Fuck, shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.

There. Those are Carlin’s Seven Deadly Words. And “nigger” is bubbling under, waiting to be admitted as number eight. As Carlin said, “tits” really doesn’t belong in this major league of profanity, so perhaps one day, “nigger” can take its place, keeping the number at a nice, convenient seven.

Of course, they’re not really “bombs”, as has become fashionable to call them, they’re just words. Simple letters strung together. And as Carlin says, NOT using them, or THE FEAR of using them, or even referring to them as “bombs”, is what gives them their undeserved power. It’s what makes people point fingers at those who speak them, or write them, and in some cases, even think them.

Having said that, I believe there are certain of these words which cannot be used in any way other than to piss people off (Whoops, I just used one myself, and I’m sure that will piss people off right there. Darn! I did it again! Somebody stop me.). These words have no other purpose, and one consequence may be that the author will lose some potential readers. These might be people who can’t stand to see some of these words in print. But you know, that’s the way it goes.

The author may opt for a form of self-censorship, and replace one or more of those words with something he/she feels is personally more palatable to him/herself. You know, instead of saying, “I gave him a lot of shit over it”, he/she might say, “I gave him a really hard time over it.” That too is the author’s right, but that may have consequences as well, especially if the writing is eventually perceived as being too bland where it should have balls.

In addition, the author may feel the hot breath of the PC Gestapo down his neck and figure, “If I write these swear words, people are going to be really upset with me and won’t buy my books. I’ll just leave them out to be on the safe side. Besides, nobody ever boycotted an author just because he didn’t include profanity in his novels.”

Nice and safe, right? Bullshit! More like sacrificing what you know to be right for your novel so as not to “offend” the activists in the PC Gestapo. Again, this is the writer’s call, and whichever way he/she goes, there will be consequences. I’m of the opinion (as I’ve stated on this page before) that the consequences are far more serious if the author caves in to political correctness out of fear of “offending” a few people.

The case has been made (and made well, I might add) that the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler never used profanity, and their novels are as hardboiled as they come. Well, this is true, but back in their day, you would be hard-pressed to hear profane words spoken in public. It just wasn’t a visible element in the culture. You might say it was generally forbidden. Go into a restaurant, or a rabble-rousing speech somewhere, or listen to the radio, or go to the movies in the 1930s and 40s and chances are you wouldn’t hear Carlin’s words anywhere. Today? Ha! You can’t avoid them. And I still say that profanity, when used properly in novels, can be and is very effective, far more so than deliberately trying to avoid using it.

There are certain words that I myself don’t particularly like to see on the printed page. And sometimes, if an author uses them gratuitously, or for shock value alone, it tells me he’s a weak writer. I may put the book down. That’s the chance the author takes when he/she writes those words. Again, it’s the consequences thing.

I will, however, defend till my final day the author’s right to write these seven words and any others he/she may choose.

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  1. Much as I love Chandler and Hammett, even I have to admit some of their dialog sounds, well, quaint in today’s world.

    Imagine Tony Soprano without foul language? Sure, sanitized versions of the show were on basic cable for a while, but you knew what was said; you just couldn’t hear it. I’ll bet everyone watching “heard” what was really said, anyway.

    I write with a lot of dialog, and I characterize through the speaker’s language. If someone doesn’t mind that a character ruthlessly killed half a dozen people, but objects when he shows a bit of a potty mouth, I have some advice: don’t buy the fucking book.

  2. My point exactly, Dana. Especially about Chandler and Hammett. We’re not in 1940 anymore.

    Also, good observation about Tony Soprano (to say nothing of Paulie and Big Pussy).

  3. Dave Cutler

    What would Helen have said?

  4. Hi Dave! How’s it going? Well, we know what she would’ve said, don’t we. Although I might’ve lessened the impact on her by telling her that Carlin was Irish. That might’ve made it OK.

  5. My husband was a sailor, so this discussion is quite moot in our house. It was a struggle appropriately silencing our little ones. Some very amusing stories in that regard. It is actually quite alarming to hear certain phrases from the mouths of such tiny little children.

  6. Leslie

    I wholeheartedly agree, Mike. By the same token, just as when a speaker uses profanity simply to avoid having to work at using a true vocabulary, the vulgarity of prolific use of “swear words” in writing shows a distinct lack of originality on the part of an author.

  7. Mike Dennis

    Leslie, you’re absolutely right.

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