The Language Barrier

When I was a kid, I apparently had a remarkably sheltered upbringing compared to my peers. One day in second grade, my friends were all atwitter over a certain entry on the bathroom wall. I don’t remember the entire thing, but I do remember seeing one word there that I had never seen before in my life. My friends all seemed to know what the word meant and that it was very bad. I had no clue what it was, and aside from the badness of it, no one could really enlighten me. I clearly remember reading the sentence out loud, trying to guess the meaning of the word from the context of the sentence, just as we had been taught in class. However, as I was sounding out the word “F-U-C-K” in a search for meaning, the teacher walked into the girls’ room – and I got pulled off to the principal’s office so fast that it felt kind of like flying!

After that little experience, I still had no clue what the word meant, but I had learned the power of naughty words. The idea that some words were absolutely forbidden just hadn’t occurred to me until that point. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to go through a day without hearing the occasional “damn”, “shit” or what have you. I practice law, so the idea of spending time around people who swear like sailors is not exactly alien to me.

Even so, many people still disapprove of the use of swear words in daily speech. For instance, if I ever got the fine idea of dropping the F bomb in court, it might be a few days before you see me back here on the blog. The use of curse words in written discourse seems even more controversial in some ways. On this site, the rule for years has been not to use four letter words. Occasional exceptions are made, but with the offending letters blocked out.

The censoring of letters fools no one, but I suppose it does observe a certain rule of propriety. In discussing the idea amongst ourselves, the other publishers and I have been trying to come up with a consensus that would accurately reflect current sensibilities in the books we read (reviewing erotica without using a lot of the “—” marks is very hard), but still not unduly offend readers or lower the quality of writing on the website. On the one hand, all those stricken letters look a little prudish, but then again, we have tried in the past to strike a balance and not offend readers or be gratuitously crass.

In general, I don’t think readers will notice radical changes here. It just wouldn’t be professional. After all, how many times have you looked over at Avon or Harlequin and seen copy that reads anything along the lines of “We have a debut novel that we’re sure you will enjoy. Seriously, you should check this shit out.” This type of language could fit some situations, and it works in some author’s voices, but it still is not generally accepted usage in many situations.

And then there are the practical considerations. Many people have content blockers or similar software on their computers, and lots of swearing can equal lots of blocked pages for some users. From what I hear, we’re already too racy for certain federal government offices and since we like having our readers, we don’t want to get ourselves banned on everyone’s networks.

Still, that being said, most of us here on staff feel like we have to acknowledge reality. We review books from all over the romance genre and sometimes we’re dealing with strong, visceral emotion or characters who live in a gritty world. There are times when the four-letter words just fit what we’re writing. While we want to bring good writing to the table, good writing and the occasional bad word aren’t exactly incompatible.

You may have already noticed some loosening of the old rules, but we would like to see where you all stand on the issue as we consider making what would be a fairly major change to our writing guidelines. So, what do you all think about it? Would the sight of the occasional swear word without letters blacked out ( “damn” vs.”d–n”) offend you, or do you think it simply reflects the reality of some of our subject material?

-Lynn Spencer

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14 Responses to “The Language Barrier”

  1. Jane O says:

    THere is a difference between curses and obscenities.
    I would appreciate the absence of obscenities

  2. Keira says:

    I try to limit my cursing. I am always disappointed when I manage to let one slip. I usually use them when I stub my toe or get tremendously angry. I forget where I read it but most people hate hearing curses and use them because they got ingrained in their speech patterns. I think the article had to do with common courtesy, if you don’t like to listen to it you should try to censor it in your own speech. A do unto others type thing.

  3. Kathryn Smith says:

    Interesting post, Lynn. I remember the first time I heard the F word. It was my grandmother who said it. ;-) The second time was from a little kid younger than me. I remember going into the house and asking my brother-in-law what it meant. Fun fun.

    As for my books, if the language fits I’m going to use it. Sometimes you’re going for a crass tone or wanting to show a certain baseness to a character and nothing does that better than vulgar language. So, if swearing and obscenities are part of a character, or fit the scene I’m trying to write, I’m going to use them. I used to censor myself, but I like writing about people who are rough around the edges — and that includes the language.

  4. AAR Lynn says:

    Jane and Keira (or anyone else who wants to chime in) – The difference between curses and obscenities raises an interesting point. Aside from the famous “I know it when I see it” test, what would you consider the difference between a curse and an obscenity?

    Kathryn – your grandmother? That’s great! :)

  5. Jane O says:

    I think of a curse as a malediction — wishing evil on someone.
    Obscenity invariably has an offensive sexual connotation which is not necessarily found in a curse.
    (However, some terms seem to gradually lose the underlying sexual meaning. “Sucks,” for example, seems to mean no more these days than “stinks.”)
    I suppose the real question is, How offensive do you want to be? In a book. it could be argued that curses and obscenities can be a necessary and appropriate means of characterization. I can’t think of any necessity for employing either in a review.

  6. Lynn M says:

    Interesting topic, especially since my 8 year old son has been bringing up some questions about this very thing. He first wondered why a word is “bad” per se, since it is really just a word. I explained to him that while one person might not have a problem with a word, others might find it offensive, and it’s just plain good manners to respect other people’s feelings. But he caught me on this, since I often use the words “flippin’” and “freakin’” as substitutes for you-know-what, and he pointed out that this is really fooling nobody, so why aren’t these two words verboten as well? I couldn’t answer that.

    But I did land on the final conclusion that I’m a hypocrite, because while I don’t mind reading the F bomb coming out of a character’s mouth if he (usually not a she) is the type that would use that word, but I cringe and tsk tsk in disgust when I’m walking down a public street or sitting in a restaurant and I hear teenagers using curse words every other second. Why do I find one offensive and the other acceptable?

    One reason I do know – it’s for my eyes only when I’m reading. But when the words are spoken out loud in public, my kids can hear it. And that bothers me. A lot.

  7. Donna says:

    This is an interesting topic to me, and I addressed it on my own blog some time ago. I commented on language at a blog or site (can’t remember if it was DA or someone else) and was taken to task for using the term ‘f-bomb’. I was chastised as using something ‘cutesy’. ??

    However… for me it still comes down to a dilution in the meaning and weight of words over time. It’s like the word ‘love’. If you love ice cream, love sunshine, love Chinese food, does it dilute the meaning when you say you love a person?

    I suppose you could argue yes or no in that case, but I still maintain that the most serious curse words (the ones we won’t spell out without symbols) are greatly diluted if you use them as every second word. It’s just a fact of life; if you say ‘f*@k’ about everything, it no longer carries weight. I don’t swear often. When I do, people know I am deadly serious and seriously angry.

    Now, used in an erotic sense? I would argue that it should be used sparingly there, too, to carry weight in that situation as well.

    Just my .02 cents… or .0240 Canadian.

    But truth to tell, I take people less seriously if they use curse words constantly, and I find them not shocking, nor daring, but boring.

  8. Sharon says:

    This is a very good topic and it led me to two thoughts.

    It brings to light the importance of being able to write and to speak properly. My husband and I are university instructors and we must often remind students, who are preparing for professions, that you must use good language, grammer, and vocabulary to get your points across in everything from submitted work to emails. I would expect no less of reviewers of books, regardless of the books subject. Yes, I expect the characters to speak in a way to accurately reflect their lifestyles – and in fact, would find it unrealistic if certain characters were not using swear words. But the person reviewing it, unless quoting, shouldn’t have to go there. Slang and swear words in writing sound uneducated.

    On the other hand, your comment of what is considered a bad word varies from person to person and age to age is also true. Notice how many words are allowed on prime time TV now as compared to 5-10 years ago. It’s especially obvious how things have changed when watching a movie from the 80′s that was editted for TV – they take out everything but “darn.”

    Yes, I will throw out the occasional F-bomb or other choice word when provoked – much less now that I have children – I sometimes wonder how it is received on the other end and how I am perceived by the listener.

  9. Kay says:

    Personally, I am not offended by language unless there is just too much of it…then it’s just irritating.

    Professionally, I work at a library, we are required by federal law to have a block on our computers or we don’t get federal funding. Because software programs cannot analyze, a number of things that in my opinion shouldn’t be blocked are blocked. When we were first going to this system I found that a number of romance sites were blocked. I think it’s because the software counts the words, I’m not sure exactly. Anyway, there is this long process we have to go through to get the site unblocked and there are passwords to unblock temporarily, however, a librarian has to do that. So, it’s a big pain in the buttocks. Hopefully, I won’t open your website one day and find it blocked. I have presented three sites to the committee to be unblocked, Mrs. Giggles, Pam Rosenthal and Jenna Petersen, just to show you what is blocked. On the other hand Sylvia Day, Lucy Monroe, Smart Bitches/Trashy Novels isn’t blocked…so, you see no gray area.

  10. SusiB says:

    Personally, I don’t use a lot of “bad” words, but I’m used to them (I work in an environment where many of my colleagues are men who use such language frequently) and they really don’t bother me. I wouldn’t mind seeing them occasionally on this site, but I think each reviewer should decide for herself how she words her reviews.

  11. Karin says:

    Kay makes a good point about filters.

    I personally wouldn’t mind the reviewer leaving the blanks in “bad” words. It’s not that I am so pure that I don’t let one slip every now and again, but it is not my favorite thing to read.

  12. alex tam says:

    great post,i like this.

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