What the $#&*$^?

cuss Generally, I don’t have a problem with profanity in a book. I’m not going to run shrieking away from a character who drops the f-bomb or uses cuss words when he/she is particularly agitated. I prefer my characters to be as real as possible, and a lot of real people do swear.

However, I recently read a book where, for the first time, the characters’ use of profanity actually colored my perception of those people. Both the hero and heroine employed a range of common swear words as part of their normal speech patterns, and since the writer used third-person viewpoint, the characters also thought and viewed the world using the full spectrum of profanity. I found that I didn’t really like either the hero or heroine all that much, however, I couldn’t really put my finger on why that was. Neither one had done anything particularly unpleasant, nor did they have a tendency to whine or throw self-pity parties. They treated those around them with respect. Generally, there was no real reason I should have any opinion of them at all.

Then I realized that part of my distaste for these fictional people was their constant use of profanity. In my review (not yet posted), I likened the situation to having met a person for the first time and being a bit put-off when they used salty language without really knowing me or how I’d react. Or, perhaps more apt, how I feel about foul language in a public setting as opposed to keeping it to their personal world.

As a reviewer, I wondered what responsibility I had to alert potential readers to the amount of profanity in the book. Since the story is not classified as erotica or urban fantasy, where perhaps one should expect a little more latitude as far as language, some readers who find profanity offensive might pick up the title only to be put off by the language.

Several of us here at AAR starting talking about what we thought of profanity in today’s romances. Given our wide range of ages and experiences, I was actually a bit surprised that we all had basically the same thoughts.

Dabney Grinnan summed it up nicely. “I read a lot of contemporaries these days where profanity is the norm. It never bothers me because it seems appropriate to the characters. There isn’t a word I can’t stand–not even the dreaded C word–as long as its use feels inherent in the writing.”

Reviewer Caroline Russomanno pointed out that judicious use of profanity can even enhance the storytelling. “Sometimes, profanity can provide a great character moment. I remember going all giggly at the end of the film Bridget Jones’s Diary, when Bridget tells Colin Firth as Darcy, ‘Nice boys don’t kiss like that,’ and he says, ‘Oh yes, they fucking do!’ How hot was that? It was the perfect way to show that sure, Darcy was nice, but he was also going to be good at being dirty. I saw the same scene on a TV broadcast, where they redubbed the line to freaking, and the whole thing fell flat on its face.”

And sometimes, a writer may use profanity to give personality to a character. “[T]he hero from Suzanne Brockmann’s Gone Too Far, Sam Starett, swore like a sailor and it was so much a part of who he was that if he didn’t use a profanity it would have been odd,” Cindy Smith pointed out.

Additionally, certain subgenres do lend themselves to increased profanity.

Since she reads in a wide variety of subgenres, Pat Henshaw experiences both ends of the spectrum. “The books I read run the gamut from no cursing (Amish, Christian, etc.) to cursing in appropriate places (contemporary, Western, gay/MM, YA contemporary, etc.).”

“I might expect it in gritty genres (romantic suspense, urban fantasy, etc.), but not in lighter books,” Anne Marble said.

Dabney agreed. “Obviously profanity in historicals is odder to encounter. In contemps, many of which are veering into what used to be called erotica, it would be odd if overtly sexual words didn’t occur.”

Blythe Barnhill gave a great example how profanity can be used to good effect in a subgenre where it might not be expected. “Great use of profanity in historical: at the end of The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale, when the hero says fuck – and the heroine says, ‘That’s a very bad word, isn’t it?’ Totally appropriate context and adds the right mix of humor.”

In the same vein, the professions of characters may indicate increased profanity.

“[E]xcessive swearing sometimes just makes the person sound limited. However, if a SEAL is walking around saying dang and rats, then I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. This is the US Navy, not Leave It to Beaver,” says Caroline.

The key to the above statements is that in all cases, the profanity came organically from the stories and characters. I personally don’t mind profanity when it is particularly apt, as in, when a character’s personality and/or profession might lend itself to use of colorful language. In fact, nothing will take me out of story more – and probably make me laugh unintentionally – than a big, tough Navy SEAL using words like “dagnabit” or “flippin’” when in the midst of a mission gone horribly wrong.

“Sometimes the reverse [no profanity] will actually bother me; I’ve read some books where the author seems to be trying very hard to avoid using a swear word and the result ends up sounding contrived. A book I read years ago in which a modern day special ops squad came off sounding like Ned Flanders comes to mind,” Lynn Spencer says.

LinnieGayl Kimmel points out that when writers try to avoid profanity, the result can be disastrous. “What bothers me more is if the author has a supposedly ‘modern’ man or woman use odd, contrived words in place of the profanity we might normally expect. Made up profanity such as “oh gummi bears” or “oh, antelope” just doesn’t work for me.”

And there comes a point where the act of actively changing or removing profanity from a book may cross into a form of censorship.

“I actually think that what some editors/authors do in masking profanity with obviously out-of-place (and occasionally out of date) phrases borders on censorship. Look, we can tell there’s something out of place when, to use but one example, a 26-year-old contemporary, urban woman, who has spent the book talking about shit, screwing and asses, rages at the hero for reducing their sexual experiences to a ‘quick frolic’… By excising an appropriate – and in this case, powerful – four-letter word, they compromised the character, the storytelling, and the reader’s intelligence,” Jean Wan very astutely noted. “[U]nderlying the so-called editing is a judgment of what is acceptable and appropriate. If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is.”

If we all agree that there is at least an inherent silliness is substituting profanity with potentially less offensive words, were there any words that we felt crossed the line of acceptability? Most people have words that they find beyond the pale. There are a handful of words that do cross the line for me. Since this is a family-friendly site, I can’t list them, nor would I really want to. Suffice it to say, when I encounter these particularly heinous words (IMO), I’m very much turned off. The context has to be very well drawn when they are used or I’m likely to set the book aside with little intention to pick it up again.

Wendy Clyde agreed with me. “In general profanity doesn’t bother me at all, except for two things. The word c-nt is so completely vulgar to me that it pulls me out of the story… The same used to be true for the word c-ck, but in the past few years it has become much more prevalent, and I’ve become desensitized.”

“I hate the C word as well, but if it is used in a way that is authentic in the story, then it is not going to bother me. The only way I can think of it bothering me is if the hero uses it in a derogatory manner,” Mary Skelton noted.

This lead to an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered before writing this article. There is a difference between profanity used as an expletive to express emotion versus that used in a derogatory way towards someone. And while the former is generally accepted, the latter is a universal turn-off.

Rike Horstmann said, “What bothers me a lot is when it’s used to dominate or put down someone. The hero calling the heroine c— is an example for that.”

Anne Marble agreed. “And what about when the hero swears at the heroine? There, not so much. Manly men swearing at each other or swearing at any enemy is one thing, but calling the heroine names is another, even if he thinks she is evil incarnate. I remember reading a romantic suspense novel years ago where everyone thought the heroine was the hero’s evil estranged wife. So of course there was name-calling, and swearing in the first love scene (if you can call it that). He kept calling what they were doing f-cking. And you know something? In that case, he was right. But of course it was OK because she was the evil wife – until of course she turned out to be good. *groan*.”

In the end, like any other storytelling tool, the use of profanity needs to be used with a delicate touch lest the writer achieve an affect she or he never intended.

Caz Owen, who as a teacher encounters profanity in her real world on a regular basis, had this to say. “As to whether excessive profanity would change my opinion of a book… if I suspected the swear words were there simply for shock-value, or because the author couldn’t think of a suitable alternative, then yes, it probably would lower my opinion.”

“[U]nnecessary swearing or just vulgarity will cause me to label a book as ‘crass’. This happened with a book I read in which I couldn’t figure out what the point was of all the cursing. It just seemed gratuitous to me and I found that off-putting. It was as if the author was trying to say ‘Look at these manly men dropping f-bombs!’ during normal conversation. I’m about as far from a prude as you’ll find, however there is a line for me that has less to do with specific words than with an overall tone of poor taste,” noted Heather Stanton.

Lea Hensley brought up the difference in the use of profanity in books versus on film. “Is there a point where I think there is too much profanity within a book? Possibly but it is more likely that I will care less for a character who feels the need to constantly say f**k in every situation. Now on film, it’s a different case. Still I don’t mind the profanity all that much (other than it sometimes offends those I’m with) but I find constant profanity less effective. You can see their disgust, you can see their anger or even their amazement and it’s a case of the actor broadcasting that to the audience with possibly only a single use of profanity. That’s hard to pull off in print.”

Perhaps worse than coming off as crass or vulgar, overuse of profanity might just cause a reader to find the book boring.

Rike remarked, “I don’t mind swearing in general if it’s not done in every second sentence (then it gets old very quickly).”

“[S]ometimes too much swearing makes it tedious. If I wanted that much swearing, I’d watch Scarface or The Usual Suspects and have a better time,” said Anne.

For Lee Brewer, less profanity is definitely more. “I don’t like seeing words like c–t and f–k and s–t and other words like that. The latter is okay a couple of times and I know people swear in real life, but still, it does bother me to see a lot of profanity in books.”

Do you find profanity to be acceptable or problematic when you encounter it in the romance genre? Are there instances when profanity will change your opinion of a book? Is there a line that you draw? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

– Jenna Harper

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33 Responses to What the $#&*$^?

  1. I love the f-word. It’s a good, solid word. It scans well for poetry, and there are lots of different forms. I’m British, and the f-word has largely lost its shock value. Everybody uses it, from yoof to grannies.
    But the real, shocking curse words these days are the racist ones. Any racist term can cause deep offence.

  2. lauren says:

    I am usually not bothered at all since I can have quite a truckers vocabulary when needed. But there are some books that I have read that the profanity just doesn’t fit to the story or the characters and it feels as though the author put the word there for no reason other than to just use the word. I have only run across a few books where the use of profanity truly distracts from the story and well that is what the library return slot is for…right?

  3. Lada says:

    Huh. I guess I’m an all out urban girl because basically the opposite is true for me. I recently tried reading Ruthie Knox’s novella “How to Misbehave” which has been getting good reviews and after the heroine dropped a “Holy Toledo” quickly followed by a “gosh darn it”, I had to put it down. While my friends and I hardly have potty mouths, she isn’t someone I would hang out with. I appreciated that the author was using that type of language to flesh out that character and identified that it just wasn’t for me. I’m just on a golly-gee-wilikers kind of gal.

    There are no words that really bother me as long as they are used organically and not just for shock value. I’m with Lynne Connolly. The f-word is my favorite and so adaptable! ;-) And even the c-word can be used humorously like when the real Amy came out in Gone Girl and used it to describe her alter self.

    • Neva says:

      I completely loved that bit in Gone Girl too! It’sa great example of how context is everything, and even a word as cringey as that can be used appropriately. No other word would be quite as perfect there.

      Also, spending any amount of time in Scotland is a pretty good way of getting over c-word squeamishness right quick. Or reading Trainspotting. By the end of that book, I was unintentionally dropping it all over the place. Guess that just proves that culture is another factor.

  4. Lada says:

    Grrr…I meant I’m just NOT a golly-gee-wilikers kind of gal.

  5. Anne says:

    Since you brought up profanity in movies/shows, I’ll relate my story. When “Deadwood” first aired, I had heard about the numerous and creative uses for profanity, especially the “F” word. I don’t really mind profanity in movies, shows, or books if it fits the character/setting/scene, as several people mentioned above, but for some reason I was quite snooty about “Deadwood.” I said to my husband, “I just don’t need to spend my time listening to that over and over. I think it just means they weren’t creative enough to think of something else to say.” He watched it and repeatedly told me how great the show was. Fast forward a few years….dear husband convinced me to watch it with him. I did, and I loved every minute of it, glorious profanity and all! In fact, the profanity was brilliant, funny, abundant and absolutely integral to the show. I had no idea a character’s use of the word “c*cksucker” could so define him. Similarly, I watch and love the Starz show “Spartacus,” blood, gore, sex and profanity all. If anyone has seen the first season, they will probably understand my fondness for the oft-shouted phrase “Jupiter’s C*ck!” Books for me are the same – I don’t mind it IF it fits the character’s personality and the situation. In fact, if used well, profanity can make a scene much, much stronger – more imbued with emotion and intense feeling.

    • CindyS says:

      Anne – ohhh, Deadwood. I wish I remembered all their names but when the one evil guy speaks to the severed head of his rival? Brilliant and every curse word was important to creating his character.
      I also love Spartacus and the dialogue.

  6. And of course over here we have “The Thick of It,” with Malcolm Tucker. Here are his best sweary bits (don’t watch it if you get offended easily, or at all, really)
    Same writer who is doing “Veep.”

  7. Eggletina says:

    I grew up in a blue collar household and a neighborhood full of boys where one was exposed to profanity early in life. Cursing doesn’t faze me. I do agree that it needs to feel organic to the character and situation, though. Creating natural sounding dialogue isn’t easy. I treasure authors who have a good ear for making it feel natural and true to character. Very contrived dialogue can grate and jar me out of a story.

  8. Eliza says:

    Ditto what Eggletina said:

    “Cursing doesn’t faze me. I do agree that it needs to feel organic to the character and situation, though. “

  9. leslie says:

    I once went to a Tantra workshop and at one point the leaders had everyone write down a few personal words used for penis. We howled in laughter at some of the sugestions and then I realized what was coming next and my amusement died.

    The C-word is so offensive to me and I wish it could be obliterated from the planet. When I hear women using it toward other women it makes me sick. When I hear a man use it toward a woman I want to hit him with a baseball bat. It’s an evil word.

    Profanity in contemps doesn’t bother me, but when in a regency romance the hero says to the heroine “I want to f#*k you” I’m done.

    • Why? The “f” word was used from Tudor times onwards as a crude word for having sex. Pornography and erotic texts from the 17th century on are full of the word. I can understand if the word offends you, but it’s perfectly historically accurate.
      Read the poetry of Lord Rochester. “A Ramble in St. James’ Park” starts like this:

      Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
      Of who f*cks who, and who does worse
      (Such as you usually do hear
      From those that diet at the Bear),
      When I, who still take care to see
      Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
      Weent out into St. James’s Park
      To cool my head and fire my heart.
      But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
      ‘Tis consecrate to pr*ck and c**t.
      There, by a most incestuous birth,
      Strange woods spring from the teeming earth;

      Written in the second half of the 17th century.

      • Cora says:

        A lot of swearwords are actually very old. For example, the c-word appears in Chaucer, though he spelled it a little differently. And Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had his heroic knight Götz von Berlichingen tell another character to “lick his backside”, only that Götz (and Goethe) used a far less polite synonym for “backside”.

        • Elizabeth Rolls says:

          I am always amused by the Ernst Newman translation Mozart’s letters in which the only word our fearless translator leaves in the original German is “arschlicken”. I have no doubt we can ALL figure out that one.

          I have to admit that I tend, repeat TEND, to draw the line at the C-word. Possibly because I have teenage sons who would given the latitude use the word indiscriminately and offend just about everyone. And I think that is the crux of it; knowing when one can, and when one most definitely can’t, use certain words. It can also depend heavily on just how a word is used. The context is always vital.

          • Cora says:

            Regarding teenaged boys and the c-word, I had a 6th-grade student – fairly small for his age, too – who kept getting into fights with girls. Classmates, other students, in one case even a girl a few years older who was a lot bigger than him. Since the boy kept getting into fights with other students, I frequently had to get involved and always tried to find out just why this angelic looking little boy kept getting attacked and beaten up by girls. The girls all told me that he had said something rude and disrespectful to them, but wouldn’t say what? Until one of them – a whopping three years older than the boy in question, too – told me. Turned out that this angelic looking little boy tended to whisper the c-word or rather the equally offensive German equivalent to several girls at the school when no teacher was within hearing distance. That’s why he kept getting beaten up.

          • Elizabeth Rolls says:

            Good for you, Cora, getting to the bottom of that one! Speaking as an ex-teacher, I know how hard that can be. It’s those angelic looking little horrors you have to look at hard.

  10. Susan/DC says:

    If it fits and isn’t used as every other word, profanity can have its place. I just get tired of it sometimes, as if the book/movie/song was written by a 12 year old boy who is trying to prove he’s grown-up but doesn’t yet have it in him to actually be mature. I think of constant swearing as a phase the young go through, then, when they are truly grown-up, they use it more sparingly. I don’t swear often precisely because when I do I want it to have an impact.

  11. Cora says:

    I swear in real life and work in a school, where there is a lot of swearing, so fictional swearing doesn’t bother me. I can tolerate even the c-word (actually I hate the p-word snynonym more, because it just sounds childish and silly) and the racist and homophobic taboo words, as long as they fit the context.

    What does annoy me is if the swearing doesn’t fit the context. For example, I once read a fantasy novel set in a sort of parallel Renaissance world. The characters were constantly using the m-f word and it was frankly annoying, especially since m-f is such a very American word and didn’t fit into this fantasy quasi-Renaissance Italy at all. Besides, there was no indication that incest committed with one’s mother was a particular taboo in this world (as a matter of fact, there were no mothers in sight), so the word made no sense at all. It was a young male author, so I suspect he wanted to be edgy.

  12. tirlittan says:

    (I’m afraid this is going to be a massive post, sorry for that! Also, this includes some unabbreviated curse words)
    First: I don’t find them offensive in a book. But I too think it’s important that they’re used in context and are in character. It has to feel natural to the overall tone of the writing as well. You can’t just drop them into the narrative out of the blue. I’d say that I roll my eyes just as much when they are over- as when they are underused – when they are clearly out of synch with the rest of the story. That’s just poor writing.
    But words do have real power. We use swearwords to express emotions, to insult, to describe things, to feel more powerful and better in control of a situation, when we are scared or exited, sad or in lust. I might use the same swearword in all these contexts and whether it is offensive or appropriate, potty-mouthed or dirty-in-a-good-way is IMO completely dependent on the context.
    But I do think that there is a difference to reading the words in fiction or hearing them in TV to hearing or using them in real life.
    There is also a big difference of course between swearwords and curse words. Derogatory words that are used to cause pain and put someone down. Slurs that are racial or refer to a person’s sexual orientation, for example. Words that are meant to take all the power in the situation, to make the other person feel dirty and insignificant. Those are more difficult to take – even in fiction, and especially if the writer doesn’t really know how to use them well within the story.
    Have any of you seen the documentary “Stephen Fry’s Planet Word”? (I really recommend it, it’s all about language: what it is, how we use it and how it evolves. Very interesting.) It had a whole episode about profanity. My favorite part was an experiment they did to illustrate the positive power of swearing: Fry and Brian Blessed – who apparently is REALLY fond of swearing – took part in an experiment where they had to keep their hand in a bucket of ice water as long as possible. In the first round they were told to keep repeating a nice (or maybe it was a neutral – the details of this escape me) word and to do it with a steady pace and an unemotional tone of voice. The second time they were told to use their favorite swearword. Stephen Fry was able to keep his hand in the painfully cold water much longer when he was swearing that not. But the really interesting thing was that for Brian Blessed it had no effect (or possibly he did even worse when swearing, I’m sorry I can’t remember the details better) – the words had lost their power for him because he used them so much in his everyday speech. If I remember it correctly, the science behind the swearing relieving the pain was twofold: it created a distraction from the pain, and hearing himself use a powerful “forbidden” word also released adrenalin into Fry’s system which also helped him endure it better.
    I think it’s also interesting how culturally sensitive these words and their subject matter are. C*nt for example doesn’t seem so very bad to me, probably because in my native language we use its equivalent (vittu – from the Swedish fitta) as you might use the word f*ck – sort of a general jack-of-all-swearwords. An adjective that gives emphasis to what you’re saying – good or bad. (How a subtantive is made into an adjective? We have suffixes instead of postpositions and prepositions which makes it easier, but technically I guess it is most often actually given a genetive form – a bit like in Hell’s bells, maybe, but it really has become an adjective?) It isn’t very polite to use it in a normal everyday discussion though. Unless you’re a teenager; sometimes they seem to use it as a comma or a period in their speech – a form of rebellion against the norm I guess. We’ve become desentizised: it has shock value, but not very much. Also, according to the ever-knowing wikipedia, apparently it became popular as recently as in the 90’s – so there are significant generational differences to its use as well.
    There are other words though that have the same original meaning, but are more offensive. But they can’t be used as a slurs, like c*nt or p*ssy. IMO they aren’t nearly the no-no that the c-word is in English, just dirty words. The words for the male organ are maybe more descriptive in nature and are quite often used to describe (in a negative way) or offend people. And not very often as single swearwords. F*ck doesn’t really have an equivalent, I think. Or maybe it’s more that it’s equivalents have the meaning f*ck has: they are coarse words that mean having intercourse, and are used when a person is speaking coarsely about having intercourse. ;)
    The more powerful and more common (excluding the vittu) swearwords in Finnish IMO don’t have to do with sex, they are words connected to religion: satan, hell, another word for satan which has its roots in the pre-christian goods, come to mind. Sexual swearwords seem to have more “dirty” or “potty-mouthed” connotations. And the ones that refer to the female sex organs are also mostly used in sexual contexts and not really all that much as general insults against a woman (again, excluding vittu, which can be used as an adjective, like “f-ing”). If you wanted to insult a woman you’d probably call her a whore or a slut – not a c*nt. Which is quite revealing and interesting as well; a c*nt is something all women have, but calling a woman a slut or a whore is a judgement on her as a person, on her sexuality and morality. If you wanted to insult a man you’d probably use one of the words that refer to male sex organs, though.
    Why do you think the c-word is so offensive? Why is it so derogative towards women? The c-, d- or p-words for the male organ seem to be much more neutral. Is there a social aspect here, where a man – traditionally maybe more powerful or at least physically stronger – is seen as better able to take a slur against their private organs than women? Or is it because it is equated with moral judgements? Is a c*nt better or worse than a whore?
    It’s all very interesting IMO, there are so many different ways and contexts to how we swear, but this post is really getting out of hand and far far off the original topic, so I’ll stop now. :)

    • Rosario says:

      I think it’s also interesting how culturally sensitive these words and their subject matter are. C*nt for example doesn’t seem so very bad to me, probably because in my native language we use its equivalent (vittu – from the Swedish fitta) as you might use the word f*ck – sort of a general jack-of-all-swearwords.

      Interesting, it’s a similar case with the closest word in rioplatense Spanish (‘concha’). It just doesn’t have the same connotations. It’s not used as a word to put down women, it’s more an imprecation, the sort of thing would shout if you hit your thumb with a hammer. A few years ago I saw The Vagina Monologues performed in Buenos Aires, and in the part where in English they reclaim the word ‘c*nt’, they’d gone with ‘concha’, mainly because there really isn’t a more offensive word for a vagina. It just didn’t work nearly as well as it did when I saw it in English -just not the same feeling of forbidden thrill.

      What I’ve found interesting since I’ve moved to the UK is that c*nt just doesn’t seem to be as offensive as it is for Americans. In fact, I tend to see it used as an insult for men. I’ve seen it used very seldom for women.

  13. tirlittan says:

    Quoting myself here: “I might use the same swearword in all these contexts and whether it is offensive or appropriate, potty-mouthed or dirty-in-a-good-way is IMO completely dependent on the context.”

    Dependent on context AND the intent behind the word.

  14. amers says:

    I don’t mind the occasional swear word if it fits. I won’t read books with excessive swearing. I find the book just doesn’t appeal and the swearing becomes a distraction. I tend to skim the book or just put it in my DNF pile.
    I also get annoyed by the pseudo-swearing. Like Kristan Higgins’ use of “Oh, Bieber” by supposedly 30-something women. Kind of funny the first book she did it in – for a while. Then it grew old. Two books later and any humor I found in it is long gone.

  15. Joane says:

    I think those words are OK if they go with the situation or the character, but in general terms, if they put one curse after another, I don’t like it because it shows lack of imagination.
    It’s not that I’m prudish, I mean, my native language is Spanish, and the first thing foreigners learn in Spanish are all those rich and florid f-words we have (literally dozens, I guess hundreds of insults and curses).
    So if I read in English and they are cursing all the time and always with the same 3-4 words, it sounds -to me- very repetitive pattern and a very poor language.

  16. Renee says:

    Oh, this is a great post and lots of interesting responses. In general, our culture’s become more coarse, right? I call it the Howard-Sterning / Jerry Springer-ing of America. Teenagers and those under thirty swear a lot. TV censors allow a spectrum of formerly forbidden words and this keeps lowering the bar. Look at how TV characters puke and are shown on the toilet. This never happened 20, 30 years ago, or it was done off-stage. Now projectile vomiting is used as a punctuation mark. Sometimes, it’s effective, (and shocking, revolting), other times, it’s gratuitous. I’m not sure what it all means yet. Is it reflecting the way our lives really are? Is it a lowering of the bar for general civility and manners? For courtesy? Or is it a more accurate portrayal of gritty reality?

    Some use swearing as aggression, as putdowns, others use curse words as a way to vent frustration. HBO’s “The Sopranos” was a terrific, gritty, bleak series, populated with beefy, pit bull characters who swore like sailors. That made sense, given the world-building.

    I too am reading a number of self-pubbed romance books and the swearing seems to be every other word. For me, it brings down the readability. I can’t always “see” the story because the swearing is cluttering the dialogue.

    Also, as a writer, we’re told to avoid ‘repeater’ words, or relying on the same words, because it does interfere with readability. Wouldn’t that also be applied to swearing? I’m removing the ‘civility’ aspect and simply asking, isn’t the liberal use of swear words a way of “repeating” the same words, over and over, and hindering the story? In a TV show, swearing is a little different. In a novel, which often feels a lot more intimate, the swearing — can almost feel — wearisome. I am not a prude, I simply find myself becoming frustrated that the swear word is used, over and over, and interferes with my ability to enjoy the dialogue.

    Clever TV shows, in my opinion, don’t have this reliance on swearing. Like “Mad Men.” Like “Game of Thrones.” Yes, to be certain, swear words pop up, and “Thrones” features brutal violence, raw sexual encounters, etc. So “Thrones” doesn’t shirk on blunt-force reality. Yet it also doesn’t pepper dialogue with lots of swear words.

    I have enjoyed some of the self-pubbed novels that are gritty, not sugary-sweet or packaged, that seem more raw, realistic… even refreshing. The characters are more dysfunctional, and I prefer dark heroines and imperfect heroines. In other words, in a traditionally published romance, if the so-called dark hero has a tattoo, that makes him a bad boy. In a gritty self-pubbed novel, you KNOW he’s a bad boy by his often selfish, self-destructive behavior. What I feel goes on in… some traditionally pubbed novels, is this contrivance factor… the bad boy has a tattoo but he’s petting the dog, he’s watering a plant. The bad boy in the self-pubbed novel packs a knife and frequents a biker bar. He has the tattoo, too — but even if he didn’t have the tattoo, we’d know he’s bad.

    Maybe there is a happy medium between these two extremes, where the swearing can be pulled back, (and would help reveal the banter, ramp up the sexual tension) — and the rather contrive dark hero who really isn’t, versus these dudes who pack shanks. It would be interesting to see an author who can pack the grit of a self-pubbed novel, trim the expletives and write a convincing bad boy who can be ultimately redeemed.

  17. Karen says:

    I don’t mind profanity when the hero or heroine uses words in a “neutral” way – for example, the SEAL hero who is swearing about his mission going wrong. But I’m bothered when the hero uses profanity to refer to the heroine or her body. I don’t mean occasional use of the f-word. I remember one book where the hero constantly thought about wanting to have sex with the heroine, and he expressed it with an endless stream of profanity. I can’t wait to shove my c**k in her c**t, etc. It started to feel like the hero just thought of the heroine as a collection of holes to be filled. (And this wasn’t erotica – it was a fairly mainstream historical.) I knew a lot of people who found this “realistic” but I just found it depressing. The combination of the attitude toward the heroine plus the profanity completely turned me off.

  18. Audrey says:

    I have to be honest – when I read an author that I’m not familiar with, and they say something like “I want to shove my c**k in your c**t.” instead of even “I want to f**k you.” I roll my eyes and my thought is oh, crap – this is a digital writer who went into print. I assume the book is going to be poor, and many times this has proven to be true. While there were many good things about the online books, such as a huge variety of settings, and their role in starting the e-book industry, most were erotica, and the writing was not great. So my assumption might not be fair, but there it is.

    C**t is my least favorite word, I think because it’s usually used so hatefully. I noticed that while watching the British show Misfits, one of the characters calls a famous singer an annoyin’ c**t, and I laughed. Why is it that if it’s said in an English accent, it doesn’t sound so bad?

    • Cora says:

      In Misfits, the c-word (and yes, it comes up quite a lot) is almost always used as an insult for men. I think there is only one time when the c-word is used in the biological sense and that’s by a female character. However, the c-word as an insult is used exclusively by men (well, Nathan and Rudy) against other men, which takes the sexist sting out of it.

  19. AndyR says:

    I once read a book where the author used very imaginative epithets and was entertained by them. I thought I should practice some to use later. He/she would have a character say something like “you son of a tree-hanging sloth.” Wish I could remember that title. My own usage is neither very broad nor creative. A word we used in high school (so we wouldn’t get into trouble) was “boojewha”–where today I would just say bulls***. When I read regencies now and see bourgeois, I remember those days.

  20. Mrs. Fairfax says:

    There’s a recent Time Magazine article on this topic, sort of: Nine Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Swear Words.

    It’s a preview for a new book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.

  21. Susan says:

    As with so many, I don’t object to swearing if it’s in context and appropriate to the character. I get annoyed when I hear teenagers on the bus and every other word is a variation on f*ck; the paucity of their vocabulary is truly sad.

    BUT when I read J.D. Robb’s “Treachery in Death” there’s a scene where her team takes down some men of the villain’s and one – Jacobs, I think – used the f-bomb almost every other word and it’s amusing. He’s using it as emphasis for how strongly he feels. (BTW, Dallas compliments him on his inventive use of the word.)

    • Elizabeth Rolls says:

      Yes, it works there definitely, because Jacobs is so steamed that these guys (cops at that) have had the hide to try to take down Dallas. His f-bomb filled reaction struck me as positively chivalrous, in the sense that he would defend his captain to the death, and the contrast of this attitude with the language and then Dallas’s typically dry response had me laughing out loud.

  22. Renee says:

    I discovered an interesting website: “Cuss Control Academy.” This dude’s been on Oprah and been championing “less swearing” for more than a decade.

    Here’s a sampling from his site:


    7. I’m not going to bother because, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn.

    Lots of people don’t, and that’s the problem. We want to do and say whatever we please. Our reluctance to restrain our impulses and to make the effort to be polite is contributing to a coarser, less civil society.


    “From the schoolyard to the workplace, the casual common and public use of swearing has reached what many people consider to be shocking heights. ‘It’s not just the words, it’s the attitude behind the words,’ says Jim O’Connor. ‘We just keep getting more hostile, more aggressive, more abrasive and more belligerent.’”
    –Christopher Noxon, The Los Angeles Times

    “Mr. O’Connor is not out to eliminate swearing. He simply advocates more controlled public behavior.”
    – Meera Soma, Crain’s Chicago Business

    “Our society is conditioned for instant gratification, perfection. O’Connor says that if we don’t get perfection, if something breaks or doesn’t go our way, we complain, whine and swear about it. He says employers want workers who are upbeat, can deal with daily aggravations, and confront problems with an I-can-fix-it attitude.”
    –Rebecca Bovenmyer, Smart Workplace Practices


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