Ah swearing. The melodic sounds of the f-bomb being hurled down the staircase, the strains of the b-word muttered under the breath, the sheer poetry of a creative string of a#$h#&%-mother#$*%&-sh&*head. Lovely.
My son swore at me for around ten minutes straight last night. I should mention that he’s eight. I should also mention that it’s not like we don’t know where he learned it; the apple doesn’t fall that far from the effing tree. But…it was like a dam breaking. He knows he is not allowed to swear and he slips up sometimes, but last night it was a true damn-the-torpedoes, hung-for-a-sheep-as-a-lamb, no-holds-barred tirade. I had asked him to clean up the stuff he had strewn all over the yard. Also I think he was a wee bit tired. By the end of it we were both kind of freaked out, I think.
As a writer, words feel really powerful to me. I remember when I was around seven, late one night new year’s eve (new year’s day, really, I guess), when the phone rang in our friends’ ski house. When my dad got on the phone he said, “oh shit.” I knew something bad had happened. My heart clenched and I lay in bed, eyes open, waiting to hear what was going to happen next. I had never heard him use that word before. I found out minutes later that my grandfather had died.
When my son yells “bitch!” it stings more than it should, because to me it is a word imbued with misogynist overtones. Of course, to him it means female dog and he giggles about it with his best friend when they think I can’t hear them. He knows it’s a taboo word so he throws it out when he’s really mad, but he lacks any context. When he asks why these words are swears I am hard-pressed to answer what makes them so ugly. Still, we all know what they are.
I am editing my first draft of The Dangerous School, Class of 2030 and it turns out I had my characters swearing all over the place. They’re teenagers, they’ve got angst, they’re mostly talking amongst themselves – swears seem obvious, right? When I was writing it the words felt authentic, real. But now I am cringing a little as I read them, and I’ve decided to edit out 90% to start, keeping in a few that I feel are actually needed to convey the emotion in the scene. The remaining ones might get the axe, as might some of the “grey-area” swears I left in (does douche-bag really have to come out? I love it so!). Ironically, one of the main characters in the book, this kid Jack who I truly love, has something of a sewer mouth and is trying hard to break the swearing habit so he makes up his own creative swears as needed. As he was told by another character, “swearing is a sign of a sloppy intellect. It’s lazy and ineffectual. Get over it.” Good advice, if I do say so myself.
As a postscript for anyone who is wondering how the rest of the evening went with my own mini-George Carlin, well, he settled down after a while. We talked about what made him so mad, and about how there has to be better release hatches than such ugly words. When he went to sleep he said, “Goodnight mama. I love you so much…no matter what I say when I’m mad.”
Now those are words I can live with.