Saturday, August 22, 2009

Swearing Up and Down: Thoughts On Bad Language

by Shanna Germain

I teach a class in writing erotica and one of the exercises that I do on the first day of each new semester is ask my students to say all the "bad words" they can think of. As soon as I say this, they start shifting in their seats, their faces pinken, they bow their heads and spend a lot of time counting coffee stains on the rug. When they realize I'm serious, and that we're not going to move on until they actually do this thing I've asked, someone hesitantly begins, and slowly they all join in, usually starting with curse words--shit and damn and fuck. And then, bit by bit, it moves into sexual words: dick and penis and pussy and eventually, to the "really bad words," like cunt.

Why do I torture my students like this? (Well, they call it torture, I call it teaching). I do it because it begins to eradicate the taboos of language that so many of us carry in our heads. And I believe that in order to write fully realized characters and fantastic sex scenes, it's important to understand the distinction between what you believe to be a taboo word and what your character believes to be a taboo word.

For example, I personally would never use flowery euphemisms to describe bodies or sexual activities. I cringe at the thought of saying or writing about someone's heaving bosom or her pink-petalled yoni. However, if I had a character who used that kind of language, then she might say all of those things. And while I personally like harsh, strong words -- cock and pussy and tit and nipple -- and I wince when someone in real life uses phrase like "her sex" or "her front bottom," my characters may not. If my male character wants to call his cock a penis or a dick or a shaft or even (gods forbid) give it a name like Joey Junior, then who am I to stop him?

Then there are the ever-changing "really taboo" words (capital r, capital t), which most often seem to revolve around sexual orientation and race. Here, perhaps, is the greatest dichotomy between my own beliefs and those of my characters. Would I ever use a racist, sexist or other negative term in a negative way? Fuck no. Would my characters? Very likely.

Along those lines, I find it's important to ask myself what connotation, or particular flavor, I want to create through the words my character uses. Cock says something entirely different (slightly hard-edged, neither too pretty nor too vulgar) from penis (a little more scientific) from schlong (humorous, dorky, not at all sexy). Of course, the connotation of words is always evolving. Shakespeare's curses are no longer even curses--gadzooks for example, which came from "God's hooks," was considered terribly offensive in its day, and now people use it (if they use it at all) as an expression of surprise (or, in the U.S., as the name of a clothing store for teens). Even that most taboo of words from my own teenage years--cunt--has become accepted and reclaimed as a word of power for women.

So, is there any word that I'd never use in writing? There was a time when I would have said yes, but now I don't think so. Words are both my building materials and my tools, and I don't want to throw any of them away. In fact, I am more likely to hoard words, both good and bad. I want to collect every cunt and fuck and twat and cock that I can -- and then dole them out at just the right instance to make the biggest impact on the story, and on the reader. And if I can do that, then all those bad words become not just good words, but great words.


Shanna Germain loves to curse in public, and while living in Scotland this year, she has learned how to properly use bloody, feckin and arsed. Her work appeared in places like Absinthe Literary Review, Best American Erotica, Best Gay Romance, Best Lesbian Erotica, Bitten and more. Learn all about her at


  1. Hello, Shanna,

    Welcome to the Grip! You know, I've been writing those words for years, but I still might have trouble in your class, saying them out loud in front of a bunch of strangers. So don't be too hard on them!

    And while you're here, can you please explain the correct usage of "bloody"...?

    Thanks for joining us.


  2. Hi Shanna,

    Wonderful post.

    I'm not sure I'd dare try your lesson with my students. Encouraging them to say 'bad' words would likely result in someone telling me, "F*ck off, you f*cking w*nker!"

    Good to see you here at the grip!



  3. Lisabet: That's funny, because I still have trouble saying those words too. Perhaps I just have a sadistic streak that makes me want to run my students through the process!

    As to bloody, wiki answers all, including the possible origin of it:

    But mostly I hear it used in phrases like "Bloody hell" or "Bloody wanker!"

    Best, s.

  4. Ashley:

    Thank you for inviting me. So much fun to think about bad language, and to remember why I love my job so much.

    And you know, my students have never said that (out loud), but thank you. Now I'm worried that they will! Oh, well, at least they'll be learning something :)

    Best, s.

  5. Hi Shanna,

    Welcome to the grip. I chuckled while reading your post, not all of it mind you, but the class' reaction to saying all those nasty words. I can't imagine doing that in a class full of teenagers.

    I think I need Helen for back up here. I'd be just fine saying all those bad words in public. Maybe I'm just old enough not to care what people think when a gray haired lady starts cursing like a truck driver. And, I have never heard or read the term, front bottom. OMG! That's just so dorky.

    You know, you have restated the comments most of us made here this week. Whether we would use the language our characters would isn't really the point, it's whether we'd allow our creations the freedom to speak how they should.

    Thanks so much for joining us and I really loved your post. Now I'm going to go read about bloody.


  6. Heya Jude,

    Thanks so much for the welcome and the great responses. It's funny -- 'front bottom' in the States is particular to certain religions, but I've also heard it regularly here in the UK. I think it's only used for women though (not surprisingly!).

    And I know I love reading those writers who can really use language, even the bad words. Just like I love listening to someone who can really swear. You know, someone who either makes up the best swearwords or who can really nail the timing when they say them. It's such a skill.

    Best, s.

  7. pink-petalled yoni???


    Great post Shanna, but I can't imagine what's it like to teach a class in writing erotica!

    I think you Brits have different taboo words because I'm wracking my brain trying to figure out what the (capital r, capital t) words could be. Oh wait, I'll ask Jude, she'll know. *G*

    Thanks for posting today at the Grip!

  8. Hey Jenna!

    I know. I actually read that in a story that I was editing (and the story had nothing to do with yoga and was mostly of the "cock and balls" type up until that point) -- the writer and I had a great discussion about why that phrase didn't quite work.

    I'm not Brit, actually, just claiming temporarily citizenship for the summer :) And it's often racial slurs that fall into that category, at least in my experience.

    Best, s.

  9. About the best outrush of swearing came from my hubby a few years ago. He's a welder and for some idiotic reason the company he worked for decided to get four or five welders into an enclosed space to do some welding. Arc flash is when the flash strikes the eyes and can cause some pretty horrible damage. Anyhoo, poor hubby got arc flash and didn't realize it until the middle of the night. He woke up in agony, but rather than wake me, decided to try to deal with it himself, as he'd done before. That time it was much worse though and I wound up taking him to the hospital.

    Picture this, middle of the night, poor hubby in agony, and me half asleep and driving him. That in itself is notable, He normally drives. It takes approximately 20 minutes to get to the hospital from where we live. All that way, my man sat in his seat quietly swearing. He never raised his voice. I don't think he repeated himself either. It was amazing. I mean it made sense and was just so impressive. I wish I'd had a tape recorder.

    He was fine, btw, but did suffer for a few days with swollen, red eyes. Not fun.


  10. Hi Shanna!

    My turgid lovepole is all a quiver. Good post. I thougth wat you said about gadzooks was interesting, because I like Shakespeare andwe're always told how high minded he is, but he wrote the finest insults and profanity in thd english Language.

    The whoreson beadle headed flap eared knave Garce

  11. Jude, that is one fantastic story! I mean, despite the pain and injury bit. If I'd been in your spot I would have thought (later, of course), "Damn, I wished I'd brought a tape recorder!"

    Garceus, thanks so much for your comments. I'm a love of Shakespeare myself, mainly for the wonderful words he created (he did amazing things for the English language), but also for how creative he was with his swear words!

    Best, s.

  12. I love how you get your students pumped. Great opening exercise. I grew up in Catholic schools then spent my 20's in New York City which is where my dance with foul language began. I don't have kids but most of my friends do so I hold myself in check around them. If I slip up, they make me pay them a buck for each swear word. A reviewer that I've become e-mail friends with was taken aback when I used a few swears in my e-mail to him the other night. Said he worked with Teansters during his college summers so he wasn't offended but the fact he even brought it up made me think twice before throwing down another 'dirty diamond;! Fun post...Mary Kennedy Eastham, Authro, 'The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget' and the upcoming novel, 'Night Surfing'

  13. Thanks so much for your comments! It's funny -- someone that I went to high school read the post via Facebook and said, "Wow, you sure didn't say those words in high school!" and it made me think. Did I say those words back then? I can't remember, but I'm sure I thought them an awful lot.

    How far we've come. Or how far down we've sunk :)

    Best, s.

    PS -- my word verification word is 'lowerm'... too funny!

  14. Swearing kind of comes easy to me, perhaps it's my working class Scottish background, who knows! I'm not fazed by swear words at all. However, there's a word, or rather a phrase that I cannot use, it makes me cringe and that is: "mother fucker" to me that is totally beyond the pale. Hearing it in films is like being slapped in the face, it just freaks me out, it's disgusting. It's a personal taboo for me, the nastiest of nasties. Would I have a character of mine use it? Yes, probably, if I thought it fitted the bill, and the character.


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