Cursing is a part of our life and is thus inescapable in writing. While some people might frown upon, “cursing,” or so-called, “bad words,” I see them as simply another subset of words with various applications and suited to certain contexts. For example, put me in a suit and tie, parade me out in a tux and I can be very eloquent and refined; however, put me around people I’m comfortable with and my lexicon undergoes a bit of a shift. I like to curse to put it simply. A lot, depending on your standards. “But why?” you may wonder, “Why must you resort to such crass language?” I suppose I could say that I’m just not all that classy. I can live with that. Or I could get deeper into the heart of the matter and say that I don’t really believe in bad words, only bad intentions. So then why not just throw F-bombs in every direction? I mean, it’s grammatically possible to create a sentence using nothing but the word, “fuck.” Why not just make every other word a curse? These types of questions can be important for a writer to consider. Since a writer has nothing but her words to convey meaning, the issue of obscenity, depending on the nature of the tale being told, can be one that requires some serious introspection and consideration of what language does and how it’s best used. I feel that curse words are fine and can be useful for a number of things but that there is a border that one shouldn’t go across. Now just to be clear, this is about curse words, not so much about the subjects they may be used in conjunction with (sex, bodily functions, etc.). That is a whole other subject which would deserve an article to itself since such subjects can be just as controversial even without obscene language. So why defend vulgar language at all?
Like every word, vulgar words are in fact innocent and therefore should not be put on trial. First of all, obscene words are not obscene but are simply symbols of things. They are not referents but referrers and as such can be made to refer to different things and connote different feelings. A legitimate criticism of this approach is that their meanings have already been established and that as long as the overwhelming majority of us agree that a certain word signifies a certain thing then that is what it means. Reality by consensus in other words. In this case, the words may prove useful, even necessary since they give us a medium through which to convey to others these unpleasant things. In this case we need a word like, “piss,” because it is referring to a real thing. It may not be pleasant but we can’t eliminate urine and urination because some people might be squeamish about it. But to counter this, there’s another consideration. Why can’t we just use words like, “urine,” to connote these unpleasant aspects of reality? Words like this are clinical and do a very good job at precisely and dispassionately conveying the concept. But I think most of us realize that such a view is actually quite stunted and naive. Life isn’t neutral or dispassionate. Life is messy and ugly sometimes. In this way, again we find ourselves in need of words ready to do the dirty jobs that weaker words can’t. These curse words thus convey not just a meaning, but a feeling. These words can be powerful emotional conduits that can elicit feelings of dirtiness, disgust, and by extension other negative feelings. So we see these words pulling double duty as both meaning and emotional conveyance devices. But they are more than just means of conveying the squalid aspects of the world we inhabit.
Think about the last time you hung out with a group of close friends, the kind you could say anything to, or the last time you told a dirty joke. Chances are in both instances there were curses or, “dirty words,” used. Curses in this respect are a sign of comfort and openness. Think about ways of greeting people. If you were to greet the Queen of England, you would not exclaim, “How the hell are you?” but you very well might do that to a close buddy. Curses create a sort of dividing line between propriety and simple down-to-earth conversation. It’s kind of hard to shoot the shit with friends if you’re constantly standing on ceremony. They can be used for ribaldry between friends and to humorous ends. Sure it may be toilet humor but I say take laughs where you can get them. The point is that such language can be indicative of or may facilitate a relaxed atmosphere where people can be relaxed and speak their minds without worrying about convention. Ideally, our writing space should be such a safe zone and as such we should be free to speak as we see fit and that may involve getting our hands a bit dirty.
Obscenity can serve just as many functions in writing as it does in our daily lives. In some instances for example, it can be used for the most basic function of eliciting negative feelings from the readers. Just think of how far a bit of crass language can go in describing a fetid alley or sewer. Think of the feelings of disgust souring the readers’ stomachs as they read those passages and are transported into those rank, forsaken places. Then there the opportunity to use these words as components of spoken dialogue. One character cursing another, or shouting in anger/surprise/joy/etc. The harshness of the language underlines the intensity of the emotions the character is experiencing. This can be especially effective if the character isn’t prone to cursing. The cursing thus becomes an externalization of internal chaos and the character’s being pushed past her normal limits. There’s another way cursing subtly conveys character. Does the character curse at all? How comfortable is she with saying whatever is in her head, consequences and the feelings of others be damned? Is the character high class or low? How much education does she have or maybe she simply doesn’t care about her image? How creative does she get with her cursing? We can develop a picture of a character based on the language she uses and the presence or absence of cursing can help build character, for good or ill. However, when it comes to using curses for any purpose, I’d suggest keeping an important point in mind.
I do not approve of censorship at all but at a certain point, it is possible to overload a piece of work with curses. This has nothing to do with good taste in the sense of being offensive and more to do with what is good writing and aesthetically pleasing. Think of George Carlin’s “The Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on TV.” These are as follows: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. That’s seven words. How often can these words be repeated before it becomes an eyesore? There are only a few words you can get away with repeated again and again. Such words as, “the,”; “and”; “an”; and such are functionally invisible. The seven words on that list are far from discrete. They stick out like a flamingo in St. Mark’s square. If they are used in every other sentence, the reader just gets numb to them and they end up being meaningless. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario and possible the more likely one will be that the writing comes of as puerile and immature. There is often a misconception, most often among new and young writers, that using these, “adult,” words lend weight to writing. As long as we’re on the subject, writers of all ages think that big words with many syllables makes a work more respectable and higher in the echelons of literature. This is also not the case. The words aren’t capable by themselves of making a story sink or swim. It’s the whole, the story itself and what it has to say that makes a piece of fiction soar. Going back to the main subject of curse words, inundating a piece of work in foul language will do little to build the gravitas of the piece and will ultimately come across as inauthentic since we know how people talk. We are familiar with how speech sounds and if curses are shoehorned into places that they normally wouldn’t be, then the reader will quickly lose confidence in the characters or the voice of the narrator.
All things considered, a little vulgarity can serve as a bit of spice to language. It gives conversation and writing a bit of piquancy that makes you straighten up and listen. It can convey emotions from rage to mirth. Though looked down on, these maligned words can be useful tools if deployed correctly and in the right situations. Overuse will lead to fatigue and disconnection from the story. So use these bad mofos like hot sauce. Put just enough to redden your face but don’t give yourself an ulcer with it.