In A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle shares a thought-provoking anecdote about a lecture she once gave at a university. In her discourse, she discussed the perils of American consumerism. At one point, L’Engle, who was a committed Christ-follower, planned to state sharply that consumerism has “screwed us over.”
Upon delivery of the sentence, however, L’Engle didn’t get the response she expected. She tells us in her book that no one appeared particularly surprised or moved that she had used what was (in her mind) a pretty crass and blunt way of communicating.
The word was commonplace. It’d lost all meaning and fell flat.
And in my opinion, this is the true crux of the problem we confront as writers, choosing whether to insert a four-letter word or fall back on the hackneyed statements such as “muttered profanities under her breath” or “yelled obscenities unworthy of print here.”
Poets and novelists, of all people, should understand that language wears out. Sentences have a shelf-life. If sentimental statements are used too often, they run the risk of becoming saccharine. And if a cliché is overly sweet, it’s sure to spoil, regardless of the truth it reflected, initially.
In the same way, “bad words” decay over time. We’ve all met individuals that have used “the F-word” as every known part-of-speech. What’s worse is when such words become disfluencies, taking the place of filler words such as “uh,” “um,” and “er.”
The net effect of both these examples is a devaluing of language. Writers and orators fall back on old chestnuts, platitudes, and thoughtless cuss words. Perhaps, in some way, clichés and curse words are kin, both indicating an abuse of language.
If you’ve ever heard a friend whose language was typically very reserved and conservative utter a “curse word,” you’ve probably noticed you go on high alert. Likely, the hair on the back of your neck stood on end as you asked yourself what could’ve affected this person so deeply that caused them to reach for such a potent word.
It’s my belief that as a writer, we should treat unsavory language in a similar way. We ought not to abuse language. Cuss words, at worst, are profane, low-class, and utterly meaningless. But utilized intentionally in the mouths of our characters, these words can serve a purpose—illuminating a character’s inner turmoil or most heartfelt convictions.
Christ-followers would do well to remember that “risqué words” are even present within Scripture. From Saul calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse and rebellious woman,” to the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon to Paul’s use of the Greek word “Σκύβαλον,” (which translates closely to “the s-word,” Source. ) it seems that the Lord didn’t shy away from strong language to prompt an emotional response in readers.
So how do we reconcile this truth with the fact that in James 3:10, we read, “Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.” (HCSB.)
The nucleus of the question comes down to motives. In the context of James letter, he’s admonishing us as believers to not curse fellow humans. Similarly, as writers, we ought to look toward the reasoning behind our own inclusion of such words. Are we attempting shock-value without redemptive purpose? Are we seeking to glorify God through the story arc and development of a particular character?
We worship a God who refuses to white-wash. He does not sentimentalize or use padded language to euphemize the wrongdoings of humans. In Scripture, he didn’t tend to edit or censor the stories of wayward people. Rather, he transformed their souls. With the Lord’s help, may our writing do the same.