Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Art of Profanity

Let's talk a bit about dirty words.  It's been on my mind lately, especially after a #kidlit chat on Twitter regarding swearing.  It's an interesting - and often polarizing - topic.  It's one quite fascinating to me.  Of note, be advised this post contains quite a few, so if you're squeamish or you aren't really old or mature enough for the higher caliber words, please see your way to the door.  This is a discussion for sensibly minded adults.

"Some guy hit my fender, and I told him, 'Be fruitful and multiply,' but not in those words."

- Woody Allen

That quote shows - not tells - a scene far more effectively than if it were written exactly how it happened. We know in one sentence what Allen actually said. We know he swore at the guy, even though he mentioned nothing about swearing. It's a great example of how to create a mental image of the profanity without saying anything bad at all. Masterfully done. If Allen had said he'd told the guy to go fuck himself, it wouldn't have been funny, and furthermore the scene would have been instantly rendered mundane and forgettable - just some guy yelling profanities after a car crash.

So very obviously, we often don't need to swear to get our point across.  Many times the point is made even better without profanity. Actor John Ratzenberger, best known for his role of Cliff Clavin in Cheers, reportedly once said about a project, "There are times over different projects when I've asked the writers why people are swearing for no good reason. I tell them that it would be funnier if there weren't these swear words." That's true. Cussing for cussing's sake is stupid. Sometimes less is more.

But sometimes it's not. Sometimes we need a larger shock to the system. Sometimes our intention is not humor as in the quote above, but rather horror, or revulsion, or any number of the baser emotions. And sometimes the "dirty" words are just the best damn tools for the job.

Consider the scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, where Steve Martin's character, after a horrible debacle trying to find a nonexistent rental car and a journey from the middle of nowhere, across highways and even a runway, returns to the agency counter and has to deal with a smarmy agent who has no desire to help him at all. Watch:

If it wasn't for that barrage of eff-bombs, this scene would have been nothing.
It would have been a forgettable part of the movie that pushed the plot along, and tried perhaps unsuccessfully to endear us to Martin's character and his plight. The swearing not only personalizes his problems to the viewer, but also positions the dialog to enable him to tell her how much he doesn't appreciate the way her company treated him. It also sets the scene up perfectly for that succinct and very vital punchline: "You're fucked." Without it, the scene falls limp, destined to be forgotten with every other harried airport/car rental/bus station/train station scene out there. It doesn't, precisely because of the obscenities. Could the scene have been rewritten to conform to "PG" standards? Certainly. Would it have been as funny and memorable? Hell no!

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket would not have been nearly the character he was if not for his colorful language. Without the carefully constructed obscenities, the character of Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface would have been just another two-bit gangster. Profanity was one of the traits that made both those characters living, breathing people instead of cardboard cutouts. The use of colorful vocabulary is not vital to round out every character, but for those it was.

"Obscenity is whatever happens to shock some elderly and ignorant magistrate."

- Bertrand Russell

Obscenity is what we make it. A word is only as inflammatory as people take it to be, and that varies from circle to circle. One person may interpret a word very differently than another person. And obscenity can be starkly different culture to culture. Swearing in most Eastern European cultures is fairly acceptable, and most Slavic languages have a wide range of very colorful swear words. In many parts of Asia, however, it is not. Many Asian and Pacific languages don't even have a direct translation of some of the more vulgar terms.

Really, dirty words are just "dirty"; no word is inherently a dirty word because they're all just words. Though to some we assign more value than others, giving them varying degrees of power and influence. They're given power by those who use them in certain ways, and have power taken away by others who use them differently. If a word offends, it's because of the experiences and prejudices of the reader or listener that it does.

"Vulgarity is the garlic in the salad of taste."

- Cyril Connelly

This quote serves to show that profanity is a vital part of language. Like garlic, it adds spice, and like garlic, a little usually goes a long way. There's a fine line between use and over use of any word, and this is particularly the case with words that aren't acceptable vernacular in all parts of society. The more inflammatory the word, the more punch that word delivers, but only if used right. If used wrong, it has the opposite effect, which is a bad thing.

Another aspect of vulgarity is its propensity to lend itself to unique and imaginative forms. Run of the mill profanity is mundane, and as a result, often falls into the category I mentioned above, "cussing for cussing's sake". You can take it out and subtract nothing from plot, scene, atmosphere, or character. The imaginative stuff you can't. Describing someone as an ass-clown, or saying they were engaged in some kind of asshattery or another, evokes images which can't easily be explained with other words. Saying "tomfoolery" instead of "asshattery" isn't quite the same. It's too innocuous, too innocent. Saying they were juveniles engaged in delinquent behavior is similar, but not nearly the same. Not by a long shot. It may convey meaning, but it does shit-all for the tone. And inventive swearing makes for the best insults, by far.

Don't get me wrong; this type of colorful wordsmithing can be done without the use of profanity.  Tom Robbins, one of my favorite authors, applies colorful, imaginative forms to all his writing, but it is truly an art to do it the way he does. Not many can imitate him successfully, and profanity often does in one word what takes a paragraph of polite words to do.

Use, of course, varies between not only characters, but authors themselves. When you get to know a writer, you start figuring out what you're going to get when you read their books. You understand the words they use, how they use them, and how they work for that author. Consider Chuck Wendigan author who wields curse words like a samurai wields a katana. It's largely because of his irreverent love of profanity, and dark, twisted writing style that his books are so great to read. Constant swearing works for him, and quite well. It doesn't for everyone, and if it doesn't work for someone, then trying to force it will probably end badly.

No matter if certain words are off limits for you, whether uncouth, blasphemous, racial, or otherwise obscene, they all have a purpose.  As long as they serve their intended purpose, they're a necessary part of a story, even the "dirty" ones. I think so anyway, but that's just one idiot's opinion.



  1. I really like this post.

    Vulgarity is an odd item. In general, it is something that flows out of us (especially if by us, we mean sailors) like stinky waste water out of a drainpipe in many conversations. It is can be filler for when the right vocab escapes us or when we attempt to make a very strong statement. It can be a blunt tool for the ignorant or a wicked rapier of the whipsmart. Mostly, it falls somewhere in between....at least in the spoken word.

    Something about finding the correct amount of colorful vernacular to use in the written word is an enigma. I really like Stephen King and care little for Salinger. Strangely, "dirty words" sound bizarre when used by either. For the most part, when I read cursing in novels, I find it unsettling. These bad words come off awkward, forced, out-of-place, stilted, or just plain odd. So much so that it frequently pulls me out of the story, leaving me thinking "now who the fuck would say weird shit like that?"

  2. Thanks, Stuart. It is quite odd oftentimes, which usually is an indication of "cussing for cussing's sake". Not needed, and it sounds out of place. I really like your analogy of it as "a blunt tool for the ignorant or a wicked rapier of the whipsmart". I really wish I'd have thought of that myself! It's so very apt.

    I usually find Stephen King's cursing to be fairly understandable. Sometimes it pulls you out of the story, but for the most part I think it works well. I don't usually use the big words in my writing, but sometimes I think it's necessary.

    And interestingly, while recently editing a part of my current work in progress, I found it odd a character didn't swear at certain points. The sudden absurdity of the situation would have caused even the most prim and proper church lady to swear like a sailor. I couldn't envision my character, myself, or really most other people not swearing in that situation. I had to add those words in, because the story felt unnatural without them.

  3. Well said all round, Jon. Words are our tools, and that includes profanity. More than once, I've heard writers say it's the sign of a limited vocabulary. It boggles my mind to hear writers effectively advocating censoring ourselves by forcing our characters to speak as we think they should, not as they actually should given their personalities or setting. Some real people swear just as some don't. Writers should treat their readers like adults and write honestly. If that means writing characters and plots that require swearing, then that's how it is.

  4. You know, Luke, I often think that while some characters don't work well swearing, I think all authors should at least have it in the ready vocabulary. I think it's limiting if they don't. You may never use it, or use it only once in a while, but to throw out a few handfuls of words based on whatever reason is limiting, and it stifles a writer.