On Profanity

Recently I have encountered two different women who seem enamored with the f-word. I only mention their gender because I have not found their male counterparts – these two very different women flaunt that word regularly and in my (probably limited) circle of friends none of the men are so afflicted. One of the women I rather like but the other I avoid (probably because she likes to use my name in the same sentence as that word).

Since my early days I have felt that those who use that word did so failing to find more appropriate words to express their thoughts – perhaps evidence of early potty training or the such. I do not accept that they use it unconsciously.

Add to this my experience years ago when I worked in an office where a group of young women (early 20’s) liked to swear. After I got to know them I understood that perhaps they were decorative but they were not sophisticated. One day I – in their presence – felt the need to utter ‘damn!’ and they talked about it for a week. At least they were not using worse words at that time – but it didn’t stick.

So what’s the big deal? Is it ever appropriate, in a literary usage, to drop the f-bomb? And if so, when? Or more specifically, why? At the risk of opening myself to thunder and approbation from on high, I will attempt to provide my answer – which, Dear Reader, is not necessarily your answer.

One caveat… For this discussion I will assume the usage to be as a pejorative. If that word is used to indicate what is supposed to be a loving, special moment, then I suggest that its usage may be the preface to failure.


When it might be okay.

  1. As pepper on a well-cooked steak. Spices are good – when sparingly used. James Baldwin once used the n-word in an essay. I emphasize the word ‘once’ because the way he used it, it leapt off the page into your face – gobsmacked! An over-utilized spice loses impact – a sparingly used one can be the rapier thrust that gets attention. Particularly when that word is used by a Black writer.
  2. As a device to illustrate character. The one woman mentioned above attempted to build a character that she wanted to be thoughtful and intelligent, but let her use the f-word some forty or fifty times in one paragraph! As far as this reader was concerned it had the opposite effect – the character came off as crass and inarticulate, and the work tedious. Didn’t play out, but she (the author) didn’t cotton to the idea that less can be more – claimed she liked the word and would use it as she jolly well pleased. However… If it was her intent to create a special character, then maybe it was effective. I would not seek out that character to share a beer.
  3. As a distinguishing characteristic. When crafting a story, you want very much to differentiate between your characters. If one sometimes lets drop with a blue-word, and another never does, the one that eschews that usage does not necessarily come across as goody-two-shoes. And the other need not seem vile either, as long as the usage is not overbearing. The problem with that is this: my tolerance limit is not necessarily yours. (I will admit that mine is pretty shallow, as far as this goes.) This approach does support the notion of tag-less dialogue where the voice carries the identity. And, if the clean-language character should drop that special word – Baldwin style – it will draw attention.
  4. As a spontaneous expletive. The soldier who – in combat – sees his buddy receive what may be a mortal wound, can most appropriately use that word. In that situation, not using that or a similar exclamation can be seen as a waffle on the part of the author. That is a special moment, and not one to be trifled with – even if fictional. There may be others, but choose them carefully.


So, Dear Reader… What do you think? How much pepper is too much?

Posted September 25, 2018 by JD Rule