Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Thursday, October 14, 2021



Not exactly swearing

I recently watched a Youtube video by an author discussing swearing in books, and I thought, damn, I can use that subject for my weekly blog posting. So here we go.

I have nothing against swearwords. I’m not morally offended by them. Swearwords are just words, which is to say, they are tools that are used to convey information or emotion. Swearwords, for the most part convey emotions – surprise, anger, threats – and are not to be taken literally. Sometimes they act as merely grace notes, peppered unconsciously throughout a conversation, as in, “Shit. Pass the fuck’n salt. This stew tastes like crap.” They add color to the language.

While I think that they certainly have a place in storytelling, I don’t think they are necessary in telling a story. For a number of reasons, I rarely use swearwords, and the ones I use I mostly use as are grace notes to define characters.

The first reason I generally avoid the over use of swearwords is that words on a page are tone deaf. They are without inflection. If I uttered aloud the phrase above, its swearwords would likely pass unnoticed by most people. But written, a reader notes every one of them. They are heavy words. They come with the burden of being “forbidden” even if commonly used and the reader does not find them offensive. And because of this, I think they should be uses thoughtfully.

Character is the key here. Who uses swearwords and how often depends on the characteristics of the character. In most cases, it would be hard to write the above phrase as casual dialog without using some crude language and make it sound like dialog. “Pass the salt, this stew tastes bad,” doesn’t sound like casual conversation. However, in polite society someone might say, “Please pass the salt, this stew seems rather bland.” In both cases crude words are avoided, but one sounds wrong, the other right, in a certain circumstance.

It is possible for the frequent use of swearwords to be used as a tag line for a character. But if every character uses a lot of swear words – if they become a commodity and lose a lot of their value.

A second reason I generally avoid swearing is that swearing is associated with crude, uncouth people. While the use of swearwords is hardly confined to uneducated and uncouth people, given the weight of swearwords in the written language, the frequent use of them in text would tend to make any character sound uncouth, if not uneducated. On the other hand, if it is the writer’s intention to make a character uncouth, or threatening, then the use of crude and harsh language is one way of creating that character. So swearwords have their uses. 

A third, and very significant reason why I don’t make extensive use of swearwords, is that most of my stories are set in the far future. The distant future I envision as being a post-religion society, one where religion has faded from memory. People may still be superstitious, but an organized religious structure and afterlife are long gone. Thus, concepts like god, hell, damnation, etc. and with them, phrases used to describe those ideas have all faded away as well. A word like “goddamn” would have no meaning whatsoever in a future without a concept of a god who's a guy who toys with the people he makes. A great deal of swearing involves god, hell and damnation.

Still, there is perhaps a need for similar phrases. In my Nine Star Nebula stories, I substituted “Neb”, short for nebula, for “God” with the idea that the all-encompassing nebula might have a perceived presence or personality – a lingering superstitious human trait.

Once you’ve taken religion out of swearing, you are largely left with sex and sexual ancestry. Sex probably isn’t going to fade away. However, the problem with using sexually orientated swearwords and phrases is that they often sound contemporary. Sex in the future isn’t likely to change enough to create a whole new class of swearwords. And if it does, they probably wouldn’t resonate with today’s readers. Now there may well be authors who can invent swearwords and phrases that sound futuristic while still conveying the heaviness of swearwords on a page, but I’m not one of them. Indeed, I’m not good at inventing cursing and swearing, period. And since I’m not good or creative at swearing, I’m content just to have the narrator mention that a character is swearing, and then doesn’t bother transcribing it. This is not squeamishness on my part, just a lack of talent in that field of writing.

So, to sum it up. I don’t have a lot of swearing in my books. This is not a result of any objection to swearing on moralistic grounds. Nor any desire for a YA audience (Heaven forbid!). It is the result of wanting to use what swearing I do include to it greatest effect. And a desire not to kick readers out of the future I am trying to build by slotting in phrases that sound too contemporary.


  1. I think that there will be material for swearing in all epochs.
    Here in Germany, one curse is "Kruzituerken!". If it is a religious thing, it must be ages old, its meaning long forgotten - something which connects "crucifics" with the attacks on Vienna in 1529 by a Turkish army.
    Here in Germany nobody would use a sex word like "f..k". Certainly everybody uses at least once a day "Scheiße" = crap (sorry) automatically, e.g. if he hits his thumb instead the nail with a hammer.
    So I think, cursing is just a matter to voice something which is not allowed, a protest against parents or the whole world, in case of desparation, anger or pain, and probably there will be such taboo terms also in all future societies ;) .

    Greets, your fan from Germany :)

    1. Great to hear from my fan from Germany! Curses are certainly a forceful way of expressing strong emotions -- often the only way! On the other hand, the same words are often just tossed in as filler words that mean nothing at all. In print it is hard to get that distinction with words on paper. And making up curse words with no connection to the reader doesn't work either. I guess I'm just not good at cursing. Oh well. Thanks for your insight into cursing in Germany, always interested in how other people do things.

  2. Wikipedia knows it better than me: some historians indeed think it has to do with participants during the crusades in the 16th century, but the majority says that it derives from insurgents, "Khurudzs", against the Habsburg dynasty, 1604-1711, plus the Turks attacking Vienna the second time 1683.
    Some curses, "Kruzituerken", but also "wow, kiss my xxxx" may be used not as curses, but expressions of wonder. Somebody who was sued for insult sucessfully claimed that in his bajuvarian country of origin this is just that, used all the time ("milextamarsch") and not an insult ;) .

    1. People curse all over the world. I recall that when I was studying Chinese in collage, the teaching assistant offered the class an after class lesson in Chinese swear words. All I can remember is "Go Pee" which is "dog fart" used as "bullshit" in Mandarin.