Vulgar talk – a case for profanity

My mother always referred to profanity as “vulgar talk.” Even though she used a few of the choice terms herself, she had a name for those words. I grew up hearing them and eventually adopted some terms into my own vocabulary. I’m not sure if using that language was a rite of passage or more of an evolution.

But all that changed one afternoon in a small classroom.

Several students had volunteered to help me set up Chemistry labs for the following day. (They were an awesome bunch of kids. My academic equivalent to the Fab Five. Best students ever.) Anyway, during setup, my bangle bracelet brushed up against a charger on my desk and delivered a nice shock to my wrist that shot up my forearm like a rabid fox with lightning bolt fangs. Too bad it wasn’t a lab set up for conductivity.

Cue the scene from “A Christmas Story.” You know the one, with the flat tire, the bowl of lug nuts, and the panicked wishes that the word that had rolled out would have been FUDGE.  My students snickered, I mean, I cussed loudly, on the cusp of yelling without restraint right in front of them. But I was embarrassed that I let that word slip in a school setting. (Luckily, it was after class. I might have crawled under my desk had the classroom been full.) I apologized to the group, none seemed offended or even cared. But I made a very conscious decision to trim those words from my vocabulary. And it was similar to smoking. Once I quit, I was really done.

But when I began writing, I found that some of my characters used profanity. And I couldn’t stop them. I mean, technically, I could, but I shouldn’t. Profanity serves a function. It can help set the tone of a scene or help develop character.  It summarizes sentiments in fewer words. It’s adaptable; some of the terms can be verbs, adjectives, adverbs, or exclamations. And sometimes it provides humor. (My Cousin Vinny would be half as long and not nearly as funny if they cut the profanity.) It’s like spice in a recipe, each dish requires a different amount and sometimes none at all.

When it comes to profanity, I don’t mind hearing, seeing it, reading it, or using it in my writing. But I’d be more convincing using a British accent than throwing around the f word.

Does profanity impact what you read or write?





17 thoughts on “Vulgar talk – a case for profanity

  1. All those bad words do have a place. I do swear, but not often,it’s never been my thing. My hubs however let’s all those words fly! When my characters use the words that must not be used, I let them, but cringe. Who am I to hinder their personalities and sometimes the scene just calls for it. I do read books with profanity … hello, Stephen King and it doesn’t bother me. In the end, they’re just words. Weave them into the art of writing if it works!


    • I have a hubs like that, too 🙂 But they only fly when something goes wrong that he’s building or he hurts himself. (good that the kids are older now:)
      I agree that they tend to fade from notice if they fit the character and the story.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


  2. I saw an aussie movie in which the little boy was allowed to say f word to explete until one day his mum died of cancer and he asked-can I say the word Dad ?
    dad said yes so he did and the tears flowed – it was a perfect fit to the story .
    all words in their place I guess.


  3. I think profanity, when used well, can be like a pinch of spice in the stew. It can liven things up and add a feeling of authenticity to the scene, but it can be wwaaaayyy overdone. I tend to avoid the more heinous words myself. The HBO series Deadwood was awash with the most foul language imaginable, but after the shock of the first episode I almost didn’t hear it any more because the writing was so good and the characters were so rich. I met a couple from Deadwood awhile ago who told me the language in the TV series was (pardon me) dead on to what was happening in the town, evidenced by the one of the first laws passed there banning profanity. I haven’t looked it up, but it makes a good yarn.


    • Great story! (true or not 😉

      Wonder if any of those words slipped out during your Outward Bound adventure…
      Amazed and impressed with your adventure (and survival)

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!


      • You are most welcome! I think I learned a few words on that excellent adventure, but I spared my readers. Thanks to you for tuning in. Does anybody say that any more?


  4. I cannot believe there is no one else behind with the A-Z challenge, like me. I am so embarrassed. Going to write “t” now. I have the British accent and I do not mind profanity at all. Real people use it and if we are to write about real people, it makes sense to use it when writing dialogue.


    • It’s a big challenge. I’ve been lagging behind on the visiting part for the past three days (or letters). I’ll have to catch up starting tomorrow.

      Good point about writing real people. That is very important.

      ( My accent is lightly southern, but that can change based on the company. My attempt at a British accent is sad… but fun. )

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I’ll swing back by your blog. 🙂


  5. I grew up in a house where profanity, after lying, was probably the worst sin imaginable…to this day those words feel strange in my mouth (though I’ve let one slip every so often) and it’s equally as awkward to make myself write them. But sometimes my character…needs them and I have to talk myself into them, stop myself editing them out. It’s a strange place to be in…to not like the words and feel them necessary for my art. Interesting post…lots of food for thought.


  6. I think of profanity and violence in the same way in books and movies – if they are germane to the character/plot, they are approriate. Gratuitous vulgarity and violence reflect a lack of talent or respect by the author/screenwriter.


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