“Words,” Editing, and Tastes

When I was young and poor, one of my roommates was a conservative Christian. She had one of those set-top boxes for the TV which was supposed to block swear words. It ran off of the closed captioning, and basically muted the TV for the entire time the word was on the screen. Mostly, it worked. You didn’t hear the swear.

But you didn’t hear any of the other words that happened to be on the screen at the same time, either.

It would miss typos. So, if the “word” was not spelled correctly in the transcription, you’d hear it.

And if the captioning wasn’t synced up to the audio, you’d hear the “word” and then silence. Or silence, followed by the “word.”

There were about two hundred words on the naughty list. I never figured out exactly what they all were.

They were exclusively American “words.” That always had me rolling on the floor. If you were listening to Brit-com, you’d be hit by a row of obscenities that would curl your hair, followed by silence when they finally hit a relatively mild “word” the box knew. (Kudos to the BBC for well-synced closed captioning, by the way.)

And some of them were ludicrous. Cinderella could go to a ball, but Lydia Bennett most certainly could not go to two or more balls. That would be obscene. And no, it didn’t matter in the slightest that the thing turned Pride and Prejudice as a whole into a roaring comedy.

I’m not quite that finicky. Refined. I figure three or four “fucks” to a manuscript and poor Lydia can have as many balls as she wants. It’s not a swearing extravaganza, but I also don’t have a set-top-box to keep it out.

Still, the experience did leave a sense of utility. Does this word change the meaning of the sentence? Can someone follow the story without that word? With a different word? I suppose Lydia could go to cotillions or something…

And I could say “very.” Very is indeed a most excellent intensifier.

The truth is, I don’t write for children, and I think I’m pretty moderate, anyway so I’m not all that worried about it. I do notice if I go over my average for the big ones. An I have other words I over use, and I’m always on the lookout for them.

Do you have to think about this? Quotas or guidelines? Or do you have a hard ban on profanity in your work?


  1. Reply

    Interesting post. I don’t have an actual ban in my own work, but traditional profanity-especially the big 7-doesn’t actually show up very often. Part of it is because I think when I’m writing spec fic based on planets that aren’t earth, it gives a sense of otherness to invent my own cuss words. And part of it is that traditional taboo of “these are not words we use.” Funnily enough, I actually use more blue language in real life than I do on the page. Oops. 😉

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      Every now and then, my characters surprise me with the insults they sling at each other. A couple of them have given me really good insights into the cultures, but they still wind up being rendered in English. Might have to hit the Create a Language clinic sometime soon.

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    I’m like Elizabeth–I swear more in real life than on the page! But, then, I do write for children, as well as writing cozy mysteries, where cussing is meant to be kept to a minimum.

    Your tale of the limits on how many balls Lydia Bennett could attend cracked me up! I always thought those efforts to “clean up” TV were absurd. If that kind of language bothers someone, then maybe that’s not the show she should be watching?

    • Reply

      I’m probably about the same. More in real life than on the page. I’m divided on the anti-swear box… I like the idea of something that enables people to expand their horizons past what they’d usually be exposed to. I don’t think it’s good for anyone to be surrounded by ONE limited set of ideas, which is what would tend to happen, if you avoided swearing by avoiding the whole show. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the ideas come across as clearly if you’re picking and choosing what to see.

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    I don’t have a ban on swearing in my books, but I write about non-earth worlds so I tend to make up the curses people use. I imagine some people in my target audience would be put off by Earth-swearing, and it’s certainly not essential to the story, so why make things hard for myself?

    I love the story about the balls. I think AI has improved rather a lot since then, but I suspect it still makes some ridiculous mistakes of this type.

  4. Reply

    For me… depends on the character. Depends on the story. Depends on the setting, the mood… well, you get the picture. But then, I don’t write for children- or rather, I write explicitely for adults. And as the saying goes, if you’re old enough to do it, you’re old enough to talk about it, 😉
    That said… I don’t write in my native language. I don’t really swear a whole lot in my native language, I’d expect it’d be similar in writing. In English? The swearing doesn’t compute the same way to me. It doesn’t trigger the vulgar/violent/inappropriate gut-response. They’re just words.

    • Reply

      I had a few discussions about swearing when I was teaching English as a Second Language. Students would pick things up, and not really have a clear idea where they fell in the hierarchy of words. I think a lot of people have that “just words” reaction to swearing in a foreign language.

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    I play by the characters and the tone. Of course, in my fantasies, I have the joy of inventing super colorful terms like “plague-spotted seed-licker,” “son of Chance’s Ill Daughter and a goat,” or, more mildly, “early frost,” “blast! and “rot…”

    I’ve got a back-burner modern lit-fic that uses all the modern best. It will likely be controversial, being that it features a very Christian main character. To be fair, she doesn’t say half of what’s in her head, and to be more fair, “foul language” is not a sin.

    Contrary to my poor conservative father’s belief. We didn’t have the benefit of such a box, so he would pre-screen things and simply cut out the swearing-bit himself. Those movies were usually very abbreviated and confusing.

    Just this year I had the nerve to show “Hamilton” to my whole family, with lyrics written out on slides I’d created, and he had the good grace to listen to the whole thing without commentary on that aspect, though. Maybe he’s getting less picky, or maybe his youngest child being a grown woman living out of the country has more to do with it…

    • Reply

      The swearing in Grace the Mace was creative. I loved it. I still have to organize some thoughts and get back to you on that.

  6. Reply

    200?! I think George Carlin’s 7 are enough.

    There are a lot of military space stories where the author simply picks up a group from “today” and drops them elsewhere. But in a different time and place, slang and swearing can knock me out of a story. Endless strings of swearing make me wonder if the writer can’t create dialog. The Maze Runner had me giggling after a while – the characters couldn’t say a single sentence without vulgarities.

    I think some of my reaction is age – young adults don’t react to the f-bomb like old folks. I worked in industry so learned to say FU without blushing to fit in – now it’s hard to turn off.

    If only one or two swear words naturally pop up in one of my stories, I do try to edit them away – why limit readership without good reason?

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