Saturday, November 19, 2011
I'm torn on this subject.
On the one hand, I was taught by a wise playwrighting professor at BYU that all words are morally neutral. There are no "bad" words, just bad context. Even the dreaded F-word can be used effectively in a way that teaches a moral message.
But if you use those words,will anyone notice your message?
The main problem with the traditional "curse words," in my opinion, is not that each word is bad, in and of itself, but that society has attached so much subtext to each one, they have become rather unwieldy to use.
Let's examine, shall we?
As I see it, swear words fall into four basic categories: crude, gender-hating, religious, and sexual.
Crude words are those that refer to the more unsavory bodily functions or the regions from which they come, such as (I'll use asterisks to avoid offending your eyes and attracting google searches I might not want) sh**, pi**, and a** It seems to me that we look down on those who use them in non-medical conversations mainly because they're impolite. We don't want to talk about bathroom functions at the office. This doesn't explain why euphemisms of these words are more accepted. Crud, or poo, for example: how, exactly, are those different from sh**? And how is butt or even bottom different from a**? Anyone?
It's not semantics: it's subtext.We think differently about someone who says butt than we think of someone who says a**. There's no reason that I can see, but there it is.
Gender-Hating words seem to be more plentiful in female varieties than male, but, as I see it, they're offensive because they cast one gender in a negative light or serve to basely objectify an individual. The word bastard seems to have fallen out of disfavor lately, but it used to be a horrible insult to suggest someone's parents weren't married. Now, it is used mainly to refer to an insensitive male, though it still seems to suggest that the one so labeled is (or should be) of a lower caste of society. Similarly, b**ch isn't quite so bad as it used to be, though it still suggests that the woman is animalistic and short-tempered. Worse, and still quite offensive to most of society, are those words that refer directly (and negatively) to female anatomy, such as c**t. (It is interesting that dick can actually be a man's first name.) Though the actual definition of this base insult doesn't even make sense ("You are such a vagina." "Huh?"), it is universally understood to be negative. And insulting.
When people use these words, we generally label them as insensitive and boorish. We see them as unrefined and mean. These words carry a bite to them that the more medical terminology does not, mainly because they've been thrown around by angry people for so long that they seem to retain some of that anger, even when used more neutrally.
Religious words are those that are found in the Bible--and are perfectly fine when found there. In church, it is rarely offensive to talk about Jesus Christ, God, and all the people who were damned to hell. The difference comes when these words are used out of context, in casual or offensive ways their originators never intended. I met a man once who seemed gleeful that he would mention Jesus Christ whenever he dropped something, thereby proving that he thought of Him a lot. This was a little offensive to me.
It seems to me that these words became curse words in an act of defiance against authority, and remain offensive because some of us hold them sacred and dislike to have them used in non-religious ways. (For me, this prohibition does not extend to the words damn and hell. They are my most frequent curse-word indulgence.) Those who use these words out of a religious context are often seen as sacrilegious and rebellious. It can send the message that you are not a "good" or holy person.
Sexual words like the omnipresent f*** are essentially like the crude, potty words. They refer to a natural process in a crass way. Not because stringing four letters together makes something good turn bad, but because society has decided that, for whatever reason, good people don't say that word. It becomes impossible to use it, even in the appropriate context, without dragging the societal subtext along with it.
So what's a writer to do? What, specifically, is a YA writer to do? It is ridiculous to suggest that putting these words in our books will expose otherwise innocent minds to awful letter combinations that will scar them for life. It is possible that excessive repetition will encourage young mouths to parrot these words, thus drawing the associated sub-textual judgments upon themselves... but, really, can a single book hope to reach the numbers of repetition that our young people hear at school on a typical day? Will seeing it in black and white really make that much of a difference?
I think, when it comes right down to it, we need to be careful with these words not because they're "bad," and not because people might judge our characters (bad words might actually help our characterizations) but because we need to be aware of our audience.
You've probably all had at least one "conversation" with someone determined to prove how bad-a** s/he is. This type of person will sprinkle expletives throughout his speech until you can hardly discern what he's talking about. It's very frustrating. In this sort of speech, the bleepity-bleep words have as much meaning as, well bleepity-bleeps. If he would cut them out, the meaning would be much clearer. But these sorts of people often use "bad" words without regard to context. They could be talking about going to the store or *shudder* playing with a baby. They use them as filler words the way the rest of us might use "um" or "ah" or "you know." After a lengthy conversation with one of these, I stop noticing the swear words. My brain has to filter them completely out or I'll never figure out what they're saying. So all those words become a complete waste of breath. No more shock value. No more convincing me he's a bad-a**. Just meaningless bleepity-bleeps.
So be hyper-aware of your use of swear words in your writing (and in your speech, by the way). Not because you're going to go to hell for using them or because you're going to send someone else there because they hear/read them. Because when you use one, you drag along the subtext. The small zing of shock value. All of society's judgments on your characters' heads. But when you use lots... you're wasting ink.
What do you think? Do you use swear words in your writing?