Social Question

Sneki95's avatar

Do you think writers should be allowed to swear in their works?

Asked by Sneki95 (6997points) October 22nd, 2016

Writers affect language. They are supposed to show us how to speak eloquently, to shape the language in the most beautiful way. Readers should learn how to speak from the writers.

But then again, writers are artists. Art should not be limited and censored. An artist should be free to express himself. Swears often can give a very special affect to the meaning of the statement.

So, what do you think? Should the writers be discouraged from swearing in order not to spoil the language, or should they be let to swear, because it is their artistic freedom?

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60 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

of course, you fuck

Mariah's avatar

Of course they should be able to swear. It would be strange for certain types of characters not to use swear words.

Sneki95's avatar

But….swearing was not used in older works, and many of those turned out to be wonderful works of literature.

ragingloli's avatar

Mozart wrote a piece titled “lick the inside of my arse”

Sneki95's avatar

@ragingloli I’m talking about literature. Mozart did nothing to the language.

ragingloli's avatar

shakespeare had a “yo momma” putdown in one of his works.

Mariah's avatar

Just because there are great works without swearing doesn’t mean that works with swearing can’t be great.

Sneki95's avatar

@Mariah Sure, I guess you’re right. I was just wondering what would others think.

@ragingloli He said way worse, but did he use swear words, or wrote some very flowery insults? And how exactly is “yo mama” joke swearing?

Seems to me that insult is more effective without “fuck you”, but with actual style that does not include swearing.

ragingloli's avatar

“Villain, I have done thy mother”.
If course it is swearing.

Sneki95's avatar

@ragingloli I have no argument against that. I guess you’re right. Although, it seems offensive because of it’s meaning rather than the choice of words.

ragingloli's avatar

the only thing that makes a “choice of words” ‘offensive’, IS the words’ meaning.

zenvelo's avatar

Shakespeare was filthy, there have been doctoral dissertations on how filthy he was. You may not recognize it because it was late 16th century English vernacular, but it was not at all meant for polite society.

Literature also reflects the place of its origin. You’d see much more swearing in classics if it wasn’t for censorship.

Mariah's avatar

It is actually necessary in some stories. A modern book about teenagers in gangs would sound absolutely ridiculous without swearing in the dialogue.

Pachy's avatar

Is this a serious question?! As a writer, I can answer no other way than HELL NO—no elaboration necessary!

Jeruba's avatar

People should be able to write any damn thing they want.

Whether it’s published is another matter entirely. No one is owed a public platform for his or her writing. Responsible selectivity is not censorship.

It used to be up to publishers to determine whether what people wrote got printed and distributed. Now people who want an audience can do that for themselves; there are few or no gatekeepers (not necessarily a good thing, in my opinion). People still don’t have to buy their stuff and read it.

Our right to choose what we read is not in any way compromised by the use of language we don’t like. We can practice our own good judgment with respect to content that we consider objectionable. (And I do believe that parents have a responsibility with regard to their kids’ reading, although it is not best expressed by withholding access.)

> Should the writers be discouraged from swearing…
Who is it that would be doing the “discouraging”? Schoolteachers? librarians? politicians? police officers? private citizens? people’s mothers?

However, I also think it’s necessary for people to assume responsibility for their actions. What I think or write in private is my business, but as soon as I put it before others and potentially influence their behavior, it becomes society’s business.

As for “literature,” I’d like to know what you mean by the term. I can’t seem to picture an author saying to himself or herself, “I’d better watch what I write because this might become literature.”

AshLeigh's avatar

No one is going to start or stop cursing just because my character used a swear word.

Sneki95's avatar

@Pachy Yes, it was a serious question.

@Jeruba By literature, I meant works of fiction, prose and poetry, drama, everything similar. I didn’t mean scientific works, or journalism (although, if a scientist writes a work full of swearing, or a journalist writes an article like that, should they be criticized for it and not taken as professionals?) I referred to works that have (or are supposed to, with or without author’s attention) some artistic value. I’m not sure who is going to discourage them, didn’t think that one through.

Dutchess_III's avatar

A writer’s job is to entertain, not teach. If you happen to learn along the way, coo. Mark Twain comes to mind.

BellaB's avatar


Authors have to write what feels right for them. What people choose to read is a separate matter.
Quaint Clitter: Chaucer’s Qualified Use of Profanity in The Canterbury Tales

Sneki95's avatar

@Dutchess_III If literature is supposed only to entertain, why do we study and analyze it in schools, trying to figure out what did the writer want to say?

canidmajor's avatar

Who decides what is “literature” and what is not? By your reckoning, then, should visual artists (whose works are meant to be viewed) not be allowed to depict nudes? Should we ban Rodin’s The Kiss because the people are naked while kissing and therefore likely to progress to coitus?
Are you advocating regulating artistic expression across the board?

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I agree 100% with Jeruba. I’m not crazy about heavy swearing in narrative (which I do here but rarely anywhere else—here I’m speaking as the unabridged me with friends across the table or in a booth), but it is extremely effective in realistic dialogue. For example, I can’t imagine a sailor’s dialogue or a soldier’s in battle without some obscenity here and there. Strategically placed obscenities are very effective in modern writing.

Hemingway regularly complained to his editor Maxwell Perkins about having his protagonist’s realistic dialogue heavily edited. He complained to the press as well. Like Fitzgerald, Hemingway wrote of a generation of men and women who had just experienced the horror of WWI, but unlike Fitzgerald, his people were not of a class enjoying the parties and moneyed social life of New York City. His people were directly from the trenches, living on the edge of radical, post-war social change, discussing abortion, homosexuality, experiencing the frustration, fear and confusion of coming back from the chaos and horror on the battlefield and not being able any longer to live among and relate to those who had never experienced it. Hemingway wrote of the alienated of his time. He said the editing destroyed the “verisimilitude”, or the truth, of his dialogues. I believe he was right.

I recently read an essay brought to a recent string by Seek, written by an excellent essayist who had been outraged by Trump’s comments the other night concerning abortion. The woman had had a bad third trimester, her fetus was dying and so was she. She described this very personal, tragic experience in poignant terms—and that poignancy demanded obscenities, enhanced her work and transmitted to her readers the level of outrage she felt.

It was effective. And effective transmission is what writing is all about. 5×5 transmission.

More than in writing, I belive it is the way the people in our leadership speak that affects our language the most. I remember a time when in polite company one never used the word “fuck”. Ladies, especially, were never heard to use that word. The word was considered very bad form. I can point to the exact period that that word became commonplace in every class in America.

The Watergate scandal. When the world first heard the Nixon tapes and it became clear that a person like president Nixon used that word constantly when exasperated or speaking about a perceived enemy, it suddenly became OK to use. Soon afterwords, Francis Capola’s The Godfather came out and the dam had burst. It is now in everyday dialogue of all classes.

Sneki95's avatar

@canidmajor I don’t remember anyone having anything against nudity in visual arts. And no, I’m not advocating anything (or maybe I am?Dunno). I just wanted to see people’s opinions on this. I personally am not keen on swearing way too much in language or literature (nor am I amazed by seeing naked people on every single painting ever), but I’m not into censorship. I just don’t read such books and don’t become a fan of such authors. Sure, I do swear, but it puts me off when every second word is “fuck”. I did ask this, because I wanted to see other people’s opinions and what stand would others take.

@Espiritus_Corvus That makes sense.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@Sneki Your comments on profanity in scientific writing reminds me of when physicist Leon Lederman submitted his book about the Higgs-Boson particle. He initially titled his work The Goddamned Particle because it was so hard to find. But his editor suggested it be named The God Particle instead in order to avoid controversy. And that opened up a huge new can of worms when the CERN facility in Switzerland was later used to find it. There were protests by the religious all over the world because they thought finding it would bring on Armageddon. LOL.

Sneki95's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus They protest too much imo. I would see it as science flattering religion rather than insulting it, but eh.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

That is because you are sane, my dear.

Jeruba's avatar

Most writing is not and never will be literature. Very little fiction, poetry, or prose has literary merit.

Any writer who has the chutzpah to say “I’m writing literature” almost certainly isn’t. It’s not an honor one confers on oneself, any more than we expect to hear “Hi, I’m Joe. I’m a sage.” Or “Let me introduce myself. I’m Mitzi, and I’m a paragon of virtue.” Saint, holy man, hero, philosopher, role model, wise one, and other terms of great esteem are based on the qualities that others perceive in oneself and not on labels that one adopts for oneself.

I don’t even expect to hear someone who paints or sculpts say “I’m an artist.” As I use the word, it’s a characterization reflecting a certain caliber of work and not simply a descriptor of occupation or avocation. Likewise, “literature” entails a value judgment and not just genre classification.

Sneki95's avatar

@BellaB Didn’t know about that. Thanks for the info.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@Sneki95 When we study it we’re trying to dissect what makes it so good. Trying to puzzle out the writing style.

ragingloli's avatar

Yeah, no, sorry, but that is nothing but elitist drivel.

ucme's avatar

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a fuck
Sounds way better

stanleybmanly's avatar

Of course they should be “allowed”. If they are “allowed” to hear it, why restrict them from repeating it?

Brian1946's avatar

In “Romeo and Juliet”, Juliet asks, “Romeo, where fart thou”? ;-)

According to MrGrimm, they should be aloud to swear in their audio litterature. ;-p

Lightlyseared's avatar

No. I think it’s important that we protect the uneducated masses from words or ideas their intellectual betters deem unfit for their consumption. Lest it give them ideas above their station. Fuckers.

Seek's avatar

The only thing worse than censoring excessive swearing is obvious tapdancing around swear-words for the sake of oversensitive readers.

Nobody is going to hit their thumb with a hammer and say, “Oh, fiddlesticks.”

I’d not quickly advocate returning to the Victoria era, when saying “stomach” was too risqué, so they said “tummy”. These are the same people who invented floor length tablecloths so no one would be aroused by a nude table leg.

DominicY's avatar

Of course they should be allowed to do as they wish. Now, the question of whether or not I like it is another issue. Sometimes it can seem a bit excessive—not in the sense that swearing actually offends me, but in the sense that overuse of it seems like the author is trying too hard to portray negativity, edginess, or a character’s contempt or anger. And I sometimes find it a bit annoying if it doesn’t seem to add anything to the story. Other times it fits a character perfectly and I have no issue with it. Like any aspect of language, it depends on how its used. To make a blanket statement like “less swearing is good” isn’t really going to be valid.

flutherother's avatar

If you want beauty of language and expression you won’t get it by telling writers what they can or cannot say.

Zaku's avatar

Classic literature is full of oaths. They just swore as they did back then. Modern US culture swears in extremely lame fashion because the culture and the language have degraded in those directions. Modern writers wanting to have characters who use the modern US vernacular including it’s oft-lame oaths merely reflect the lameness of modern US oaths, accurately. No point in blaming or censoring writers. Even if you tried, you’d just suck even worse than the worst guttermouth in deed rather than word.

And, should they be allowed??? It’s disturbing that anyone would ask that…

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

^^Sorry to pop your balloon, but that’s not true, pal. It just wasn’t done in mixed company and publishers would have none of it. Melville’s notes from the mid-nineteenth century contain a list of “fuck” combinations he heard on South Boston docks, including motherfucker. The British sailors were the most creative. Eugene O’Neil—who had worked the decks of merchantmen under sail on the Atlantic run—and Edna St. Vincent Millay both used the word “fuck” in conversation in the bars of Greenwich Village at the turn of the 20th century. Those words were definitely used by the people of that time. Chaplin was shocked by O’Neil’s language.

On his first visit with O’Neil, Chaplin is said to have nearly died laughing at O’Neil’s creative combinations of different swear words. O’Neil didn’t like Chaplin because he thought him too effeminate and when Chaplin married O’Neil’s daughter, Oona, he referred to Chaplin as his “bloody mutherfucking faggot son in law.” Quite a mouthful coming from people who didn’t swear. But that would never make Variety in the original form.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@ucme “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” didn’t appear in the book. Only in the movie.

Dutchess_III's avatar

If a character cusses in a book, that’s just part of who the character is. I, personally, don’t think the author should cuss when he’s writing descriptions.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

^^For sure. What would The Catcher in the Rye—probably the first realistic coming of age story about a troubled teenager growing up in America—be without the swearing?

Salinger’s use of the phrase “Fuck you” appears seven times in a device that serves to describe the general attitude of young Holden Caulfield toward the world. It is a very effective device, although unacceptably profane in it’s time, made so much sense to the marginalized teens of the 1950’s—and those of today—it sold millions all over the world. Salinger hit a long-ignored nerve. Nothing less than “Fuck you” would have been as effective in doing that.

By the way, HERE is the unabridged version in pdf format which is searchable once downloaded. It’s still a great read and, if you read it when you were a kid, you might be surprised at how your perspective has changed in the years since. I was. It’s only 115 pages.

Dutchess_III's avatar

One of my favorite moments in Inside Outside,Outside(Wouk_novel) by Herrman Wouk, is when he is describing the 10 year boy character, who just realized he got busted looking up a girl’s dress. The moment he realizes someone caught him Wouk writes Oh. God. Cracked me right up! So when you see me use it, which I do, that’s where it comes from.

ucme's avatar

I wouldn’t know or care if it was only in the book, i’m not into that shite.

Zaku's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus What types of oaths and what times and places are you referring to? Seems to me that modern oaths such as the 4-letter references to excretion and careless fornication are relatively recent and very poor, compared to previous oaths, which called on the gods and/or powers of nature and the cosmos, or which were actual curses or colorful insults or other expressions with some meaning and invention in them.

Seek's avatar

Fuck and shit are medieval at least.

Shakespeare is almost 600% dick jokes.

Vikings used to give each other nicknames (that people would actually be known by!) referencing how bad their farts smelled or the length of their pubic hair.

I think you’re fallen into a fallacy of historical reverence. This generation did not invent vulgarity. Not by a long shot.

Zaku's avatar

@Seek Find me some Shakespeare dick jokes that are like modern usage? Sure there were crude people and crude language forever, but what’s the earliest one-word exclamation that’s just excretion? The one-word exclamations is Shakespeare tend to be “Sblood” or “Zounds” – as in God’s blood or wounds – somewhat different than poop. I’ve seen several modern foreign people finding the word “fuck” in English and the way it’s used and having it be a new thing.

It seems to me that descriptive insults and humor are also not the same thing as just fuck/fucker. I remain unconvinced that it’s not a somewhat modern English-language pattern where the bias about how universal that form of cursing and insulting is, is rather in the other direction.

Merriam-Webster shows “Fuck – First Known Use: circa 1503”. As it seems to derive from “akin to Dutch fokken to breed (cattle), Swedish dialect fókka to copulate”, I doubt it went straight to generic exclamation or curse.

Jeruba's avatar

Who’s doing the allowing?

Seek's avatar

Nicknames Referring to Private Parts
Negative nicknames are rather common, ranging from sexually-charged insults to
unflattering physical characteristics, and several nicknames referring to private parts,
perhaps the most sensitive areas in terms of insults and otherwise, are found in the
corpus. Finnur Jónsson (1907, 218–219) provides a list of these in the second section of
his nickname list under the categories “penis, cunnus” and “anus.” There are two
compounds in his list formed with -reðr „penis‟: Árni skaðareðr „harm-penis‟ and
Kolbeinn smjǫrreðr „butter penis‟; both nicknames are akin to compounds like hestreðr
„horse phallus‟, which does not appear as a nickname but as an insult (cf. Gade 1989,
64). Three more “male members” of this group may be mentioned: Herjólfr hrokkineista
„shrivelled testicle‟, Brunda-Bjálfi „Sperm-Bjálfi‟, and Strað-Bjarni „Butt-fuck-Bjarni‟
(< streða = serða „butt fuck [fuck from behind]‟). Not found in Finnur‟s list, but found
in Lind‟s dictionary (1920–21, 306) is Helgi selseista „seal‟s testicle‟. In this short
“penis” list there is also Ǫnundr tréfótr‟s paternal grandfather Ívarr beytill, the meaning
of which is debatable and ranges from „horsetail (plant)‟ (cf. Cleasby/Vigfusson 1874,
62, where it is connected to góibeytill „equisetum hyemale, horsetail‟), „thruster/beater‟,
and „(horse) penis‟?. Lind (1920–21, 21) connected it to the verb bauta „beat, pound‟,
but raised the possibility that it could mean something like Swed. skrävlare
(“swaggerer, show-off, big talker”) because of the meaning of Nyn. bøytel „swagger‟.
De Vries (1962, 35) translated beytill as “zeugungsglied des pferdes” (“horse phallus”),
but still connected it to bauta „beat‟. Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon (1989, 53) glossed it
more or less the same as “hestreður, getnaðarlimur” (“horse phallus, procreation
Nicknames referring to female genitalia are also found. There is a Rǫgnvaldr
kunta „cunt‟, and a few other examples found in compounds built with the component
fuð- „cunt‟. A mid-13th century runic inscription from Bergen contains a string of just
such insulting nicknames (here, normalized):
Jón Silkifuð á mik, en Guðþormr Fuðsleikir reist mik, en Jón Fuðkúla ræðr mik.
[Jón Silky-cunt owns me, and Guðþormr Cunt-licker carved me, and Jón Cunt-ball
interprets me.]34
Such a long string of such compounds is rather unusual, and it is unclear whether this is
intended solely as an insult, curse, or if it in fact represents pure graffiti. While the first
two nicknames‟ meanings seem more apparent, the meaning of the third is much less
clear. It is possible that fuðkúla means „cunt-knob‟ instead of „cunt-ball‟ (the precise
meaning of which escapes me), although this is possibly a slang term for “clitoris,” or
this nickname is purely imaginative or crude without a real purpose. An Old Icelandic
nickname also exists built with fuð, Þorgils fuðhundr „dog cunt, cunt-dog‟ (cf. Finnur
Jónsson 1907, 299).
There are also nicknames referring to breasts. In the realm of female breasts, in
that they are more sexual than those of males, there are Þorbjǫrg knarrarbringa and
Ásný knarrarbringa (Finnur Jónsson 1907, 214–15). I might suggest that the nickname
knarrarbringa „ship-chest‟ may refer not to a wide or high body in the chest region as
Finnur suggests, but perhaps a particularly large bosom (with a vulgar meaning like “big
tits”). Notably in the case of Þorbjǫrg knarrarbringa, her nickname seems to have been
partially inherited, at least thematically as a pair in the realm of ship allusions, from her
father Gils skeiðarnef „longship beak‟ (cf. the mention of the inheritable nickname pair
in Ekbo 1947, 271).
Last but not least among private part nicknames, there are those which refer to
the butt, anus, and its functions (cf. Finnur Jónsson 1907, 218–19). I will call these
nicknames “potty humor nicknames,” because it is likely that these arose in typically
off-color humor. The Old Norse word raz „ass‟ (Mod. Icel. rass, cognate to Engl. arse,
formed by metathesis) figures most prominently among these nicknames. There are two

34 All text taken from Samnordisk runtextdatabas, online at:
men with the prefixed genitive plural Raza-, Raza-Bárðr (Ass-Bárðr) and Raza-Bersi
(Ass-Bersi). Three other men have compound nicknames formed with raz: Hergils
hnappraz „button ass‟, Herjólfr hokinrazi „squatted, croutched ass‟, and Ásmundr
kastandrazi „throwing ass, throw ass‟ (= “hip-thruster”). Four nicknames occur which
refer to farting: the legendary king Eysteinn fretr „fart‟ Hálfdanarson (which occurs as
Eustein bumbus „fart‟ in Historia Norwegiæ), the settler Eysteinn meinfretr „harm-fart‟,
Gunni fiss „fart‟, and Andrés dritljóð „dung sound‟ (= “fart”). Furthermore, two
independent butt nicknames not related to raz or fretr are found in the corpus: Erlendr
bakrauf „back-hole‟ (= “anus”) and Þórir hafrs jó „buck‟s thigh‟.


Seek's avatar

Regarding Shakespeare specifically,

Romeo and Juliet, act 1 scene 1. It’s an entire conversation of dick jokes. “I’ll rape them all and they’ll feel me as long as I can stay hard”, basically.

What, you think that because he said “as long as I can stand” instead of “as long as I have a hard-on” he’s not saying the same thing?

Slang changes over time. At the time Romeo and Juliet was on stage, that was a goddamn punchline.

“Draw out your tool!” “It’s a good thing you’re not a fish, you’re dried and shrivelled like you’re salted”. “My naked weapon is ready!”

Zaku's avatar

Now there’s some choice and vigorous content! Excellent work, you certainly have many… points… there.

Certainly there are many such references, as you have pointed out. It seems to me we don’t really disagree, though, except in our characterizations. Perhaps a large part of why I find these older references more interesting that modern ones are that I haven’t heard them overused as much as I have the modern ones, and I’m more likely to be annoyed in person by people using the modern style than people making colorful pescatory penile metaphors in my general direction. However for whatever reasons, I continue to find most of the actual ye olde examples at least as interesting as they are offensive, which I rarely find to be the case with our modern versions, even most of the professionally scripted ones. Maybe I was just meant for an earlier age, or I’m sick of our current one’s stylings.

Seek's avatar

But why not appreciate both?

It took a lot of time and study for me, personally, to drop the inclination to revere history as something mysterious and deep that my idiot generation could never possibly understand.

At some point you have to realise that it’ll only be a couple hundred years until our idiot generation will be fawned over as the mysterious past that future numbskulls should aspire to be like.

If you study the mundane realities of history as well as the names and dates and the movers and shakers that we all learn about in History class in high school, you realise that the old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is really, really true.

Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, is a Book of Hours. It’s an illuminated manuscript by the Limbourg brothers in 15th century. February. If you open that, you’ll see a beautiful French countryside in the middle of winter. Snow everywhere, nice and pure. And in the bottom right corner, inside the farmhouse, you see two peasants warming their naked nether-bits by the fire, and a better-dressed woman averting her eyes with a look on her face that just screams, “Ugh, the idiots I have to put up with.” I’m sure the Duke got a bit of a giggle out of that page.

Ha ha, look at the stupid poor people, they cook their naked privates by the fire! Ha ha, look at that pretentious noblewoman pretending she’s never seen a cock before.

And not to get too obvious, but basically everything everyone cringes about in Game of Thrones happened on a stage in Greece like, three thousand years ago.

Zaku's avatar

@Seek Bottom-left, no? Hmm, to me it looks like ya she has more modesty and perhaps it could be contempt, but I think she may be regarding the cat.

I think perhaps I miscommunicated and came across as idolizing the past as opposed to merely finding little value in most of the abundant simple crude expressions in modern American media and Internet conversations. On the other hand Too Many Mother Uckers is one of my current favorite songs (it is a parody of the mode of expression I think is silly), so… maybe I’m just being silly.

I do think there is much genius and value in our modern culture, mostly in the individual expressions rather than the corporate ones, but also way too much idiocy for my taste (especially in the corporate media and corporate politics).

Seek's avatar

‘Tis always true. The fact of the past is that we only get a snapshot of it, and usually the snapshot is the major highlights and lowlights. We don’t learn in history class the random idiocy of daily life in the past, but you can be certain as the sun rises in the East, it was there. In abundance.

And now, for your reading pleasure, one of my favourite bawdy tavern songs.
My Thing is My Own

Sneki95's avatar

@BellaB Thanks for the post, that was interesting to read.

Dutchess_III's avatar

In The Grapes of Wrath a character said, “Dust comin’ up an’ spoilin’ ever’thing so a man didn’t get enough crop to plug up an ant’s ass.

Now how could you possibly replace such a vivid description with anything else?

I also love it when he has the characters saying “I could of….” As the narrator he doesn’t do that, of course. Just when the characters are talking. Gosh. Think about that.

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