a bitch” and “bastard” can be termed vulgarisms. Ditto for “jackass,” which is often used as a substitute for another two-syllable word that starts with “ass.”
Excretory acts and their results fall under this rubric as well. “Crap” seems to be the only one that’s acceptable virtually everywhere.
To Use or Not to Use
Authors are divided about spicy talk, which is not surprising because readers are divided about it. Some really popular tough-guy authors, use no profanity in their books, and lots of readers don’t even notice.
Why? Because, for instance, some does not even write the watered-down “dammit,” which would call attention to the fact that they are not using “Goddamn it.” For the same reason they are certainly not going to have their characters, who blow one another’s brains out at the drop of a hat, say “darn it.” On the other hand, another leader in the same genre, uses lots of profanity, and he sure sells books.
Some readers are turned off by even a single curse word, whereas nobody will buy your book simply because you use raw language. So the safest path is to use zero raw language, right?
Well, writing is a journey, and journeys involve risks. Certainly there are authors who have been successful in part because they shun propriety.
As you write, look for a balance involving what you feel comfortable writing, what suits the characters and story you are creating, and what might please or displease your hoped-for readers.
Why to Use
Humans get angry. They crave precise expression. There’s something about cursing or using vulgar language that acts as a release valve. Most of us have experienced a moment when a good old rule-breaking bad word just feels sublime rolling off the tongue, and so it is for fictional characters.
Be true and honest to the voices of those characters. Moreover, if you want to write realistically about certain milieus, such as wharves, mines and battlefields, well-written raw talk can make your characters seem lifelike and more authentic.
How to Use
Spicy language generally works best when it is used sparingly, or at least in moderation. That way, you preserve the element of the unexpected, which can be a pressure-reliever for both character and reader. Aside from conveying anger or frustration, raw talk can also be humorous, in that it reveals how a character truly feels about something.
-- I ate another doughnut. Versus: -- I ate another goddamned doughnut.
You instantly get a clue about this character and her relationship with doughnuts. You can also have a character who habitually uses profanity in contrast to others who don’t. That, in itself, is a good individualizer.
Here’s a caveat to remember:
You shouldn’t just throw in spicy talk willy-nilly. You have to make it sound real.
But even if real people use a vulgarism every other word, it’s unnecessary for you to make your characters talk exactly that way. Just as with dialect and accents, using raw talk wisely serves to keep the reader grounded in your imaginary world, while avoiding the potential fatigue of overdoing it.
Consider your characters and employ common sense.
How Not to Use
Shakespeare knew that raw talk is the spice of writing.
He wrote the mother of all literary cuss-outs (cuss is simply a variant of curse) in King Lear, but interestingly there is no profanity or obscenity as we know it, merely terrifically imaginative vulgarisms, delivered with passion.
Here it is, the Earl of Kent preparing to thrash the crap out of Goneril’s loathsome lackey, Oswald:
KENT (TO OSWALD): A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
Knowing the historical references helps; for example, “broken meats” means leftover table scraps. But even without that, we can luxuriate in the rant. This is a beautiful speech for many reasons: It’s forceful, it’s unique, it covers many aspects of insult, it clearly communicates one character’s contempt of another, and—important for many in Shakespeare’s audience—it avoids serious curses and obscenities.
It’s a shining example of how a writer can invent insults way more entertaining than those found in the standard lexicon.
You can do it by brainstorming aspects of your characters and their circumstances:
-- He was as appealing as a baboon’s butt.
-- You are the worst thing to happen to the world since call waiting.
-- May you be condemned to an eternity of weak coffee, warm gin and a driveway paved with roofing nails.
By now, I think you’ll agree that it’s useful to explore—and perhaps even challenge—your own comfort zone.
Certainly if it’s not you, it won’t ring true. But whether you decide to write common curses and vulgarisms into your work or not, your characters do need a verbal pressure valve.
Like with many aspects of medieval society, the way they swore was much different than ours; recognizing that people back then did not have much of an issue with describing bodily functions in ways that we might find less appropriate.
Expletives predate even the spread of Christianity. The Romans' vernacular of foul language were incredibly dirty, and many of their taboos are ones Westerners still hold today.
"Speaking with Roman plainness," as the euphemism for cursing at the time went, mostly involved vividly describing genitals, which were considered both shameful and awe-inspiring -- veretrum and verecundum.
The ten worst words in ancient Latin centered on bodies and sex.
Slight a Roman, and he might retaliate by threatening to perform irrumatio, or oral rape. Most Roman obscenities were hurled as insults, but like in Medieval Europe, they sometimes had a religious role, as well.
The Roman Gods, it seems, sometimes liked it when mere mortals cursed like sailors. Obscenity made some religious rituals succeed, though, too. Obscene words could please gods such as Priapus, with his enormous, perpetually erect phallus, and were thought to promote fertility and to protect against the evil eye.
Interestingly, many of these swears weren't passed down from Latin to English. Latin usually gives us our proper medical terms for immodest parts of the body-- vagina and penis, for example, not our primary obscenities.
The Romans did, however, employ their own c-word frequently -- in graffiti and even in poems -- but often to refer to the body part itself, not as an insult.
"f*ck," or futuo, was also not always scornful or disapproving, but moreso as a descriptive adjective.
Instead, another word was considered far more foul: landica, or clitoris. Why? People swear about what they care about, and the Romans cared about the clitoris. They thought that both male and female partners in intercourse had to achieve orgasm for conception to occur, a wrong, but gallant, idea.
Other Roman expletives centered on passivity and aggressiveness in sex -- passivity being considered far inferior. There were two profanities for a man who allowed himself to be penetrated -- catamitus and cinaedus -- and the sure-fire way to spot a cinaedus was that he "scratched his head with one finger." Some think it was the middle finger, which even back then was offensive for its perceived resemblance to an erect member. The worst of the worst insults related to being on the receiving end of oral sex, since the mouth was the most sacred of body parts.
Other words we find obscene today were far less vulgar to the Romans because of their ordinariness. Cacare meant "to poop," but Romans did that in giant, hundred-seat latrines with no partitions, so there was very little left to be shocked by. Likewise with lotium -- urine -- which Romans washed their clothes in, and with mingo -- to piss -- which people did outside at will.
So how did words like penis and vulva make the leap from unspeakable in Latin to clinical in English? After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin split into two forms -- a higher-level version for elites, and a lower, more common one that later morphed into Romance languages like Spanish and French. Wealthy, educated men throughout Europe learned the higher form of Latin in schools until the 18th century, and, well, using it was an easy way to keep the (uneducated) women and children around them from knowing they were talking about genitals. It was Pig Latin with actual Latin.
‘Profanity’ is something that is ‘profane’–to corrupt the holy, in other words. ‘Swearing’ comes from ‘swearing an oath’–genuinely done at times, and ‘cursing’ is the same–people genuinely cursed other people. (Note, that this *Curse* is any expressed wish that some form of adversity or misfortune will befall or attach to some other entity: one or more persons, a place, or an object.)
Generally, people of medieval England did not share our modern concept of obscenity, in which words for taboo functions possess a power in excess of their literal meaning and must be fenced off from polite conversation… Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit.
It was rather one's character that is questioned along with their parentage. To call someone a "churl" or "dog" was fighting words, to be sure. "Villein" or "scullion" toward a person with means was quite the insult, for you have called them the lowest of the low, a menial.
But the familiar American "one-fingered salute" was in medieval England, a two-fingered variety given with the back of the hand outward.
These days, TV and the Internet makes expletives too common -- thus polluting our virgin ears. And maybe that's true. After all, cursing is only as scandalous as the society that surrounds it says it is. In the Middle Ages, "by God's bones" was more serious than "shit." In the buttoned-up 18th and 19th centuries, even leg and trousers were deemed too vulgar.
Posted: Oct 16 2016, 08:55 AM
BASIC CURSE WORDS: EXCLAMATIONS!