Although it is often used to denote any objectionable word, profanity literally means words that are considered profane—that is, words proscribed by religious doctrine. (Proscribed generally means forbidden by written order.) In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this primarily means taking the Lord’s name in vain (that is, not in prayer).
For the love of God, stop complaining.
Jesus Christ, look at the size of that thing!
In writing as in life, profanity can seem gratuitous or, worse, a thinly veiled shock tactic. And it can offend. All of which might jolt the reader out of the unfolding action. As a result, it’s important to use profanity only when it’s adding something essential.
I have to admit that when a book has so much profanity and obscenity that it’s the only thing that I keep seeing instead of the story, I quit reading the book or watching the movie. I was raised in a time when four letter words and obscenity were insulting and crude. They were used, but not in mixed company. People used clichés as, “cussed like a sailor.”
Obscene means something disgusting or morally abhorrent, often connoting sex. The f-word is considered the most objectionable of these. (Adding “mother” as a prefix ups the ante.)
Non-objectionable variants of the present participle form of the word—besides “fugging”—include “fecking,” “freaking,” “flipping” and “fricking.” (To be honest, I really don’t know why that “u” is so important.)
“Screw” is a milder word. Notice that both the f-word and “screw” are used not just too literally describe the act of intercourse, but to connote “taking advantage of”:
Don’t go to that repair shop—they screwed me out of $500 for a brake job I didn’t need.
Words referring to the pelvic area, male and female, are also considered obscenities.
To help you understand why I think like I do let me tell you a personal story that I remember as if it were yesterday instead of the 1950’s. I was a small child maybe five at the most. My father and my uncle were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking. I can’t say they were drunk because I was not old enough to really be aware, but I do remember a bottle setting on the table. I was sitting in the kitchen floor by our refrigerator watching and listening to what was going on.
My dad was talking and gesturing with his hands. I heard my father say that four letter word and the next thing I knew my uncle knocked my father out of the chair to the floor. My uncle then told my father not to say that another time in front of me.
I asked my mom about what happened and she told me that daddy had used a word that he shouldn’t have. That one event impressed my five year old mind so strongly that anytime I hear it, I see my dad hitting the floor.
It seems to me that today’s language is filled with four letter and curse words, and is accepted as norm by mostly young people. Truth be told, I still find it offensive no matter how much I hear it.
In writing language choices should stay true to the character; however, the narrative isn’t riddled with profanity. Using restraint allows one to achieve voice effectively and maintain authenticity while avoiding the likelihood of profanity’s potential pitfalls. Such language can seem be a departure for a character, and that contrast can also be revealing.
When profanity influences characters or becomes pertinent to the unfolding action, it can be necessary. In the autobiography Black Boy, Richard Wright uses strong profanity and racial epithets to show the ways in which white characters try to intimidate and terrorize him.
When used incorrectly, profanity can be a shortcut to emotion and the reader is bound to remain unconvinced. Try to convey emotion through action, gesture or different dialogue for a more nuanced effect.