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In the early 1970's when I was still in college, my dad found a book that I had purchased at the University of Tennessee bookstore and being greatly offended by that book he promptly tore it to shreds, leaving the pieces strewn about our rec room so I would be sure to find them. That book, The Anatomy of Dirty Words by Edward Sagarin, was a scholarly examination of the meanings, origins, and etymology of various words that are typically considered to be profane, obscene, or unacceptable.
Profanity was necessary in this book because the words were the subject matter. What I learned from the book in the short time I was able to access it is that dirty words are just words that in many cases had perfectly legitimate beginnings in English or another language and over time had become offensive in one way or another. The words are only words, but the associations can arouse strong feelings in others. The offense might stem from the way the words are spoken or in the context they are used. They have become words that are intended to shock, embarrass, or anger others.
I am probably a bit more open-minded than my father was, but I also went through that era of rebellion and radical change where profanity came more into common use in the arts, media, and everyday conversation. Not that I approve of this usage. I don't blush when I hear offensive language, but I don't encourage it either and rarely use it in my own speaking or writing. Frankly, my dear reader, I don't think it's necessary in most cases.
Do You Want to Talk Dirty?
In a recent Tossing It Out guest post, Profanity: Where Do You Draw the Line?, Bridget Straub discussed how she approaches this issue in her writing and in her life. The ensuing conversation in the comment section offered some interesting and radically different points of view. As promised in those comments I am here with my thoughts on the use of offensive language in writing.
I avoid most use of language that I deem offensive because I think there can be better ways of saying things. Personally, I find profanity to be very distracting, often coming across as an author's attempt to be edgy, gritty, or "realistic". But is this worth the possibility of losing a potential portion of a reading audience? And is a larger sector of audience going to be gained because an author uses profanity. To my thinking, excellent writing can convey grittiness and realistic characters in such a way that the fact there is no profanity would go unnoticed to the average reader.
In my opinion the reader who is looking for obscenity in writing and titillated by it is puerile and unsophisticated. They are not looking for literature, but just dirty writing. Quality writing should not stoop to that level in hopes of better suiting it to modern tastes. Writers who are trying to deliver that experience are not being especially creative or original.
Let's Look for the Nasty Parts
An example from cinema that I always think of is the Oliver Stone Viet Nam film Platoon. When I first saw this in the theater I was so distracted by the use of profanity in the film that this aspect was what I remembered most. I disliked the film after that first viewing. Some time later I saw the film again on television in a censored version where the most obscene things were the commercial breaks. Without the distraction of profanity I was able to pay more attention to the characters and thematic elements of the story. I enjoyed the film much more in this second viewing. I realized that the profanity had hindered in many ways and helped in virtually none.
In literature I will cite Catcher in the Rye for two aspects of the use of profanity. Firstly I was annoyed and offended by the ongoing using of the Lord's name in vain by Holden Caulfield. There is some suggestion that Holden's casual use of "goddam" throughout the book helps establish his character, but I would argue that there are plenty of other things that the character says and does to show his rebellious and belligerent spirit.
The second use of profanity in Catcher in the Rye is probably necessary because it is an integral part of the story and it is not used in a gratuitous way. When Holden discovers the "Fuck You" graffiti scrawled on the walls he is shocked and angry because of the possibility of children seeing the words that are offensive even to him. Since the theme of the book has to do with protecting the innocence of childhood, the shock of seeing the words symbolizes the loss of that innocence. The argument that could be made as justification for Holden's use of profanity is that it illustrates the same kind of phoniness that he disdains in other people. Profanity is in a sense central to the theme of the novel.
However, in nearly every other case of profanity used in written work, that profanity is unneeded. I will probably always shy away from the use of offensive language because I strongly feel that there are other ways to deal with what an author is trying to convey by using it. I won't commit myself to this, but this is my intent as I see it now.
How else can a writer depict bad people without using bad words? Do you notice when obscene language is not used for characters who might use it in real life? Do you miss the language when it's not there? Would you like to hear offensive language used regularly in network television programming? If so, why?