Discussion: Profanity in Books with Guest Josh from Nocturnal Confessions

I plan to start doing a discussion every Sunday (that I can). I love having discussions in comments, but it is also fun to do posts with other people, so if you are interested or have a discussion idea feel free to email me or leave a comment below! I would love to include you one week on the discussion.

Discussion Sunday 1

Josh @ Nocturnal Confessions agreed to do this post with me because he had asked me what I thought about swearing in books. I decided to bring him into my actual post discussion because a) I love having discussions, b) he is writing a book right now, so it is definitely relevant to him, and c) I read lots of books so I have my own opinions.

Swearing in Real Life

Josh: I’ve always had some pretty strong opinions on the idea of there being bad words.  What makes a word bad?  Is it purely the underlying meaning or definition of the word, is there something offensive in that particular combination of phonetic sounds or does the intent of the expression mean more than just the sounds we make?

Aubrey: Huh. I hadn’t really thought about that much, but now that you bring it up, it makes a lot of sense. I think it has to do with what the words actually mean, and what people make them mean. Words are constantly being changed to mean something other than their original intent. The idea of “bad words” is mostly cultural, but can also be attributed to how people use them and what they actually mean.

Josh: The only issue I have with the idea that the meaning is what makes the word bad is that we have acceptable alternatives to the actual words, but they maintain the same meaning.  “Screw you!”  “That’s bull crap”  “Darnit!”  “That was freaking amazing!”  All of these phrases could be spoken in a G rated movie, yet the meaning behind them, especially if spoken in genuine anger, can be just as severe as their profane alternatives.

Aubrey: That is a good point. Why is it that I am allowed to and say darn or dang or crap all of the time, but won’t ever say the “d-word” or “s-word”. Sometimes I feel like the “swear words” that are looked down upon could be perfectly valid words, so who/what deemed them “bad words”. I don’t ever swear in front of people because I have a reputation to uphold, and even though one of these “bad words” may fit the situation, I wouldn’t want people to think different of me from the words I use.

Aubrey: Many times in school I have seen people go through different stages of swearing. There is the “just testing it out don’t really know what any of it means” elementary school phase, then the “I think I sound really cool when I say this” phase, etc. etc. until in adulthood people actually know how to use these bad words and are using them as a regular part of their sentences.

Aubrey: The use of profane language is a culture thing, but also an environment thing. The people a person grows up around and who they might speak to as a child changes the way this child might speak. Kids learn from their parents (or media/other things around them), so if a parent is constantly swearing, the child might do the same.

Swearing Just For the Sake of Swearing

Aubrey: This is the one thing that bugs me. Usually I am not bothered too much by a minimal amount of swearing in books (especially when it enhances the situation as I will talk about in the next section), but when characters are throwing out the f-bomb for no reason other than “just because” I don’t like it. Also when it is every other word, it makes me uncomfortable and I will usually stop reading. I think the only exception to this is in war books, or other situations like war.

Josh: I think it’s getting a lot harder as time goes on as casual swearing has just become the language of our culture.  As the youth of the previous generation start to become the authors of the current generation this language will follow along with them.  And while I do agree that in books, as in real life, I’m not a fan of overuse of profanity, it is how people talk these days.  

Because of the Character

Aubrey: There are situations where it wouldn’t fit if the character didn’t use profanity. Imagine if a character in a war book was watching all of his friends in battle (some of them not surviving), and was shooting at people himself. Then a grenade hits and takes out the people directly beside him. “Jolly gee.” he says “That was a teeny bit too close.” It would take away from the entire story. If it adds to the character then I feel like that is the exception. It goes both ways though. There are many times where there is absolutely no reason for profanity in a part of a book (or in life), but the character uses it anyway and that bothers me.

Josh: I feel like profanity has become part of our society, for better or worse (probably worse).  To hide from it or to censor it only serves to blind ourselves to what reality is.  Now I’m not saying writing should be rife with swearing of all sorts from every character, but one of the quickest ways to bring me right out of a story is to err on the other side and unrealistically clean up what society has become.  

Josh: Although I do think that it’s incredibly important to consider your audience.  You mentioned earlier about giving war books a pass of sorts due to the unique nature of that situation, and I think the people reading those sorts of books are open to the reality of what war is and how soldiers talk.  If you’re writing a fantasy novel or young adult romance story, peppering it with liberal amounts of profanity might seriously alienate your readers.  

Aubrey: I completely agree. The audience the book is written for is a big part of when profanity is deemed acceptable (childrens book vs. war story). There is a certain level of expectancy in certain types of books.

Censoring: Do you think books/ music/ anything should be censored or that there should be some sort of warning system to warn the readers of what they might come into contact with?

Aubrey: I enjoy warnings because I so strongly don’t enjoy liberal amounts of profanity in any sense. But again, if a person is reading a genre that is known for some sort of possibly offensive material, than I think it should be expected to a certain degree.

Overall Opinions

Josh: I have interesting opinions on the topic as I don’t fully think that words themselves can be considered bad, yet I don’t swear.  Again, for me at least, it comes down to audience, and while I may find swear words to be inoffensive I can’t assume those around me share those convictions.  And so, in an attempt to be considerate to others, I refrain from using harsh language, even though it personally does not bother me.

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Let’s chat: What do you think about the use of possibly offensive language in real life? In books? Do you believe that swearing can take away (or possibly add) to a character or setting? Do you think swearing is just a part of the culture or something more? Please leave any opinions in comments. I would love to discuss with you all.

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13 thoughts on “Discussion: Profanity in Books with Guest Josh from Nocturnal Confessions

  1. Great discussion! I don’t tend to think of swearing as bad, but more as whether they are appropriate or not. There are situations where I am not going to drop the f-bomb (in front of my mother, my children, my employer), but there are times when I am driving and get cut off and nearly go into the ditch – the air will be blue. And I think the same goes in books. There are times when swearing works, and other times when it just sounds forced or inappropriate.

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  2. I really liked reading this post and completely agree on some of the things you’re saying. I found it funny when you were going over the stages of swearing, in elementary school I spelled out the word stupid. And then in middle school I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, it was as you said “cool” to swear. And now in Highschool I try to even refrain from doing it because I don’t want to sound mean or something. Personally, swearing doesn’t bother me at all, but I agree that if you use it harshly and over and over it might be overdoing it!

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  3. I love this discussion (and having a guest discusser- that is seriously such a great idea!) So, I have mixed feelings, but I think I mostly lean toward the “it isn’t bad, it’s just a word” camp. Ironically, when I was younger, I NEVER said “bad” words. No idea why, I just didn’t, and the thought of it upset me- even though even back then, I had NO trouble reading or hearing profanity from others. Like you guys discussed, a lot of times it can fit a story, and that’s fine. Sometimes it just feels realistic in the situation. I was working on my WIP, and the character wasn’t necessarily the type of person to use lots of profanity, but there was one situation where any other word would have just sounded silly.

    Here’s where I draw the line, in real life and in books and such: hateful words (and I don’t mean for the point of a story). I read a book about a month or so ago where one of the characters uses the word “retarded” to talk about something she didn’t like. It INFURIATED me. And it was not a situation where the character was going to be chastised and learn from her mistake, she was just being awful and there were no ramifications. My blood boils at stuff like that. Unless a book is trying to spell out that those words are NOT okay, they shouldn’t be included.

    I guess the bottom line for me is this: Who can REALLY say what a “bad” word is? My aunt used to not let us say ANY negative word in general around my cousin. What even? Now he curses like a sailor so… mission not accomplished. Is there some invisible line? Some words are okay in movies, but not on TV, or whatever, and it’s just kind of ridiculous. I think like Josh said, it’s best to just know your audience- and use common sense. GREAT discussion!

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    • Wow! I completely agree. Sometimes it is necessary for a character, but I absolutely cannot stand when a character just acts downright hateful. Thank you for stopping by and for all of your input! 🙂 If you would ever be interested, I would love to have a discussion post with you sometime. Let me know 🙂 Thanks again Shannon!

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  4. I cringe when I hear people swear, and I never use profanity myself. However, I don’t really mind it in books and in fact sometimes it can really add to the scene/character/story. But, it has to fit right, and not just be thrown in for the shock value (which seems to be the case with a lot of YA books blech).

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    • Ugh. I totally agree. I feel like at times it can be *necessary. That isn’t the right word, because I don’t think swearing is ever necessary, but sometimes it would take away from the character if they said something else. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. I enjoyed this discussion very much and both Aubrey and Josh made excellent points. I find my opinions to be a little different from most here. I don’t like cussing. Whether in real life, movies, books, or music; I find it to be distasteful and nonproductive to what is being said. There are better ways for authors (or people in general) to convey the feelings that a swear word implies.

    I believe a swear word is much more the intent and feeling behind the word rather than the specific arrangement of sounds and letters. This is illustrated in the fact that the words “God”, “Hell”, and “damn” can be used as swear words or not depending on the intent and feelings behind their use. I agree completely with Josh on the incongruity of society’s use of “replacement” swear words. Though he drew the conclusion that society’s acceptance of the replacements means that it is actually the specific arrangement of letters that define a swear word. I, however, believe that by using the replacement words you are still swearing. I don’t cuss, and I try (not always successfully) to not use any word that is merely a replacement of a swear word. It is hypocritical, at best.

    Cussing is a reality of life and is something adults have to put up with, but I don’t think it is something they should have to put up with. Using your example of war books, it is considered normal for a soldier to swear. But does that mean an author has to swear to tell a good war story? Does it actually detract from the book if the author doesn’t swear? In books, specifically, I find that the use of swear words are a lazy device. Use the phrase “He(She) swore as…” or find another way to convey the feelings that are invoked by a swear word. Is it as easy? No. Does it take more effort and imagination? Definitely. Does it make for better writing? In my opinion, absolutely.

    One of the big problems I have with authors using cuss words in their work is audience exclusion. A great story can alienate itself from large sections of society by the use of swear words. If I find a phenomenal novel that is superb in all aspects but contains a lot of cussing, the people I would recommend it to drop by a huge amount. I won’t recommend it to children or teens (even if the subject matter is appropriate for them). I won’t recommend it to any members of my church. I won’t recommend it to my mother, grandmother, or others that find cussing distasteful. Even when I find people that I feel comfortable recommending it to, I will always feel the need to include a warning about profanity and language. I honestly don’t understand why an author would choose to limit their audience so much when it is already difficult to make a living as a dedicated author.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this. Keep up the good work on the blog, I very much enjoy it!

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    • It’s comments like this that make me adore discussions. I love seeing different perspectives of things, and I do agree with a lot of what you said. “Swear words” are very much what the meaning behind them is and how a person uses them. I totally agree with the fact that a person can take God’s name in vain or worship Him using His name, but at the same time the words are being used differently in the context and have different intents and are basically different words because of it. If I were to say “Hey Declan, thanks for being awesome”, or “Oh my Declan!” They mean different things. In one case, I am talking to you and addressing you as a person. In the other I am using your name incorrectly in order to be angry and such. As far as the replacement words go, I think it goes back to intent and meaning. I understand completely that many times they are just as bad and are just a different set of letters that go to the same word, but I am allowed to say “crap” and not “the s-word”. Why is this? Why do they seem to be regarded differently? I think it also has to do with the maliciousness of how a person says it. If I stub my toe I could say “the s-word” (which is regarded as bad), “crap” (which I am allowed to say), or “oh golly gee, that hurt my toesies). All of these are basically the same thing, but it is the motivation behind them that separates them in society. Do you understand what I mean (by all of my mumbling)? I feel like as far as the “swearing taking away from books” part goes, it depends on the audience. Even though I don’t like to read swear words and wouldn’t recommend certain books to the little old(er) ladies at my church either, there is an audience for them. Also, there are times where I feel that changing or omitting language would change a story and might make it (less realistic? less fitting of certain characters?) I’m not sure what I am trying to say, but I think that even though it may turn you and me away from a story it might not turn others. There are definitely better words out there, and I believe there is a difference in sophistication between books that swear and don’t, but also books that say “and so-and-so swore” could be regarded as more juvenile because that is just the world we live in (sadly). I am always trying to not become desensitized to the world, but that is VERY difficult in the world we live in. I think this also comes down to other topics as well. Is violence okay in books? Why are violent books so much more accepted and okay than books with other (maybe not-so-great content?) Just a lot more to think about… Thank you so much for stopping by, Declan! 🙂

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