Tag Archives: language

Writing: Profanity and Obscenties

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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.

 

Read To Yourself Aloud

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Reading your written words aloud can spark a deeper approach to editing and developing your story. Read to yourself or to anyone who will listen. A lonely neighbor, your dog just read aloud.  If possible, read for 30 minutes at a time, but any amount of time will help.

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As you read, not sections that cause you to hesitate or stumble.  Those spots need editing.  Notice where you need to speak loudly or alter your inflection to make your point.  Remember that your reader will not have your voice to help.  Those spots may need editing.  Pay close attention, and you may also catch typos and gaps in logic in the story.

After you revise, read the new section aloud again, Read your entire book aloud again.  This is the kind of time it takes to write a truly good book.  If you are very lucky, other people may read your words to you.  The hero of my second novel was loosely based on my boyfriend Howard who had the gifts of an actor. He read the novel to me and often my parents, a chapter at a time.  When he died tragically some years later, I                                                                              re-read the novel and could still hear his voice.

Words are not just their meanings they are sounds.  There is poetry in all effective language, even if it is not organized on the page to look like a poem.  As sounds, words can have the emotional power of music.  I believe that neuroscience will one day explain what poets know, that words arranged with full use of their musical qualities allow us to think and feel simultaneously in a unique way.

By: Temma Ehrenfeld

The Four Letter Word

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san diego chargers

Image via Wikipedia

I was reading an article today about a man who is suing the city of San Diego for the right to yell profanities at sporting events.  Apparently he was thrown out of a Chargers game for the use of the four letter word, which violated his freedom of speech.  Apparently the NFL has a ban on the use of profanity by the fans.

First off, why isn’t he suing the NFL since it’s their rule, but secondly and most important to me is the fact that the word has become so prevalent in use, that some people don’t have a problem with it.  I was raised being taught that was the filthyest word that could come out of someone’s mouth.  I saw my father knocked out of a kitchen chair one night by my uncle, because Dad was drinking and let that word pass his lips.  My Uncle laid him out because he said it in front of me.  The time was the mid 1950’s. That made an impression on a very young girl.  You know I never heard it again pass my dad’s lips.

My children were raised not to use that language around me or any of the family.  What my son said out of my earshot I do not know.  He is now 41 years old and curses with the best of them, but he does not use that word around me.  He knows I would be all over him. I used to be really shocked when I heard it in use, but not any more. It is so common  in speech and the written word, I guess I adapted.  I’m still greatly offended but I don’t flinch anymore.

Why should I have to listen to someone when I go to a public place because they was not taught the basics of good behavior in public.  Let me know how you feel about it.  Do you think the man in San Diego has a case, or should it be thrown out? (I know it won’t be, but I can hope.)