Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Profanity in Books and Culture

One of my reasons for avoiding books written in the last 50 years is because I don’t enjoy the onslaught of profanity that is often offered up in popular fiction. Just as expletives in spoken language are proof of laziness so in the written word they show lack of thoughtfulness and “word precision”. Isn’t finding “just the right word” one of the secrets of great writing?

I tried to read The Eyre Affair a year ago, but got tired of all the gratuitous swearing. I wondered if "normal" people really talk to each other like that (i.e. every other word a profane one.) It’s bewildering to me that the word touted as “dirtiest” when I was growing up has now become a part of popular slang. If you like someone or something you may use that ugly expletive to describe them!

I enjoy reading books on WWII history. Often there is less-than-pleasant language in them, but you would expect ugly words about an ugly subject. But in most fiction profanity is not only inessential to good story-telling, it is just plain distracting.

Comedian George Carlin died this week. I have never heard any of his comedy routines, but I know that in the 70’s he was arrested for his “Seven Things You Can Never Say on Television.” Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling (yes, it went all the way there) the act was ruled as “indecent, but not obscene”. It is my guess that you can probably say all seven words on television now, at least on cable. Carlin helped usher in a new level of indecency in our culture for which he was proud. What a sad legacy.

I receive Daily Writing Tips in my inbox every day and was intrigued by Monday’s article. The author was honest enough to express his dismay at having seen someone use the noun “pimp” in a positive sense. He wrote, “Pimps exploit, abuse, and degrade women. What kind of cultural perspective enables pimp to evolve into an inoffensive word?”


(I addressed this issue again in 2014 here.)


Brittanie said...

That is a big reason why I read mostly Christian fiction. I do not want to read books with swearing, s**, and lots of violence. And I love the spirtual issues addressed for the most part. I just finished a really sweet wonderful Christian chick lit book called The Prince Charming List by Kathryn Springer. Great story and absent what you would find in a Meg Cabot etc. book. :)

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with you. I have been sore distressed at the profanity in nearly every venue. I, too, have been shocked at even Christian using the word "pimp" lightly and positively. There are times when the right thing to do is not to embrace the culture, and this kind of language usage is one of them.

I am going to check out that writing tips link.

Ken Brown said...

Outside of Christianity, yes, people really do talk like that, especially the working classes. I spent a summer in a steel fabrication plant and one of my co-workers literally could not finish a sentence without 4 or 5 uses of the F-word. For him, it was a universal noun, adjective and explicative. Talk about laziness, but he was only slightly more extreme than many of the non-Christians I've met on those kinds of jobs. When I was a roofer, the business owner himself would routinely use such language in all-company meetings.

Eventually you just get used to it and hardly notice anymore, which is I guess why I am more tolerant of it on film than a lot of people. I don't swear, but to be honest nowadays I get more annoyed by pseudo-swearing than the real thing. "Dang" "Frick" and the like bug me more than the words they are meant to replace. Perhaps I'm just desensitized.

Carol in Oregon said...

This is funny, Hope. I just got The Eyre Affair in the mail, and skimmed through a few chapters. I didn't care for it at all. I can't remember where I read about it, and what made me think I would like it.

But I'm very, very, VERY interested in a list of your favorite books of WWII History. We camped on WWI last summer and are about ready to dive into II.

I'll see if I can send you a message or email if you'd like to take the conversation off the internet. Or not.

Vintage Reading said...

I'm not keen on excessive swearing in fiction either. Yes, occasionally a well-placed swear word can be effective, but too much just indicates a paucity of vocabulary, I think.

Anonymous said...


How refreshing to hear that another human being grew up the same way I did and knows that bad words are "BAD". I just got a clear play DVD player and love the non-bad words. It is like eatting pure chocolate cake with no poop inside YEH!!!!! Today I just got a call from a Christian high school teacher who told me the book that she recommended to the class, has "s" words and inappropriate words in it. I left another Christian school where they are ok with "s" words in language because they say the book is so good. To me it is poop in chocolate cake. Desensitize...like being in a bad smelling room and after awhile it smells "OK".
I found your article when I was searching for a web site that is a book profanity checker. I would love to sit down with you with a good piece of chocolate cake.
Love, Pure Chocolate Cake

Anonymous said...

I find it sad how people do that now. I especially hate how they MAKE you read books in SCHOOL with that kind of language. What happened to religious tolerance? I'd rather take the F than betray my God.

Anonymous said...

I am offended by the use of religious exclamations used to convey emotion. The use of irreverent language or cursing is hard to screen in advance. I have a kindle, and amazon now limits a lot of "look inside" to the kindle preview of one or two chapters. I don't know how many times I've purchases a book, only to find offensive words soon after the preview chapters. I recently found online 17 keys to getting published, and one key was to not be too moral because readers don't like being preached too. My theory is that immoral language is used to establish the non-moral bona fides of the author and book. I believe that either the publishers or amazon places those words after the review section on purpose, to keep readers from screening for offensive language.

Unknown said...

Oh me goodness, so GLAD this popped up. I succinctly put this book down right after the first ugly faux pas. Done this with ALOT of modern media- don't read it much anymore as I prefer classical intelligence.

People cuss like brothel girls and porn stars. Really. Thanks to Hollywood and parents cussing at their own children. Like spitting and smoking I'm sick of being on the periphery. But we don't have much of a choice do we?

Whatever happened to the intellectual class? We're all hiding. The real world's been pulverized. Taken over by smut and scat.