To curse or not to curse…

I love Louis CK. He is our Lenny Bruce. There is something about him that makes everything he says funny. He says things that no one else could pull off. It’s quite amazing. Do some googling if you haven’t heard of him.

I’m thinking about Louis CK this morning because I’ve started doing an advice column, and it’s pretty NOT PG-13. But people like it. My family hates it of course. That is to be expected because it is different hearing your loved one curse (or talk about weird fetishes) than hearing a stranger curse (or talk about weird fetishes). But it raises an interesting dilemma.

I have a pretty foul mouth when appropriate, and I write about some pretty dark stuff. Generally, it is received much more favorably than I anticipate, but it begs the question: am I doing myself a disservice?

Now, the ‘darkness’, that’s pretty non-negotiable. That’s what I write. But I could never use another curse word again, and the stories would still be powerful. I could still make them hit home. Sometimes the stories are profanity free – all depends on what the story needs.

Now, here’s the thing. Like Mr. Bruce, I tend to find the notion that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ words pretty ridiculous. I keep it clean on here because them’s the rules. But, in my daily life…well, words are words if my daughter is not around. And I find it bizarre that people get weirded out talking about sex – the most natural thing we do.

Bruce’s (and I would imagine Louis’ and many others) take is that words are only powerful or ‘bad’ if we let them be that way. It’s all in the way you use them. Now, there are a lot of bad names you can call people. I can’t say them on here. But I can call someone a jerk, nerd, bastard, etc. We give power to the “bad” words by classifying them as bad.  Americans especially.

This is not a plea to allow swearing on IU. I honestly couldn’t care less because I know lots of words and it’s not like I am in love love with profanity. I like it. But I like it for the same reason I like the word ‘pontificate’. It sounds cool. It has meaning. But there’s another important reason I like profanity. How many words can you use as a verb, adjective, and noun? And profanity can make a tepid sentence powerful because, right or wrong, we DO give these words power.

As I said, aside from my family (and my wife’s family), no one ever really trips about this. Sometimes I get offended emails from people who find cursing reprehensible. I write thousands of words a day. I’ve gotten a handful of those emails. Sometimes, I get ‘this could be just as good without the cursing’. Sure, maybe. But why the uproar?

Words are constructs. We combine some letters, agree on a general pronunciation, and then we attach meaning to it. I can say shit on here, so, for an example, why does the word ‘shit’ offend people when the word ‘defecate’ does not?  They mean the same thing and if you ask me, defecate sounds a lot dirtier than shit.

I don’t know. I know there are a lot of people like me. And I guess I am alienating some people by using “bad” words. But maybe I’m attracting other people? I honestly don’t know. My daughter is a sharp one, and she asks about these things and I always say there are no ‘bad’ words, but there are words you don’t want to use because people will make assumptions and judgments about you if you do. I am 34. She is 3. I get to use “dirty” words and no one cares. But she’s not bald.

The weirdest thing that people tell me is that, as a writer, I should be able to express myself with “clean” (?) words. And that’s a valid argument…sort of. I don’t have to curse. But writers are some of the most foul-mouthed people in the world. Hmmm….

To me, words become bad when they are used as weapons against REAL people. Otherwise, hell, they’re just words. I’d really be interested in your opinion on this, so leave a comment. But keep it clean. If you want to spew profanity at me, you can find me on FB. Bring it on, I can take it.

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JD Mader is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the novels JOE CAFÉ and THE BIKER – and co-author of the mighty Bad Book. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and his blog: (and musical nonsense here: JD Mader).  Mader’s edgier works can be found at

Author: JD Mader

JD Mader is an award winning short story writer and novelist. 'Joe Café' and 'The Biker' are out now, as well as 'Please, no eyes'. and the collaborative 'Bad Book'. Mader has been writing for half his life and has no plans on stopping any time soon. Learn more about JD Mader at his blog and his Amazon author page.

88 thoughts on “To curse or not to curse…”

  1. I know some people get upset about certain words and as part of the reviews on my blog I even warn those people about books that have them, but IRL, I'm like you. The best thing I've heard about this was from an author in response to the "you're an author, you should be able to do without using them" line. Her response was along the lines of "as an author, words are my tools. Why would I arbitrarily decide not to use some of the tools available to me?"

  2. I know you know I agree with you 100% on this, my friend. And cursing does seem to create a more negative reaction in (North?) America than elsewhere. The Brits are awesome cursers. In fact, it's kind of depressing that we encounter more condemnation now for certain uses of profanity while Shakespeare (four hundred years ago) and Chaucer (a massive six hundred years ago) could curse up a storm. These words are part of our heritage, and as language-lovers, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to want to limit or marginalize them. It's like taking certain colours from a painter's palette. @#$% that. 😉

    1. I agree David (I seem to always agree with you.) Words are lovely. I love the English language. I just wish some would use the full breadth of the'palette' rather than relying on one colour, one word, to be the verb, adverb, noun and adjective in every other sentence. As Yvonne says below, that's just laziness.

      And yes the Brits are awesome cursers – the accent helps 🙂

  3. I never understood the concept of "bad" v. "good" words. Even as a kid. Words were words. They have an appropriate use. Use them if the situation deems the specific words are appropriate. I suppose they should come with a warning (use at your own discretion/peril) label? I have to agree with Mr. Antrobus, the British are wonderful at cursing, it's actually funny listening to them. Not only have they mastered *that* art, but the art of an insult inside of a compliment. Now, that, my friend is a talent. It's too bad Americans are so gun shy when it comes to a lot of things (sex, profanity, etc). The world would be a much more interesting place if the particulars were out in the open.

    1. I agree about the brits and what an irony that we are gun shy about cursing and sex, but not actual guns. Which kill people.

  4. I think the uproar over cursing is comical. You can show or write about blood and gore and people being shot to bits, but mustn't drop an f-bomb! Oh, heavens, the world will end! Yet as writers, as David said above, our choice of words is another tool in our quivers. I tailor my cursing for my market and when appropriate for a character. But I've also found that a judiciously dropped epithet can have maximum impact. Great post, dude.

      1. Thanks lady. Carlin and Bruce are heroes of mine. Smart, smartasses. I'll never understand. You can't show a boob on TV, but an autopsy? Sure!

        1. Yeah, who was the lunatic who decided breasts are obscene?

          It's been 40 years since Carlin's 7 words you can't say on television! And you still can't say most of them. Progress? A little?

          1. The key word is context. When I worked in the high school settings, I learned to say bullspit, flub and bleep a lot.

            In writing my first book, I found I used a certain A/S 4 letter word (I'm being circumspect because Mr. Hise chided me rather severely the last time I used fuck on I.U.) 98 times – gotta love the "find" button on WORD. I went back and removed 50% of them, because it was a short cut to better writing.

            However, while in my genre cuss words are often used – I do try to elevate the discourse as much as possible. As I said in the beginning, context.

  5. I don't think it does, depending on what you're writing and who your characters are. Well, that's how I'd do it, put those words in the mouth of your character. Just act like you're eavesdropping on a convo that is being had all loud and stuff. It can getcha editing. If you're just foul-foul-filth-firth-foul just because you can and your story is wack and your characters suck, cursing is the least of your problems.

  6. You have heard me express my opinion about cursing before and I'll say it again; even though they are just words, excess use of any words gets to be a bit much and I think excess use of curse words (to me) gets to be a big bit much. If you feel you can't justify cursing around your family how can you justify cursing profusely in your books? I realize that its difficult to pick up a book today that doesn't at least contain some cursing but being a bit old fashioned I still find excess use of any word to be annoying. I do agree with you though that ‘defecate’ sounds a lot worse than shit.

    1. The difference is in my books people die and fight and have sex and drink with abandon and get up to all kinds of shenanigans. My family likes to play legos.

  7. Interesting timing on this post since I do recall being upset about a particular word you used only a few days ago…hmm. Anyways, with writing, as with life, I only have two parameters when it comes to profanity:

    1. the use of it shouldn't be false. A potty mouth for the sake of appearing cool and one of the gang is as ridiculous to me as someone scrinching their face in distaste when anything stronger than the word 'poo' is uttered. If strong language is a natural part of the character (or the writer) it rings differently in my ear and does not offend me.

    2. words used for the female anatomy must not be hurled as curse words. Words have power. Used in that way, the connotation is that women are both dirty and powerless. Usage is everything.

    JD, with those 2 things in mind, I can honestly say you've never, ever offended me. You and your writing are just too damn good 😉

  8. I am not against any particular words, per se. On the other hand I do not advocate the indiscriminate use of profanity, slurs, or other words that may be offensive to some. As you say, words are our tools, So I think they ought to be respected as such. Even you, Dan, admit to avoiding certain words in front of your daughter. All words have a place, and can be used to positive effect. But to substitute better words with profanity out of laziness, which I see so many do in my daily life, is sad. Personally I want to be respectful of others' sensibilities when in public, or when we are with those who we know to be reactive to them. Now I am not accusing you of doing otherwise. You have made a point that you do censor yourself so I think we are not on opposite sides of the fence. I'm just a little more cautious than you are.

    1. We're on the same side of the fence. I don't curse much anymore because I retrained myself when Karen was pregnant. Around friends, yeah. In my writing, when it is appropriate. 😉

    2. I like your points Yvonne and found that in your two books that I have read you were able to make your point very well without the excess use of profanity, slurs, or other words that may be offensive to some. Thank you for that.

  9. At first I was offended when a reviewer who downloaded my book for free, without bothering to check out the "look inside" feature, objected to it being too "profane" and suggested I purchase a "dictionary." Then I thought about that statement and actually used it to promote the book. The dialogue is real, and there's no way "that darn woman" could effectively replace the three word phrase I chose to use. I wouldn't say I need to curse in every book I write, but if it works, and I want to, I will. If certain readers are "offended" by my writing, they can move on. I don't write for every single person who reads…

    Two great posts from you today…loved the fishing one 🙂

    1. Thanks much. That's a good comparison actually. The fishing one is rated G. This is PG. For the cursier stuff you have to head to or Blergpop. 😉

  10. I agree that there are no bad words, only poor usage. I once reviewed a book that used the word 'wryly' no less than twice per page. It highly offended me.

  11. Honestly, swearing doesn't add anything to writing. If you're a good enough writer, you can get the point across without it. And, yes, I do swear but just not on paper!

    1. I respectfully disagree. Take all the goddamn's out of Holden's mouth. Different book, different character. And when my henchman is beating a man to death, how does this sound:

      "You big jerk. You stupid nerd! You know what I'm going to do right? I'm going to beat you to death like the ignorant fool you are."

      BIG difference in character.

    2. Some characters need it, some don't. And the character who doesn't swear much really sounds annoyed when a 4-letter word finally pops out of his mouth.

      I'm a Brit, so I'm used to dropping these words into everyday conversation in contexts that Americans wouldn't dream of using them. We actually find some of your "curse" words rather quaint – SOB (spelled out in full) isn't used as an insult in the UK much (or wasn't when I left).

      I had fun with a particularly verbally inventive, very camp character in one of my books. My favourite phrase that he came up with was (and I make no apologies for the word here): "Well, bugger me sideways with a twelve-foot steam-powered barbed wire-wrapped dildo”. I think we Brits *are* more inventive, and more tolerant, of "bad" language.

      1. You are indeed. Actually, I can get pretty inventive. But there is no tolerance.

        Thanks for the comment. Drink a pint for me you old c-word you.

  12. To me, an F-bomb in a book is like a flashbulb; its power is in its shock value but it takes my brain a minute to recover. So when it’s overused, I’m blinded away from the story and eventually just put it down. I don’t know anyone who has put down a book because it just didn’t have enough curse words. You can think it’s silly or arbitrary, but I think it’s a risk to dismiss it. Sure, most of my social circle doesn’t seek out dark material, but we’re not so freakishly quaint as to be written off as a potential audience. I loved Catcher in the Rye. I’ve watched The Departed four times. I read Don’t Ask regularly and while I sometimes cringe, I more often laugh out loud. I think Unemployed Imagination has some of the best, most emotionally wrenching writing I’ve ever seen, on a blog or otherwise. But I’ve also had a debate about whether or not I should continue to link to it from my blog, because some of the material on it might turn of MY potential audience. It’s an interesting conversation.

    1. It is. Indeed. I often link things with a disclaimer. I'm the opposite, the more curse words, the less I notice them. Ideally, they should be used for just that flashbulb you speak of. And thanks! 😉

  13. This post was great fun JD. Isn't it odd that just talking about swearing seems to heat up the conversation and get people talking? Good one 😀

  14. JD, I haven't read through the comments yet, there just isn't time tonight, so if I duplicate what some may have already said then you have my apologies.

    To curse or not to curse, that is the question. I think it depends upon the situation, and in your writing, the character. There may be a time and place, or that may just be the way the characters express themselves.

    Anyone that is offended by strong language will be offended despite the character quirk or the situation the character is in. I'm not saying these people are wrong (they're wrong), but I can see why they might be upset. They were raised being told these are 'bad' words and were forbidden to use them. That's what happened in my case.

    Fortunately I started thinking for myself when I became a teenager. Why are words good or bad? Because someone says they are? Sorry, not good enough. I would be more upset with my children using the words "um" and "like" while telling me about their day than I would if they used some colorful metaphors.

    Again, there are words for every situation. And in some of those situations, FRAK just doesn't cut it. Unless you're a geek. In which case your nerdy cool factor increases by +1 with every use.

    Great post sir. I'll be back tomorrow to read the follow-ups. 😉

    1. Awesome comment, Rush!!!!

      And you've brought me out of my not-so-glorious isolation once more to add something that's always bothered me. Which is: whenever this topic has arisen, I've challenged people to explain exactly why these words are "bad". Do they sound ugly? Not really. Some, perhaps. But many non-profanities are far uglier-sounding. Do they refer to something that's bad? Well, no. Some, but not most. Look at Carlin's list. Only two refer to bodily waste. The rest refer to good things in context. And the two Anglo-Saxon words that get the biggest reactions (both four letters, one beginning with "f" and one beginning with "c") both refer to something most people would see as good things, as happy aspects of our humanity. So I really don't get it. And not one person has explained it to me, yet, despite me genuinely asking.

      As soon as you have that realisation you just described, they simply become words, along with all the other words, and are equally fair game to a writer… hell, to a language user of any stripe. This is like a collective madness to even allow any of this to be remotely controversial. We're adults, ferchrissakes.

      1. That's like asking why "window" means that thing that you open to let the air in. Do the letters in "window" look like a pane of glass? Do you feel a breeze when you see the word? If you say it 50 times in a row, it completely loses its meaning. It becomes simply letters. But tomorrow, it will still mean that thing that you open to let the air in, because that is the meaning that it was assigned through years of linguistic history. It's the same reason "liberal" makes some people feel one way and "conservative" another. The dictionary meaning of the word isn't the issue, it is the social context. Being sensitive to context and connotation and history doesn't make a person childish. It is connotation that gives writing texture.

        1. No, Krista, you misunderstood me. I may hear the word "fascism" and not like the feelings it produces in me, but I would never advocate its non-use or try to prevent others from using it, or judge them for using it. It's a word, and no word is inherently bad. Rape is bad. But it's not the word that makes it bad. What's even more ironic is that, as I pointed out, many of the activities described by so-called curse words refer to something good! And yet, words referring to some awful things are not even profanities (child molestation, necrophilia, incest, genocide, you get the picture). It seems like collective insanity, sometimes, and as Dan alludes to, it seems largely an American problem (perhaps stemming from religious puritanism?).

      2. IMHO words are bad when they are used to hurt – as in using body parts to insult someone or when they are used knowingly to offend, such a racial slurs, or used in 'jokes' to denigrate a particular group of people. Words in isolation are just letters mixed together, but when that mix creates hurt or offense it becomes 'bad'.

    2. Well in, Rush. I agree completely. And there are groups of people who just swear more. My biker buddies curse, rather cleverly, all the time. Don't notice it. My mom drops the f bomb and the world stops. An argument for power. RUSH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      1. My GOD man, reading all these comments has taken most of the night. Why can't you just post a fluffy piece about kittens once in a blue moon?


        I'll say it again, great post. Even better commentary.

        Write on brother!

  15. I try to make up cussing around my kids and now my grandkid. My favorite is fudgepuppies. (it replaces MF)

    I had a friend in high school, very religious, who told me even made up cuss words like darn and shoot were bad because you were still thinking the bad words they meant. LOL Too much thinking for me. I’m sorry, but if I stub my toe on the bedframe Gosh, Golly Gee will NOT be the words out of my mouth.

      1. -grin- when my daughter and nephew were little we made up a series of new swear words that they were allowed to use. The one they still remember and laugh about 20 years later is 'bumswizzles'.

        I think swearing is fundamental to how human beings express themselves in moments of high emotion. Sometimes NOTHING else even comes close to the feeling churning around inside. For those occasions I approve of profanity 100%. What I don't like is when swear words become a convenient marker for vocabulary in ordinary situations.

        As aussies we have a way of sneaking some words into the vernacular in a way that is colourful but not meant to be offensive – e.g. after a good meal "What a bloody great meal!" Or after a particularly humiliating oops moment 'Bugger'. I'm more than ok with that 😀

        However – "What tha ef, ya effin, motha-effa do ya effin think yur effin doing?" is just kind of sad, no matter how emotional the moment may be.

  16. I mentioned this discussion to my daughter and she feels that individuals in my granddaughter's age group (22+) do not use the word f–k in their conversations with a set meaning – its just a fill word that is common to their language of today. I think that is true regarding a lot of curse words used in writing; the word may not have the same meaning, but is just being used as part of the local scene. When used as a part of normal conversation the curse word probably doesn't mean the same thing. Then again, it might!

    1. I have long thought my propensity for swearing started when I stopped stuttering. I was a stutterer. I say 'and shit' a lot instead of stuttering or saying um. Bad habit, but I've gotten better.

  17. Just a general thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts so eloquently here. I have learned a lot. Or I have learned what I knew…ain't no two of us the same. But I enjoyed every comment. And this is not a show stopper, keep em coming. Guinness book here we come.

  18. Late to the party, again, but want to say well done JD on another terrific post and an informative and useful discussion thread.

    But I think there's something missing here, especially related to RG Bud Phelps' comment: yes, as writers we have all the words in the English language at our disposal, but do we, really?

    For me an expression like "at the end of the day" and words like "awesome" have no meaning whatsoever; if I used them in exposition I would bugger myself sideways, etc, etc (love that one, btw!) and I would only put them in the mouth of a character to show a negative personality trait.

    Now it's going the same way with profanity. If 22-year-olds merely use the f-word as an interjection, like "yeah" or "whatever", then hasn't the word lost not only its power to shock, but also its meaning?

    Younger generations profaning to upset their elders is nothing new, and one of our jobs as writers is to observe and react to the language changes as they happen. The thing is, what's next? As Jo-Anne pointed out, there do still seem to be boundries. I'm 45 and would never use the c-word in the presence of a woman, but I hear it more often in films, and to be honest it saddens me a little. It is a very vulgar word, and whether the rest of the English-speaking world thinks it's okay to use it, I don't want to hear it, in any context (yeah, okay, I'm a prude).

    So if I read a 25-year-old's work laced with profanity, as a reader there'd better be something else good in there that's going to entertain me, or pretty quickly I'm going to reach the conclusion that they're doing it to look cool. This is, of course, only right and proper if they're writing only for their own age group. And here I think is the rub: if we want our stories to appeal to as many people as possible, then we should compromise; if we really don't give a f-f-fig how many people read us or what they think of our writing, then we can just profane away to our heart's content.

    It's a really interesting subject that provokes varied reactions based on one's age, opinions and sensitivities. Well done for causing such a good discussion, JD!

    1. Thanks brother. I'm beginning to think that curse words and how we use them is very, very important. For instance, in Joe Cafe, a bunch of people die, there is a kidnapping, a psycho, an emotional breakdown. If I took all the curse words out, it would read weird. They are raw, violent people.

      But I am going to be more choosy from now on (I hate the word choosy).

      1. Dan, funny you should say that. I am reading Joe Cafe right now, and finding it powerful, as with everything you write. But I do find it hard to read for the very reasons you just said, not the language. All that emotional pain, violence and cruelty is just too close to home for me. I am right there, and I don't like that feeling. But that just shows how well you do it.

      2. I dislike choosy as well. It sounds like a cross between cheesy and nosy.

        My favorite word growing up? Antidisestablishmentarianism. Well, that and cookie. I like cookies.

  19. I do believe profanity to be a sign of a limited vocabulary. But what is considered profane is changing. There are words that were common on TV in the fifties that we dare not use today. Can we speak and write without offending a single person? No. But it shows grace to try by avoiding what most likely would offend. I believe that showing respect is much better than the "I'm gonnay say it because it shocks" attitude. If those words become common they lose their shock value. You will run out of shocking words. Why?

    1. See, with all respect, this is quantifiably, objectively not true. Whenever someone trots out this line, I can only think they haven't stopped to consider what they're saying. The difference between someone who uses profanity and someone who doesn't is that the former has a less limited and considerably larger vocabulary, yeah? There are simply more words available to them, after all.

      1. Just because we may choose not to use them does not mean they are not available in our vocabulary. Our vocabulary is limited by the words we do not know, not by the ones we know but choose not to use.

        But, with regard to writing, The choice to use them is often determined by the character and the situation. I often think they are completely appropriate in what I read (as in Dan's Joe Cafe), but in my daily conversation I choose not to use them.

        1. It's funny because, despite my arguments here, I don't tend to curse a great deal in my regular life. It's just my writer mentality kicking in. I honestly get an almost visceral reaction to censorship. I'm not saying anyone here is advocating censorship, they're clearly not, just that there's a potential slippery slope when designating some words "bad" that could lead to censorship, and in fact has done in the past. To me, all words are equally important.

          One last thought on the idea of "bad" words. I do agree that words can be used to hurt, of course. There are familiar words used by racist, sexist and homophobic people that cause others a great deal of pain. But when that happens, it's not the words themselves that should be condemned, but those who wield them. Like hammers, words are potential tools or potential weapons. In Hamlet, Shakespeare didn't use the c-word to cause hurt, after all. He knew the word itself was fine. Why should we all pay because a bunch of ugly misogynists have tried to tarnish a word that was perfectly acceptable until the Victorians got all pissy about it?

  20. I have to agree with David. It's not that the writer has a "limited" vocabulary…those are the words the writer chose because those words worked best, not because he didn't "know" other words. And in my experience, profanity is not always used to "shock."

    1. I agree with D, too. And Yvonne. I DO NOT think that knowing cursewords limits your vocabulary. I'm not good at math, but that doesn't make sense. And I agree with Yvonne about being aware and choosing.

      The crazy thing to me is that Joe Cafe is SUPER violent in some parts. Some of it is hard for me to read. I hate violence. But no one blinks at that. But the cussing, that darn cussing….

  21. I just read all these comments and I'm f#%#ing exhausted!!!

    I say bad words. I am from NJ, the birthplace of many potty mouths. When I worked in an office with mostly men the word "shit" was used like "thing". "Hey John, is that your shit on the conference room table?" A couple of us had a d-bag list that we were very serious in managing. If you nominated someone you had to defend your candidate with examples of reprehensible behavior.

    I do think any word loses its effectiveness when overused. But, it can add tremendous shock value when properly placed.

    I don't believe in any form of censorship, except here, where the evil mastermind enforces it. 🙂

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