What is your favorite curse word? For anyone who has watched Inside the Actor’s Studio, you know this is one of the 10 questions James Lipton asks each actor. The host was inspired by Bernard Pivot, who hosted the French broadcast Apostrophes, and used the Proust Questionnaire as an opportunity for a writer to reveal his/her personality at that same time as aspects of his/her work.
Swearing and cursing exist in all human languages. As writers, it’s a tool that can be used to convey a personality trait, like the coarseness of a character. Or to shock our readers when a character unexpectedly lets loose with strong profanity. Or humor when a small child mimics an adult using a curse word. Or to reflect a historical period by choosing an appropriate profanity.
These words have been around as long as language and researchers have found correlations between the power of strong language and the regions in our brain that relate to emotions but also to intellect, reason and planning. We use these as part of everyday speech and yet, we still have watchdogs that scrutinize the use of “bad language” on television and radio. In writing, the genre may dictate in some ways how a character verbalizes anger or hurt. The protagonist in a cozy is likely to only use the “softer” foul words. A hardened criminal’s vocabulary is generally more colorful and expletive. I think as writers we generally know (or are thinking about) what dramatic effect we are trying to achieve in the scene but I wonder if we also stop to think about how that relates to the response a reader might have at the same time. Are they so interrelated that if we handle the first part with skill, we don’t need to consider the second part of that equation?
Like everything in language, curse words also change over time. So, I wondered, how much time do you spend thinking about which curse words your characters use? Do your characters have a favorite curse word (or two or three)? Do you create words or play with what your characters might say if current swear words are not appropriate for the genre? And what do you think the choices we each make as writers say about ourselves, if anything?