The bad words

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Swearing remains an awkward subject. Even within the limited confines of my house it’s divisive – I love to hear it entertainingly deployed, while Mrs K. can’t stand to be in the room while Deadwood‘s on because of the language. But it’s a linguistic tool, one that’s frequently used, one that can be a powerful cultural signifier, and one that we should consider when writing.

My view on swearing is that it works as an emotional carrier, words emptied of their literal meaning so that they can express emotions that we are not encouraged to describe. Many of us aren’t good at describing our love or hatred for something, and even when we do the effort of assembling the words may get in the way of unleashing our emotions. A good swear lets that out, and this may be why it’s more prevalent among people who are frustrated and ill-equipped to express their own needs.

But there are still taboos around swearing. If there weren’t it would lose that emotional power. The act of defiance, the chance to see a shocked response, is part of the catharsis swearing can achieve. These words aren’t neutral and universally accepted, and deploying them can be a form of conflict.

This is part of the power of swearing in telling a story. A character who swears may shock others, may escalate or enact conflicts through those words. The fact that a character swears and the sort of swearing they use can tell you a lot about them. And swearing can create humour, even poetry, through the way it is used, particularly the brutal deployment of bad language in incongruous situations. Just watch Bunk and McNulty’s kitchen crime scene from the first series of The Wire, or any number of scenes of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, to see these uses skillfully combined.

This isn’t to say that writers should always use swearing. But it should be an option in our arsenal of writers’ tools, one whose absence or presence can help give a story form.