There are times when a writer may struggle with the problem of “curse words” in their stories.  Unlike with modern movies, there is no official “ratings board” to label a book as suitable for all ages, or teenaged children, or for mature audiences only.  The struggle then becomes one of personal comfort, and morality.

The real world is a harsh and grim place.  Travesties happen every day, and they are not glorified.  Miracles happen every day, and they are ignored.  Cursing is a commonplace occurrence in many walks of life, and there is no supernatural censor to stop anyone, no matter how old, young, pious, or callous, from uttering a profanity.  It is prone to happen in a realistic world.  Thus, can a book seeking to mirror a “realistic” world be looked down upon for inserting foul language into the characters’ mouths?

Because the truth is, people do not have to swear.  Conversation can occur without it.  Less-offensive words can be substituted, or well-adjusted people can simply work hard at not becoming so angry as to need them.  People do swear, but they do not have to.  And thus, a writer may decide in a similar fashion, that his or her characters do not have to swear.

But what, really, is profanity?  And why do people use it?  At its roots it is about blaspheming the name of God, or literally wishing a “curse” upon someone.  But the roots seem to have all but withered up.  Profanity today seems just another way to express extreme anger.  But extreme anger may be expressed by screaming loudly and using harsh intonation with normal words; cussing is ultimately unnecessary.

Is it perhaps because we attach intrinsic meaning to these words?  Because rather than explain our level of anger, we expect listeners to hear these words and understand the gravity of their meaning?  Does a writer write their characters swearing because it is natural for them to write in such a way, because they are trying to reflect the real world, or because they assume an emotional reaction out of their readers when they use them?  But if the important thing is the emotional response, and not the word itself, then does the word have any meaning of its own?  Is it just random happenstance that society organically decided that word X will be offensive but word Y will not?

This is neither to advocate for, or against swearing.  It is merely a look at something perhaps not normally looked at.  Because sometimes, when we look at something no one bothers to look at, we realize that it is just a shell; that it means something only as long as people believe it means something, and means nothing in and of itself.

But maybe profanity still does.  Maybe some words and phrases exist strictly for the purpose of offending in ways other words cannot be construed to offend.  Or maybe it doesn’t, and profanity is simply humanity’s flailing attempt at putting something ephemeral and unquantifiable, such as negative emotion, into a concrete form like a word, or a gesture.

I don’t know.

{Something I just starting writing today.  Inspired by a conversation with a friend about whether or not it felt “right” to have a character swearing if the writer themselves did not approve of it.}


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