What’s in a word? $#*% by any other name would smell as $#%%^, wouldn’t it?

This is how it happened.

I’m driving down the road the other night and a possum walks out in front of me. More than just about any other wildlife, possums freak me out. There’s something downright evil in the way they turn their long rat-like snouts to look at an oncoming car. Hit me. I dare you. Of course, most of them lose that particular battle, but they still startle me with their glares.

“Oh, (expletive deleted).” I slam on the brakes and swerve to avoid the creature.

My daughter, who has been playing quietly on her iPod in the backseat, says calmly in her little innocent voice, “What’s wrong, Mommy?”

“I almost hit a possum.” I wonder why I didn’t just go ahead and hit the thing. Why go out of my way to avoid something that I don’t like? Maybe it’s a deep-rooted fear that this one won’t die. It’ll grab hold of the undercarriage of my car and wait until I park and, unsuspecting, climb out, exposing my ankle to its sharp teeth and claws…

“What?” My daughter can’t place what kind of critter I’m talking about.

“You know, those things we see squished on the side of the road all the time.” (I’m probably not going to get mother-of-the-year for that definition, but it had been a long day, and last I heard I’m not in the running away.)

“Eww.” She exclaims as only a dramatic five-year-old can. But she knows what I’m talking about now.

I laugh and continue driving. It’s only later that I realize I used a curse word in front of her and she didn’t react to it. She’s heard it before…from me. Have I desensitized her already to the power of profanity? The thought is sobering.

As a writer, I’m interested in language and how certain words have more power than others. I’ve read countless articles about words and how their sounds affect people in different ways. (Here’s a really interesting article about the subject: Which Words Do You Love and Which Do You Hate?) Profanity is fascinating because so many people have such adverse reactions to the ugly words. Including me. I flinch when I hear certain words. They’re unpleasant. They have power over me.

When I was in high school, I knew a boy who always said “sugar” instead of “(expletive deleted)”. I thought it was cute. I thought he was cute. I knew what he meant, but by replacing the expletive with a much sweeter (pun intended) word, he accomplished something many of us have yet to figure out how to do. He used the power of language in a positive way.

Which leads me to my vow. I’m going to be a less profane person. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not horrible, but a “bad word” pops out every now and then. I’m not doing this because I think it’s wrong to curse, but because I want my kids to understand that words do have power over people. You can use them in a positive way (think speeches by great men like Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK) and influence people for good. But if you go throwing profanity and other negative words around, eventually the people around you become desensitized to your voice. What you say fades away and becomes less important, and when you do have something positive to say, you’ll be lucky if anybody hears you.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “What’s in a word? $#*% by any other name would smell as $#%%^, wouldn’t it?

  1. This is interesting, Michelle, simply because last year I stopped cursing, for the most part. I think I may have said three swear words since then. I’ve made it a point to not curse, especially around my children. My daughter used to get upset when I said something she knew was a swear word and this bothered me—still does.

    Interestingly—yes, I used that word twice in less than two paragraphs—enough, I’ve also taken most of the swearing out of my writing. I’ve always said some words can not be replaced by others. I still believe that. Dang and heck and shoot just don’t have the same effect or intent to them. That goes the same for words that rhyme with duck and itch. Curse words are stressed when pronounced, which is why, I believe, they have such an impact on people.

    Let me take this a step further. In my first short story collection, I used a lot of language that I thought my characters would use. Granted, this is not language I would use—or would have used back then. After it had been out about five months I found that I didn’t like all of the language in it. Was I wrong by using profanity in those stories? No. It was appropriate and within character. But I found I didn’t like it—I found that I would never let my daughter read it, not because of the content of the storylines, but because of the swear words I used. When I started putting together my second collection, I made it a point to take all of the swear words (in as much as I could) out of the stories. I am very proud of the newer SS collection because I got the point across without profanity OR sex.

    One more thought: If a writer relies to heavily on profanity or sex or shock value, then they are not telling the story that needs to be told. It is a gimmick and something you don’t see in many of the classics.

    • Hey AJ! Good to hear from you.

      It’s interesting that you brought up sexual content in writing. It’s something I’ve done a lot of thinking about. I won’t let my kids read my books (until they’re grown) because they have sex in them, but I’m not ashamed of the sex scenes I’ve written. In fact, I’m kind of proud of them. But yeah, writing sex can be a crutch, a way of keeping the reader hooked, and if it isn’t done right, it’s pretty transparent that’s all the writer is doing.

      As for profanity in writing, it has its place because the world contains some profane people. I may not want to be one of them, but I understand them. Swearing feels good, like when you bang your head or somebody’s pushed your last button and you have to let out the frustration in some way. Maybe I just need to keep my venting a little more private. 🙂

      BTW, your first collection was awesome. I still need to get the second one, but I know it’ll be just as good, probably better!