Potty Mouth

You heard it here first.

If you’re a regular reader here, you may have noticed something strange in last week’s Flash Friday. Two of us started our microfiction with the same sentence… and that sentence included some coarse language.

Now, if you live anywhere outside of a church building, you probably hear the word “damn” several times a day. If nothing else, your television likely exposes you to that word as well as several others of dubious distinction. They’re “naughty words.”

Of course, the nature of dirty talk changes with time. I remember reading an article from the 40’s that offered to help mothers wash out their children’s mouths for such heinous words as “gosh” and “darn.” Such foul-mouthed louts those kids must have been! These days, a person who refuses to take the Lord’s name in vain is rare indeed. Equally rare is a person who doesn’t use other swear words. We’re incredibly desensitized.

Simon Tam from the television series Firefly doesn’t swear.

Well, normally, anyway.

The episode “Jaynestown” starts with Simon explaining why he doesn’t swear: he reserves such strong language for extreme situations. (Of course, he ends up cursing before the opening credits in a marvelously done scene!)

For some stripes of Christians, it’s an easy matter: Don’t use any foul language. They count the swear words in movies, and if it reaches a certain point, they just don’t watch the movie. You know, you gotta be careful. Don’t use that Aitch-Ee-Double Hockeysticks word around me!

But it’s not that cut and dried. Yes, we are to honor God’s name. Don’t use it to swear falsely or needlessly. Don’t use it to curse someone. That’s the second commandment (third depending your church of origin). These things I do not debate.

I do question, though: What counts as foul language? Colossians 3:8 states, “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” So what constitutes “filthy language”?

I suspect it changes with culture. After all, “filthy” is a subjective word, isn’t it? “Gosh” was filthy a hundred years ago. “A pox o’ both your houses!” was a terrible thing to say at one point.

This stand-up comic has some great points about filthy language:

So, does that mean we should use ex-filthy language in our writing? Are we free to pursue using some language as long as we don’t consider it “filthy”? And yet, as writers, how do we portray a world with all its grit without using the language of the world? Shouldn’t we write what is true? After all, if it’s not a sin to write a story that includes sin, and sometimes graphic sin, such as murder, is it any more problematic to have a character curse?

Chris Martin has a great take on the issue, IMO. He simply makes it a policy not to swear. Sounds good to me.

I’ve seen other Christian writers weasel their way out of it by simply breaking a quotation and inserting, “He swore.” I’ve used this myself several times. I find that it keeps things honest and allows the reader to insert whatever word they find appropriate. It also keeps the story more fresh, oddly enough, as curse words do change from time to time.

In speculative fiction, of course, you can always create your own potty language. “Gorammit” from Firefly is one choice I particularly enjoy. Christians do this anyway. I’ve got one friend who, when he hits his thumb with a hammer, will loudly proclaim, “Son of a biscuit!”

We have this need to express pain and frustration in punctuated exclamations. We need interjections. Not every interjection is filthy language, although our culture seems to take it in that direction.

I’ve come no closer to answering any of the questions I’ve presented. How do Christian writers write realistically without disobeying the command to not use filthy language? What counts as filthy language? What flavor of soap is the best to clean out a five-year-old’s mouth?

Lots of questions. I don’t have the answers. Do you?


5 thoughts on “Potty Mouth

  1. I struggle with this sometimes from a reader’s perspective. How much foul language am I “okay” with, and at what point does it depreciate my enjoyment of the story?

    For instance, if I remember correctly, “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline had some pretty strong language, but it was still one of my favorite books I read this year because you could see the word choice was part of how the author developed characterization and you could look past it to what was a really awesome story. “A Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling, though, I stopped reading partway through because every other line had swearing or cursing of some type and it was done far too casually by ALL the characters. It became a major distraction while reading it and seemed to serve no purpose. So, I guess that’s my criteria for swearing — does it serve a purpose? and is it overdone? Sure, I’d prefer if authors find ways around it, but I know that’s based on my moral standards and not all authors are Christian writers, so I can’t really expect that from them.

    1. I’m like you as a reader — does the cursing have a use? How overdone is it? Does the quality of the writing outshine such swearing?

      Reading and writing are two different things, though. In one, we’re consuming and we’re allowed to be choosy eaters, even among the words we select to dine on. Writers are the ones serving it up. What ingredients will I put in my story stew?

      I think some writers build up good will as well, though. Reading “UnWholly” by Neal Shusterman, I came across a swear word. It took me aback; I don’t expect that in his novels as much. The word was well chosen in context and very effective. I trust Shusterman, though. Other authors don’t have that goodwill — at least, not from me!

      Interesting you mention Rowling. I’ve not read her new novel yet, but as the reviews keep pouring in I’m reluctant to pick it up. A shame, as she had built up a LOT of good will from me!

  2. I think you’re touching on a larger issue, of which language is only a part.

    Namely, how does a creator (of writing, art, anything, really) love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love his neighbor as himself, as he creates for an audience?

    I think, on the one hand, there’s some allowance for portraying reality as it is (if that’s important to the work). On the other hand, one should consider their potential audience, and to what degree you may be creating a temptation for them.

    One example of definitely crossing the line is from The Big Lebowski. I had heard for years about how great that movie was. So I finally rented it. When it was revealed that the ex-con child molester was named “Jesus.” I immediately turned it off.

    Are there (mostly Latin American) people named Jesus? Yes.
    Is that ok? Sure.
    Are some of them criminals, even vile ones, in real life? No doubt.

    However, the screenwriter had a choice in creating that character’s history/story and also in the name he chose to give that character. Clearly chosen for its shock value (and, also, I suspect, specifically to rile Christians and to be “funny” to non-Christians), that crossed a line. Big time.

    And that’s just a name!!! That’s not even “foul language,” per se.

    So in short: the law of love applies to the art we craft and how we craft it. How we carry that out is always going to be situational to a certain degree.

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