Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In Praise of Profanity

This morning I read about Joe Biden's apology to a Kentucky teen for dropping an F-bomb about the passage of Obama's healthcare bill (to wit: "This is a big F-ing deal"). The kid, Brandon Halcomb, had written an open letter criticizing Biden for his language. Kudos to the teen for standing up for what he believes in. That said, I would like to say a few words in defense of the one that starts with F.

I'm in complete agreement with those who bemoan the abuse of that word in everyday conversation, in the media, etc. I don't like hearing it all the time, or in polite company, either. Because the F-word is a word of marvelous potency. Unlike most words in the English language, it sounds like exactly what it means. An angry swear. An order. Coarse and guttural, with a hiss at the beginning and a clipped, abrupt end. Used sparingly, it manages to pull into itself a much greater atomic weight than its four letters would naturally possess, and in a single use can convey the depth of frustration and aggression and anger. Or immensity, or urgency. Four little letters that can do all that. I use it a lot when I write, only when I need it, but always when I need it. It's a wonderful word.

A while back I read a study about how profanity can inspire teamwork. If you save your swear words only for people with whom you work closely, then they function as social cues to let the other person know you let your guard down with them; they're part of your in-club. Should Biden have sworn with his mike on? Well, no, but he got his point across better in a succinct five words than any television pundit did in a thousand. We knew he meant it off-the-record, so it carries the function of "teamwork swearing" in terms of letting us into his private little moment of happiness.

I hear comments all the time from people who don't like to see profanity in novels. Sometimes they'll even haughtily say, "Just use another word. Sheesh." Curse words can be distracting in large doses, and are sadly overused by many writers as a way to substitute for real use of voice. But sometimes there is no other word. Characters are supposed to talk the way people do, but with less stammering and more brevity and precision. And while some readers might wish people spoke in the language of prime-time television characters of the 1970's, as a writer I'm not willing to fog my lens for you. So if my character tells me to tell you he's fuckin' exhausted, that's what you're going to hear. But rest assured, it's the writer's job to make every single word on the page earn its keep, and the F-word is no exception.

And so on that note, let's all work together not to spoil the potency of our very small store of serious curse words. Please don't put them on bumper stickers where my kids can see them. Please don't grate on my listening ear and finer sensibilities by using them in line behind me at the pharmacy. Save them for your friends, and for when you really, really mean it. Because unlike most things politicians say, you can count on those few little words to, as the caterpillar exhorted in 'Alice in Wonderland,' "say what you mean."


  1. I must say that I heartily adore this word. I don't use it in front of children. I don't shout it during conversations held in public places. And I don't even use it at all with some of my friends who I know just don't like to hear it. But for my friends who understand its power in the way that I do, it works as the ultimate adjective at times- to convey *just* how angry or happy or frustrated or surprised or whatever I am.

    When reading, sometimes I don't notice if it's being used a whole lot, but other readers will assess it as majorly excessive and complain, where to me, it just sounded like reality. Katherine Center's EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL comes to mind.

    This post was a big eff'n deal to me, by the way. :)

  2. I read a great Laura Ingalls Wilder quote, wich I can't seem to find at the moment, which went something like: Be careful with rough language. If you overuse rough words, what, it times of great struggle and strife, is left to say? While I have certainly butchered her fine quote, I totally agree with your point. Words, especially strong ones, can be just as powerful as actions and must be chosen just as carefully.

  3. Hear hear. I totally agree with the whole save-it-so-you-can-use-it-when-you-mean-it philosophy. Overuse dilutes them. I almost never swear anymore, at all, because I am constantly surrounded by small children. Recently I found myself using the f-word in front of my teen, and it was a deliberate I'm-letting-you-in-the-adult-club now move. I think she was shocked, but also kind of impressed. :)