Squawk Radio

Monday, December 26, 2005

Lisa on "#$*%@*!"

Just before Christmas vacation, my son told me someone in his elementary school class had been overheard to say the “S word”.

“Really?” I asked, surprised that someone of so young an age would be familiar with the S word.

“Yes,” my son said grimly, “he told someone to Shut Up.”

There are categories of words in our family vocabulary, the private words (not dirty but only to be used amongst ourselves), the rude words (never to be used to anyone especially parents) and the outright filthy words (only to be used by parents who have sustained great injury, heard terrible news, or have just received a lot of heavy editing on their manuscripts).

As someone who makes a living at laying out words on blank pieces of paper, I am highly aware of their power. I don’t like swearing, and I don’t like watching an early evening network program with my children and hearing words like “bitch” tossed out so casually. The word “bitch” has lost its power to shock people nowadays, and has sunk to the commonplace status of “jerk” or “crap”. Which shows, I guess, that the more often a word is used, the more the shock value is scrubbed off until it becomes textureless and impotent. And then you have to find a newer, rawer, rougher word to take its place.

The thing is, sometimes only a really foul interjection will do the job. When you stub your pinkie toe on a chair leg and you fall to your knees screaming in agony, “Darn it,” does not begin to address the situation adequately.

I’ve used the F word only twice in my writing career, one near the end of “Worth Any Price”, in which my manly, earthy, brought-up-in-the-streets hero has nearly fallen to his death, and I had to come up with a way to express his feelings. I tried “damn” arranged in any number of phrases, moved on to “hell”, “frigging,” and so forth. But all of those responses seemed flat, juvenile, robbed of vigor. They weren’t what a man would say. So gingerly, using one finger, I typed those four forbidden letters . . . and voila, it worked, and my editor agreed it was appropriate.

I’m not advocating the use of profanity, you understand. I’m one of those people who can’t say the F word aloud and sound natural. I envy people who can. I saw a movie once in which Lauren Bacall is talking to Jack Lemmon (who’s playing an ex-President), and to express his frustration, he says Frigging. Lauren tells him, “Don’t say frigging. If you’re going to use the F word, go for the gold.”

I have to agree with the marvelous Miss Bacall. Profanity has its place in our language, out of the hearing of children, of course. (And they should never be used to denigrate another person, or cause pain or humiliation.) But I would like to make the point that although bad words have their place, they shouldn’t be used often, and never out of laziness or lack of imagination. Our vocabulary is so rich with words we don’t bother to use. There are so many wonderfully colorful words to express anger, yet we keep reaching for the same old phrase “pissed off”, like the worn-out spatula in the drawer nearest the stove.

What do you think about swearing and profanity in novels, especially romance novels? Is it sometimes allowable, or does it offend you no matter how and when it is used?
Lisa Kleypas, 8:50 AM