Language Most Foul: Profanity vs Vulgarity

True confession? I swear. Sometimes a lot. Usually in my car when no one is around, but sometimes at my husband.  Sad, but true.  It’s also true that profanity and vulgarity are like the toxic twins of modern speech. They are everywhere and pretty well tolerated in most situations and definitely in most entertainment. Take the ubiquitous Facebook.  It can be a bit dangerous to have your kid read your feed over your shoulder because you never know what’s going to pop up. Twitter feeds are the same and even on TV a good amount of what could be called ‘cussin’ is shown.

Books are no exception, in fact, they have always been a medium that accurately reflects reality so the profane or vulgar speech of every age has been depicted in them. In order to create real, three-dimensional characters authors have to mimic the speech patterns of real live humans. But what if the author is a Christian?  Think of Ephesians 4:29 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…”  It’s been struggle for me since my books tend to be mainstream fiction, not Christian fiction where the expectation is for the work to be swear-free.

I was raised to believe that both profanity and vulgarity were evil and no girl with any kind of class used them. This belief was strengthened by attending a Christian college where you’d be fined if you did. Imagine my shock when I got my first real job. It happened to be where the staff was mostly male. I’m not saying all men swear more than all women. I think it depends pretty heavily on your age and socio-economic background, but in this instance…yeah, the boys swore a lot. And some of the words they used I had never heard before and couldn’t even define.

The guys usually reined it in around me and that was a measure of the respect they had for me.   In fact, they waited until I was out of the room or gone for the day before they used the truly vulgar phrases, told a dirty joke, or shared a porn video (thanks guys!) But for the most part profanity and vulgarity peppered their speech. This was their language. These words were part of their lexicon and using them actually improved understanding. This was peer to peer speech though. They did not speak like this to their boss, their mom, or a client. Eventually I even got in the habit of the occasional f-bomb myself. I’m not sure if it was just catching or I wanted to be better understood. Most of the time when I did that it made them laugh.

Years later and I’m writing a novel with characters not unlike the men I used to work with. In life these characters would use both profanity and vulgarity regularly.  I found myself asking where the line was between being honest to my work and honoring my faith.   In the end I realized that I already had the answer in what I myself, deemed appropriate.  I divide ‘profanity’ and ‘vulgarity’ this way: Profanity is speaking the lord’s name in vain, Vulgarity is just that, vulgar and coarse speech.  I might occasionally indulge in a bit of vulgarity, but you will never (never) hear Profanity out of my mouth if I can help it.

Modern humans rarely swear in the way Matthew 5:34 addresses “But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”

The way we profane God’s name is almost banal. We’re careless with it, stripping it of all meaning and using it like it’s nothing, a throw-away, hollow.

If there is one thing I would like to eradicate from modern dialect it would be the use of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ as anything other than nouns referring reverentially to the being they represent. It hurts to hear them used as curses.

When I encounter a coworker who says them on a regular basis I actually tell them I’d rather they say Mo***F***** instead. Really. I’d rather hear the foulest vulgarity than to hear Christ’s name spoken as a curse.  Typically they laugh, but also… they adjust.  They honor my request and they censor themselves which just goes to show what awesome people I work with.

In my writing for the mainstream market I never use profanity, even though it could be argued that it makes my work less “authentic”. In fiction there is the big T truth and the little T. I will always honor the big T and I pick and choose when it comes to the little one. I get to. This is my world, my characters and they bend to my Will. Bwaaahaaaa. But seriously, they do.

This is the same beef I have with authors of historic or fantasy novels set in medieval times or dark ages that frequently depict sexual violence against women.  These same novels don’t address dysentery or the other less than appetizing realities of pre-modern life. I believe they choose to depict rape in part because it’s an easy (lazy) plot device and frankly, because it’s titillating. But I digress. We’re talking about swear words here. My feelings on rape in fantasy novels (and some Romance novels) is a whole other rant.

In THE STRONGEST CHAIN I do use what some would consider vulgarities, but never anything that would garner more than a PG rating in a movie. Why include them at all? Because I want my characters to be as real as possible, as rough as they are. Why not just use profanity or nastier vulgarities? Because these do the job. I might use the stiffer sort of vulgarities in other books, but I will not use profanities. Ever.

I know it seems I’m drawing an arbitrary line, but if you are a member of the flock, if you are a professing Christian, these words wound and they demean the God that we love. Would you let a friend, a coworker demean your partner or your child or your friend? No. You wouldn’t. You’d stand up for them. You’d put a stop to it.

And that’s where I find my line. This isn’t me defending my faith. The author of the universe does not need my backup and my tiny whisper against the shouting of the world doesn’t matter much. This is me revering my God and honoring him in all I do. This is me being true to God and true to my work.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on profanity, vulgarity, and the written word.  Sound off in the comments about your own struggles with dialogue.  What are your thoughts on keeping dialogue real?  Where are your lines?

2 thoughts on “Language Most Foul: Profanity vs Vulgarity

  1. josiahjjr says:

    Wonderful post!
    I draw my line at “cuss” words, as well as vulgarities against God’s name. I am quite guilty of changing a letter or two, and using that word with the same meaning and attitude. I still find this less coarse than the actual profanity. It has become normal vernacular for me, and I turn them on and off based on who I am with. I consider abstaining from vulgarity and profanity a part of my witness, so I take care to solidify it.

    Another reason I do this so I can go from college to my home (with two elementary age brothers) without fear of letting one slip. Every word I say might be parroted so that’s a consideration I DEFINITELY have to have.

    I understand your use of profanity in your writing it does add a layer of depth and reality that can add to the writing. I also admire your avoidance of vulgarity. I love an authentic story, but it doesn’t need to abrasive.

    I’ve been looking at your other posts as well and I like what you’re sharing! You can consider me a regular 🙂

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