When my eldest son was six years old, he came home from school and proudly declared, “I know what the F-word is.”And then, in an undertone so his little brother wouldn’t hear, he said, “It’s funk.”
I was tempted to just have a giggle, and get on with my day. But that’s not who I am. That’s not how I parent. And that’s not how I feel about language.
Words are not just my bread and butter, they’re my passion. I don’t believe in “bad words” and “good words”. I just believe in words. Wonderful, delicious words. Some are salty, some are sweet, but all are beautiful in the right context.
So I didn’t let it go. I sat my son down and corrected his pronunciation. And then I explained how and when the F-word is used, before finishing the conversation by saying, “But the F-word is a word that’s inappropriate for children to use. So, even though you know what it is, I’d like you not to use it until you’re older.”
He nodded, gave me a hug, and went to play Good Guys and Bad Guys with his little brother.
A few months later, I arrived at school pick-up to find my son’s teacher waiting to speak to me. Apparently, some of his classmates had told on him for using the F-word. He denied it. When repeatedly questioned about what he had said, he told the teacher he’d said “fart”. And that’s why he was in trouble.
It turns out, fart is a “yucky word” that shouldn’t be brought to school. Who knew? But that leads me to wonder about the line between “yucky words” and words. Where does fluffy sit on that continuum? Or burp, belch, digest, chew, vomit, piss, or poo? I object to the idea of “yucky words” for the same reason I object to the idea of “bad words”; it unfairly vilifies a portion of the language for no good reason.
After I’d reassured my son that I wasn’t angry, I said, “If your teacher doesn’t like the word fart, it doesn’t make it a bad word. It just means it’s inappropriate to use it at school from now on. There are lots of words that are inappropriate to use in certain places, even for grown-ups.”
[pullquote]I object to the idea of “yucky words” for the same reason I object to the idea of “bad words”; it unfairly vilifies a portion of the language for no good reason.[/pullquote]
And we all know that’s true. I may curse like a drunken sailor when I’m in a bar with my friends (although I don’t know for sure — I’ve never met a drunken sailor), but it wouldn’t be appropriate to use the same language at a kindergarten picnic, or in a church. But what about in stories?
I’ve often been in conversations with other writers about using profanity in writing. Is it okay for books to have “bad language”? How much is too much? And what, exactly, constitutes “bad language”, anyway?
As Hamlet would say, “Ay, there’s the rub.”
Where is the line between “bad words” and words? Sure, most people would classify the F-word as “bad”. But what about Anastasia Steele’s “crap, crap, double crap”? And how does the word ‘boobs’ compare to ‘breasts’? Have we even considered the effect of blasphemy? As one writer said during a conversation about bad language in books: “I don’t care how many F-words and C-bombs are in a book, but the moment the Lord’s name is taken in vain, I’ll stop reading.”
So, what does that mean for us writers? Should we remove all potentially offensive words and phrases from our stories?
Mmm…. I don’t think so.
Just look at the furore over the last couple of weeks about the Clean Reader app, which prevents profanity being viewed on the screen, replacing swear words with less offensive (and yet, not always appropriate) alternatives. It was roundly criticised by authors such as Joanne Harris, Chuck Wendig, and Margaret Atwood.
The general consensus amongst authors was: “I chose those words for a reason. Read my book the way I wrote it, or don’t read it at all.”
We need to let go of the idea that some words are “bad”, and accept that all words are words — but some are more appropriate for specific people, pleaces, and situations. As my father said when he was trying to convince a teenage-version of me that swearing was bad: “Swear words are no different to other words. They’re not cleverer or cooler. They’re just words. And that’s why you don’t need to use them.”
I thought about that for a long time. Like, at least ten minutes. And then I realised he was right. Swear words are just words. They’re not more clever. Nor are they less clever. They’re just words, with their own meanings and inflections and purposes. And that’s the message I leave you with today.
All words have their own power. All words are words. When you’re writing, choose words that are appropriate for your story, your characters, and your audience. And do it in that order.
2015 WU Flash Fiction Contest, Round 3