The F-bomb

USians sometimes talk about the “f-bomb”. A euphemism I heard for the very first time last year from a librarian whose full time job is to fight censorship. We were on a panel (at WisCon) discussing book banning and censorship in front of an audience of adults. I was the moderator and in my introduction I used quite a few of the words that are likely to cause a book aimed at teenagers to run into trouble. It didn’t occur to me not to given that the panel started at 10PM and was in front of an audience of adults.

For less than a second all the air went out of the room.

And then the librarian laughed and said as how she had been tiptoeing around those words for so long that she could no longer say them out loud. Everyone else laughed too.

You’ll notice I’m not using any of them in this post either. That’s because I happen to know that some of the readers of this blog would be offended and I do not wish to offend them.

Chris Crutcher in his keynote speech at the Humble Teen Literature Festival last February eloquently defended his use of “cuss words” (tee hee! Sorry, it just makes me giggle) in his books without using any, but making it clear which ones he was talking about. It made me wonder what the difference is between making it clear what the word you’re not saying is and simply saying that word. It’s obviously a huge one because I’m pretty certain that if Chris Crutcher deployed any of those words in his speeches he would not get as many speaking gigs as he gets and he would lessen his power in the fight against censorship.

Ironic, innit?

I happen to like swearing. Some of my favourite words are offensive to many people. And so are those of Chris Crutcher and Holly Black. The enjoyment comes not from the shock value. Frankly, none of my friends or family are offended by swearing. The pleasure is from—to borrow a term from the land of wine and food lovers—the mouth feel.

I love the way many rude words feel in my mouth. I love their explosiveness. I love to use them as punctuation, as intensifiers, as poetry, as song.

I love getting creative with my swearing. I love using old standards. I love the age of these words. The majority of the rudest words in English go back to the beginnings of the language. I love that feeling of longevity. Words like these have been exploding out of people’s mouths for centuries.

I would love to write a book for teens that used the kind of language that I hear them use every day. That I use every day. I would love to capture those rhythms and cadences. But such a book would probably not get published.

I’d also love to write a book that did everything I want it to: was exciting, dramatic, moving, fun, and populated with recognisably teen characters but also managed to not offend anyone. What would such a book look like?

There would be no swear words in it. Everyone would speak uncolloquially and without grammatical errors. Characters would only fall in love with people of the opposite sex and same race and religion, yet they would not have sex. They would not smoke or lie or cheat.

But I know people who are offended by books that create worlds in which the ten per cent of the population that isn’t heterosexual do not exist.

I’m not sure a book that offends no one is possible. After all, I’m deeply offended by unicorns and by books in which the heroine keeps falling over and has to be rescued by the big handsome hero. That’s right, passive heroines drive me spare. But lots of other people just gobble them up.

I do not wish to have those books banned. I just wish people wouldn’t gobble them up. I also wish never to be subjected to the foul smells of coffee, petrol and perfume ever again, but I don’t fancy my chances.

I don’t want to offend anyone but as long as I’m writing books I don’t see how I can avoid it.


  1. veejane on #

    I would love to write a book for teens that used the kind of language that I hear them use every day.

    As long as they don’t say “lol” out loud. Or for that matter, any text/internet abbreviations. I reserve the right to be the cranky old bat, what with my stalwart defense of “whom,” so I think that allowing your teen characters to say “like” five times per sentence is really quite a stretch for me.

    I find Crutcher can be a devastating rhetorician when he wants to be (I’ve read him in interview, but not heard him speak); and anyway, he has a leg up on most of his detractors by being able to refer in monstrous detail to the stuff he has seen in his adolescent psychology practice. When the “ten commandments in a public school” kerfuffle was going on, about 8 years ago, he did not mince words (though I never did see him use unprintable ones).

  2. Justine on #

    C’mon Veejane! I meant in a writerly way. No writer uses direct transcripts of actual speech as dialogue. It’d be unreadable. We all repeat words endlessly. We um and ah. And we drop so many words that if you don’t know what’s been talked about it’s unintelligible. None of which works well on the written page. Writers are always doing an approximation of speech never direct reportage of the real thing.

    When Scott had one of his characters use “dude” a lot in Peeps some readers were annoyed. But that character didn’t use “dude” that much at all compared to most “dude” users. He was more gesturing at the “dude” thing not accurately representing it.

    Have you read Lauren Myracle? She does an excellent version of instant messageing speak etc in her TTFN books. They’re funny as hell and read just great.

  3. Dawn on #

    I just wanted to start off by saying that I did leave a comment on your last post, but then my internet went screwy and never posted it. It was excessively long and therefore I didn’t feel like typing it all up again. I’m sorry about that.

    Personally, I rather like the “f-bomb” and I know I really shouldn’t. I do my best to keep my language clean, but NOTHING feels as good as a string of “f-bomb”s when you’re really pissed off. Cursing, cussing, swearing…whatever you want to call it, it’s a part of everyday life whether people like it or not. I don’t think anything is going to change that, and part of me hopes it never will.

    I would also be very disappointed if authors weren’t allowed to curse in the books that they write. I try not to swear, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have characters that are like Ozzy Osbourne and give us colorful language at least three times in one sentence. My characters are not me, and I am not them. Not allowing them to speak that way sometimes really ruins a character and the way that you meant them to be seen when you wrote them.

    Something I was told recently was: “You can choose to be offended or to not be offended.”

    I realize that sometimes what people do, say, write…whatever, will hurt my feelings. It could make me angry or sad, but in the end I choose how I want to respond to what happened to me. You can choose to learn from it, or you can choose to get pissed off about it and make a big unnecessary ruckus about it. Personally, I would like to think that I would pick the former.

    And Holly Black is amazing, as well as her “f-bomb” usage. Ironside is WONDERFUL. 🙂

  4. veejane on #

    Lest I be cast forever as the kind of old lady who wears her stockings rolled at the knee, I should confess that I am totally guilty of all-dude all-the-time.

    Have you seen that one scene in the first season of The Wire, in which an entire scene consists solely of conjugations and variations on the f-bomb? It’s hilarious. And the best part is, because it’s acting, you can tell exactly what they mean with each effword they mumble.

  5. Justine on #

    Dawn: Indeed! Some of the most hurtful things I’ve said or have been said to me did not involve any “offensive” language at all.

    Veejane: I do not think that of you at all. Especially as you’re younger than I am!

    That scene from The Wire is one of the most genius scenes of television (or film for that matter) that I have ever seen. I loved it! I love The Wire!

  6. coe booth on #

    Justine, I am very very aware of your love of the “f-bomb” (and every other “cuss word!”) Hee hee.

    I love writing curse words too. Oh, I had so much fun with Tyrell’s voice, how he punctuated his words with the “s-word” and the “f-bomb.” But the thing is, I hardly ever curse. It doesn’t roll off my tongue as easily as it does yours. I’m not offended by it at cursing; I kinda enjoy hearing others curse. It’s funny and flavorful. So I choose to live vicariously through my characters… and through my friends who enjoy using very, uh, colorful language! 🙂

  7. katie on #

    i will never understand why we have ‘cuss words.’ how did that even start? i’m not offended my people cussing. i think it makes things more interesting. i don’t really cuss though because my parents would kill me. 🙁 i agree with coe booth. it adds flavor and humor.

  8. Justine on #

    Coe Booth: The swearing in Tyrell was awesome! Pure poetry.

    It’s kind of ironic that you don’t swear but write characters that do, while I do but mostly my characters don’t. (So far.)

    Nice to hear that your gutter-mouthed friends are keeping you entertained! 🙂

    Katie: That’s an interesting question. I assume we’ve been swearing for as long as we’ve been stubbing our toes . . . but I don’t really know.

    I forgot to mention how funny swearing can be. Thanks for reminding me.

  9. Chris S. on #

    Sometimes “offense” is self-inflicted. And it requires a certain amount of self-centeredness. As a bookseller, I get a lot of secondary “That was so offensive!” nonsense. I try to find the most polite way to say: “The author wasn’t trying to offend you; Dude, the author doesn’t know you exist.”

  10. Justine on #

    Chris S: Yup. Sometimes I reckon there are certain people who just troll around looking to be offended. Drives me mad!

    But I was thinking of good faith offendedness. There really are people who just don’t deal with swearing and particularly don’t deal with blasphemy. Whereas for other folks the blasphemous side of some swear words doesn’t even register.

    If I know someone’s going to be hurt by certain words I try not to talk that way in their presence. It’s just polite.

    Of course, my friends know I’m deeply offended by unicorns, but do they shut up about them? Nope. They do not.

  11. Rebecca on #

    when i was little, i was afraid to even think cuss words. when i was in 7th grade, every other word out of my mouth was a cuss word. now i’m somewhere in between, leaning towards the 7th grade level. i like cussing. i use it a lot, except around my mom, to whom “crap” and “pee” are bad words. i used to think my dad was that way too, but i have now learned that he was only restraining himself around my mother. 😛 it is also because of this that i developed an excellent self-filtering ability. i can be as “clean” as, um, a veggie tales episode (hahahahahaha). but i don’t like to, b/c that’s not how i really talk. i also like finding new ways to swear. i borrow it from other cultures and languages and make it up myself. lately, i’ve been using the word “shiz” a lot. hee. it annoys me when these words are censored. i know there are situations in which it might be better to avoid cussing. but sometimes it’s just ridiculous. (like WHY do they have to bleep out Stephen Colbert? grrrr.) i think it’s good to not overuse them too, b/c if cussing is all you ever hear, it loses its amusement and significance.

  12. lili on #

    There would be no swear words in it. Everyone would speak uncolloquially and without grammatical errors. Characters would only fall in love with people of the opposite sex and same race and religion, yet they would not have sex. They would not smoke or lie or cheat.

    I would be deeply offended by this book.

    I love to swear. Although I try not to do it at work, because there are lots of old people.

  13. claire on #


  14. Jessica on #

    in everyday conversations i tend to swear like a trooper and am unfazed when i hear others swear, yet, when reading fiction i find swear words, especially the f word and the c word, quite shocking. I’m not offended by them, but they jolt me. Perhaps that has to do with not seeing the words as often as they are spoken in real life?

    But it also depends on the type of book it is. Some novels really need swearing otherwise they just lack credibility. Where as with others it just seems tacky.

  15. Brent Hartinger on #

    You should totally post this on the AS IF! blog. It’s great.

  16. Ariel Cooke on #

    I have always loved to curse but I love it even more now that I have a child and don’t curse in front of her. (She’s only 7.) It’s the ultimate adult pleasure to be sitting with my friends, drinking wine and cursing. Probably for the same reasons that bikini beaches are sexier than nude ones. Fig leaves, taboos–they provide definition in a sadly amorphous modern world.

  17. Libba on #

    I’m going to think up unicorn swear words just for you, Justine. Can I say that you have Cornuphobia? 🙂

    I remember the first time I heard you swear like a sailor, I swooned. I fell deeply in love with you on that day. The saltiness made me feel comfortable, as if I, too, could say whatever I needed to say, be whoever I needed to be, without apology. I also have a mouth that could make Tony Soprano blush. I’m sure it has to do with my being a minister’s daughter.;-) But I try to curb it around people who would be offended by such words because, as you said, it’s just polite to do so.

    This is such an interesting topic. I find myself debating this a lot. I can ride the F train and hear teens letting loose with a stream of consciousness rant filled with variations on the F-word. This is how they talk. Should I not use these words even though they are accurate? In my work, I fear more the offense of not being true than the offense of using words that make some people uncomfortable.

    I was taken to task recently on my blog for using the f-word there. It was a blog about rage and how women are often denied their right to express it fully and Britney Spears. (No, it all makes sense, I swear.) Anyway, I talked about how, in a fit of total despair/frustration/rage, I just yelled that word at the top of my lungs, and then I felt better and was able to get on with it, and that sometimes we just need to do that. Someone posted that my language was inappropriate on a site directed toward young readers. And I thought three things:
    1. You totally missed the point of this blog, bitch.
    2. You obviously have never ridden the F-train at 3:00 when school lets out.
    3. You might be 100% right.

    Me? I love words. All of ’em. I want to roll around in words. And sometimes, what you or your characters need to say has to be expressed in language that some people may find offensive. I sort of love Quentin Tarantino movies because the language is so foul (and accurate) that after a while, it achieves a level of absurdist poetry. It also makes me laugh like crazy and open up to his world.

    Anyway, I don’t know that I can be redeemed in terms of my swearing. Will you still sit next to me and be my friend? And what do you have against the smell of coffee? It’s divooon.

  18. Faith on #

    I am a writer, therefore I offend. It pretty much goes with the territory. In fact, you can expand it. I am a human, therefore I offend.

    How many times is offense taken when none need be, for none is intended? I think that so many people are offended at things when there is truly no need, and it thus lessens the impact of things that truly are offensive.

    Just a thought.

  19. Justine on #

    So many excellent comments! Ta. I am rolling them around in my mouth and savouring. Yum!

    claire: i was wondering who’d be first. Guess it’s fitting that it’s you.

    Ariel Cooke: Quite a few of my swearing friends do not swear in front of their childen. Why is that? To create the delicious adult space with your friends?

    I ask because I’ve also seen the opposite parental tactic which is to teach them what the bad words are and how where it’s okay to use them. Mostly only at home. And how it’s especially important not to use them in front of teachers.

    I’m wondering which is the harder/easier/more effective approach.

    I am not a parent so I have no idea what I would do.

    Libba: Tee hee! Now I know why it’s called the F-train!

    I will always sit next to you and be your friend.

    What do I have against the smell of coffee? You mean other than the fact that it makes me want to projectile vomit?

  20. Rebecca James on #

    I’m quite partial to the “f-bomb” myself and think that, sometimes, it is just THE perfect word.

    And occasionally, used all alone and in just the right situation, it can be completely absurd and hysterically funny.

  21. A.R.Yngve on #

    Here’s a mystery: Why do we swear “religiously” even when we’re not religious (Hell, damn, etc.)?

    And why do Americans use the F-word as a curse, anyway? (You never an American say “Intercourse you, making-love-er!”

  22. calliope on #

    this kinda reminds me of this song, your beautiful, by james blunt. it’s a sappy, sappy , stupid song, and the highlight of it is when, out of the blue, he drops the f-bomb. he’s not trying to be funny, but it’s absolutely hilarious. it’s the only reason i bought the song.

  23. Cat-kha on #

    I make up “swear” words almost the first thing in writing a language. Therefore I can curse in front of teachers… although I bet some of them wonder why I hiss “shar’denat!” every time I fall down (and that is often, but they still can’t pronounce it)

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