The Proper Use of Improper Words

By Elaine Viets

CAUTION: Pearl-clutching zone. This blog contains R-rated language. If you’re offended by off-color words, please don’t continue.

Hah. I knew you’d keep reading this.
When I was a kid, my mother would wash my mouth out with soap if I used bad language. I can tell you from personal experience, Dial soap does not taste good.
Now that I’m grown up, those same forbidden words are in the dictionary. Yes, sometimes I mourn the good old days, when no one dared to use these words in public. But we can’t go back.
So why am I writing about offensive words?
Because if we want to write realistic stories, that’s how some people talk.
When I lived in a rough neighborhood in Washington DC, I was approached by would-be purse thief. He didn’t say, “Madame, hand over your reticule, please.” He said, “Give me your money, bitch.” (He didn’t get it, but that’s another story.)
In our novels, offensive language can be in indication of character (or lack of), social status, and age. Younger people are more likely to use these words than older ones.
Here are some cuss words from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Badass. One word, no hyphen.
This is my favorite off-color word. Often used for men, lately it’s been describing strong women (see kickass). Gal Godot in Wonder Woman, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and Michelle Yeoh, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all examples. Dania Gurira, the all-women army leader in Black Panther, is the epitome of badass.

Webster says badass can be an adjective and both usages are “chiefly US, informal and sometimes offensive.”
Badass means “ready to cause or get into trouble.” Or, “of formidable strength or skill” as in “a badass guitar player.”

As a noun, badass is “a person who is badass.”

Badassery. Noun, one word.
It means “the state or condition of being a badass.”
This example in the Village Voice would have had Mom buying a case of Dial.
“The Seattle quartet, hailed as godfathers of emo back when that word made you think of something other than ‘eyeliner,’ indulged the distorted guitar badassery of their grunge-era brethren …”

Bitch. Noun.
We all know that bitch is a female dog. That’s excuse I used on Mom when she was brandishing that soap bar. She wasn’t fooled.
Like Webster, Mom knew that word was “informal and often offensive” and meant, “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman.” It was also “a generalized term of abuse and disparagement for a woman.” And finally, “something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant.”
Or, as the novelist Harold Robbins wrote: “July and August were always a bitch in the subway.”
Bitch also means “complaint,” and is both a transitive and intransitive verb.
“They bitched up their lives.”

SOB. Noun, capped with no periods.
Webster downgrades this cuss word to “slang, sometimes offensive” and gives this example: “. . .. A guy who brought two dozen roses to a first coffee date and told you he felt like the luckiest SOB on the planet in the first five minutes.”

Asshat. Here’s a word that seems to be gaining in popularity in novels.
Webster says it’s a noun and “vulgar slang. A stupid, annoying, or detestable person.” See, asshole.
The first known use of this was in 1999. Then Webster has this odd “History and Etymology for asshat.”
“The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious prehistory. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from late-twentieth-century films: ‘Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!’ (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, in Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen). . . .”
Webster wonders: “If we have been calling people assheads for almost 500 years now, why did it take so long for ass and hat to get together in similarly pejorative fashion? One reason may be that while ass lends itself well to the beginning of an opprobrious compound, hat leaves something to be desired in terms of mordant wit.”
Amen. Few of these words can be considered witty, and most are a blight on the language.
Now we get to the cuss words I really dislike.

Asshole. A noun, “usually vulgar.”
The first meaning is “anus,” but Webster also says it can mean “a stupid, annoying, or detestable person,” and “the least attractive or desirable part or area —used in phrases like asshole of the world.” This is an ancient word, first used in the 14th century.
But not by Mom.

We can skip “shit” – we know too about that word and its variations. I hate that word, though I’ve used it occasionally. Mostly in traffic.

Let’s go to a fairly harmless phrase:
WTF. Harmless, that is, until you see what the abbreviation stands for.
Now if Mom was around with her bar of soap, I’d try to weasel out by quoting the Acronym Finder.
“Hey, Mom, WTF stands for Well and Truly Freaked, or What’s This Foolishness? Where’s the Fudge?, or heh, heh, Welcome to Florida. In fact there are 105 definitions of WTF, so put down that soap, Mom, and let’s talk.’”
Webster authoritatively says the phrase is all caps and “informal.”
“WTF means ‘What the f– ’” Webster uses the actual f-word and says WTF is “used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion, or bemusement.”
Mom would not be bemused. Or amused.

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, my new Angela Richman mystery, is out. Publishers Weekly says, “Colorful characters match the crafty plot twists. Viets consistently entertains.” Read the review and order your copy here:

This entry was posted in #amwriting, Writing by Elaine Viets. Bookmark the permalink.

About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

63 thoughts on “The Proper Use of Improper Words

  1. Kinda makes you wonder what words George Carlin would riff on today, doesn’t it? His “Seven Words You Can’t Say” is so… …1970’s…

    NCIS “pushed the envelope” with an episode titled “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”, as have I with a song titled “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday (It’s Monday Once Again)”…

    And I feel for Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” with that bar of soap… Mom’s favorite flavor was Zest,,,.

    • And nowadays, Lenny Bruce would never go to prison, and lots of rap and hip-hop would never get airtime. Never had the (dis)pleasure of encountering Zest. Grandma used the ultimate weapon, Fels Naptha.

  2. Thanks, Elaine, for the update on words that George Carlin noted that one will hear in the kitchen occasionally when someone drops a casserole. I wasn’t offended of course, though I am still a virgin in my left ear.

    I want to hear the story sometime about why the varlet in Washington D.C. walked away broken-hearted and empty-handed.

  3. Good morning, Elaine. Thanks for the update on “Improper language.” Now we can no longer claim to be “refined” by our ignorance. “A refined lady,” I explained, “is naturally unacquainted with bad language.” (Agatha Christie, THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE)

    My how things have changed. I try not to use profanity, but often fail. Banging my thumb with a hammer or city traffic are my two favorite triggers. I do not use profanity or R-rated words in my middle-grade fantasies. I know those children live in a world where they are surrounded by such language, but if I’m writing fantasy, I can create a world for them that is safe ( and their parents and grandparents will approve of).

    Have a SAB (sunshine and beautiful) day (not South African Breweries)!

  4. Nice etymological plunge into the background behind some top current swear words, Elaine. I was enlightened on several counts 🙂

    My first series had a fair number of swear words, mostly the more bog-standard f-bomb, non-hydrological dam, the fatherless synonym, the swear word for offal, etc. I did because of the attitude, background and emotional state of my hero and her best friend, the two real swearers in the group, along with a few goon-types.

    My other books have had little to no swearing, and the library cozy series I’m working on now will have a big fat zero’s worth of cussing 🙂

  5. Entertaining update on raw language, Elaine. Thanks for the morning chuckle.

    I try–I really do–but the male lead in my series refuses to clean up his act. I tried Dial to no avail. He merely looks like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth.

    Is Fels Naptha still for sale?

    • Just remembered a story friends told me about their adorable seven-year-old daughter. She came home from school one day all excited. “Mommy, Mommy, I know what the F-word is.”
      Mom cringed, knowing this signaled the end of childish innocence.
      Then the girl added: “Fart!”

  6. Thanks for the entertaining post, Elaine. You’ve added at least one new word to my vocabulary (which I will never use, of course.)

    I don’t use swear words in my novels. I know they’re offensive to a lot of folks, so I try to get the same effect with a different vocabulary.

    Btw: Ivory tastes better than Dial.

  7. I have a couple characters (one in each series) that won’t stop cussing. No matter how hard I try, they go rogue. What’s a writer to do? Fudge or Jerk just doesn’t deliver the same punch. 😀

    Thanks for an entertaining post, Elaine!

    • Sometimes I wish I could pull off a JSB moment like in his Romeo series. But when I try to brush past the nastiness, it’s just not natural. I feel the same way that my characters are who they are, and I’m too vested in what they say and do.

    • I have moved from writing out profane words to commenting that a character let loose a string of profanity that would make a sailor, Marine, or mule skinner blush. Same message without pulling myself into the cesspool.

  8. The “saltiness of expression” as was used to describe the language used by Missouri’s own, Harry Truman.

    For who should and should not use these words, I point people to FCC v. Pacifica, the Supreme Court case about playing Carlin’s ‘The 7 words you can’t say on the radio” on the radio. Good enough for the SCOTUS good enough for me.

    • Man, I miss Harry Truman. We could use a straight-shooter like him now.
      The SCOTUS decision was a gem, Alan. I particularly like this quote from that august body:
      “[W]hen the Commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene.”

  9. Late one evening I was in the studios of St. Louis’ most distinguished, news authority, voice of the Cardinals radio station. I don’t remember his name but he was the evening news reporter. In his deep, rich, authoritative radio voice he was telling some of the most off color jokes I had ever heard. It was great.

  10. Mom stopped us from saying s**t by saying, “Ew, you just had something in your mouth I wouldn’t even hold in my hand.” OTOH, it’s absolutely necessary to the punchline of a favorite story. Richard threw down a challenge when he said I couldn’t tell it in an American school, so I had to. The only objection ever was from a student I had chastised for making a rude noise in class (the baby’s pfffft) — I explained the value of context. 😉
    When a student asked permission to use b*****d in a story, I directed her to the handout of Shakespearian insults for a better choice, not wanting to face what Cissy Lacks had. The battle between good taste and realism continues.

  11. I’ve been reading some new adult romances lately and one of the things that sticks out to me is the constant use of the F word and all its variations. Don’t get me wrong, I have a potty mouth so the use of it doesn’t bother me at all. And my characters occasionally say it or think it. But it seems like overkill when it’s literally every third or fourth word. I don’t find it offensive so much as annoying.

  12. I work construction in oil and gas. If you guys think this is harsh, I think I need to clean up my own act. 🙁

    But, I did learn a new today. Badassery. Can wait to try this one out when the time is right.

    • You sound totally badass. I worked in a newsroom for 30 years and my father was a sailor, so I knew a few words that aren’t in this blog, Ben.

  13. I never had my mouth washed out with soap. Mainly because I lived in a protected area and in an era where those words just weren’t said around kids. Of course, that changed by high school, but I was careful to not use them at home.

    Because I write Christian romantic suspense, I never have them in my books and wouldn’t even if I could because I just don’t like hearing them, even when they come out of my own mouth. 🙂 Which amuses me–I can kill people in my books but not cuss at them…

  14. Words I was not expecting. I hear them so often online I don’t even blink, and they have entered my vocabulary. If my mom were still alive, I’d be dead by now from the Southern-Steel-Magnolia, church-lady death stare. A very ugly way to go.

    There’s a Reddit channel called “Am I an Asshole?” which is a forum of public approval or disproval. Interesting content to discover current views on behavior and situations, particularly for old foggies like me out of the mainstream.

    My own desire to hear human voices while living alone during the plague years has brought me to YouTube channels which read content like this. YouTube’s AI content monitors are extremely prudish in a weird sort of way, and I love listening to the content readers wiggle their way around these words so they aren’t demonitized. “Asshole” is evil, “butthole” is fine, for example. Vulgar words for having sex is a personal favorite. “F*cking” is now called “passionate hugging.” That always gives me a laugh.

  15. Loved this column! So timely! Cozies refuse them, clean and wholesome abhor them, Christian lit won’t have them, and everybody uses them. Everybody! Which makes those genres, in my eyes, phony. How does a writer define a truly bad guy/gal if not through language? “Kindly hand over your reticule, bitch” seems a bit silly, “Stand and deliver” not of this age. Conversely, I hate some of the words you didn’t address and while I hear a lot of them in the course of a day, wonder how far one goes in which genres. Any advice for figuring out the limits?

    • If you have an editor they will let you know the limits. If you are indie published, your readers will chastise you for using them. I try to walk a fine line between sounding realistic and not going overboard in my books, and don’t always succeed. Your are right that everyone cusses. My grandmother mostly said “sugar” when she dropped something, but she still called creamed corned beef on toast “s–t on a shingle.”

  16. My mother was so “proper” I couldn’t say the words butt, crap, not even breast. It was so pounded into me, I never said any off color words under any circumstances. I once shocked my family when I said the word, damn. (I was pushed beyond my normal control – as a mom to a rebellious teen.)

    Then, I married a cop. Yeah, can you imagine? He doesn’t use cuss words much, but some slip out here and there, especially with idiots in traffic. I never chastise him. I’m not offended, but to this day, I still cannot utter those words myself let alone write them. Then, on the other hand, half of the ones he does use I’ve never heard and only understand their meaning after he explains them. Sigh. What can I say?

  17. I had a similar upbringing, Cecilia, and I still have trouble saying “butt” in public, even though that word is almost socially acceptable.

  18. In my writing, I’m okay with “damn” and “hell”. Anything stronger, and I just leave it with “He swore.”, and let the reader fill it in. Yet my one published short story has the f-word in full f-edness. But I could not take it out without changing the tone. It’s spoken by a man who has recently lost his son. He’s clearing his son’s things out of his garage. While he’s carrying a heavy box of car parts, it hits him that he will never see his son again, and his arms weaken, the box falls with a crash, and car parts fall all over the place. But we don’t see all this happening. We just hear a crash, then a calm, “Well, f—“.

    It’s the only time I’ve used that word in my prose, but the depth of emotion required it.

    My mum used Zest, usually, or any other bar soap lying around. I was stubborn, though. I decided that, to spite her, I would *like* the taste of the soap. That ruined it for a punishment.

    Funnily enough, I never swore growing up (the soap was for talking back.) But once I grew up, if I spend time talking to someone who throws the odd f-word out, I start swearing like a sailor.

    (For folks who like their history or science in an irreverent sweary style, I suggest following James Fell and/or SciBabe on Facebook. Entertaining and very knowledgeable. And sweary. )

  19. My mother used Cashmere Bouquet exclusively for mouth cleaning chores, which is why I do not buy the stuff any more. I have a personal issue with the terms ‘badass’ and ‘kickass’. they seem (to me as a 73 year old rookie scrivener) overused and unlike the good old anglo saxon eff, have not yet stood the test of time. I’m fine with old expressions like Anthony Andrews in The Scarlet Pimpernel’s “sink me, madam!”.Vulgarity, like sex and violence are fine by me as long as they add something to the story.

  20. If you think my mom wouldn’t have used these words, you didn’t know my mom. She invented a few, and was damn proud of it.

    I curse a lot in real life, but I do tailor my speech to the person I’m speaking with. The neighbor across the street? The f bombs come out only in very limited contexts. Close friends? Bombs away!

    In writing it’s a whole nother thing, as has been previously discussed on this blog. IMO a well placed curse word can bring the right emphasis, or realism, or otherwise serve a purpose. Page after page of cursing will turn off readers fast, even hardcore cursers like myself.

Comments are closed.