On the f*** word

Hi Writers,
I have a not-so-shocking confession to make: I curse. In fact, around deadlines, I curse a lot. Most of my verbal spewing is directed at my computer screen. But still, it’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s certainly not something I want to flaunt.

This confession comes in light of several recent bouts with the f*** word. Every magazine/newspaper/book editor has to grapple with the question: should this word be allowed in their publication?

I’ve had to make this call several times in the last few months. In our October issue, there’s an  interview with novelist Chuck Palahniuk along with a brief excerpt from his new book, and the f*** word is part of the excerpt from Chapter 1. We decided to handle it with asterisks.

And last week, a source for a piece we’re running on the gay and lesbian fiction market had an issue with our “censoring” the f*** word.

On our forum, we’ve set up filters to automatically asterisk the word.

We’re a writing magazine, so the last thing we want to do is censor the work of writers. I do understand why the word might have its place in fiction—especially in dialogue since it’s become so ubiquitous in our language, it would seem almost wrong for certain types of characters not to be using it.

But especially in nonfiction, don’t writers need to be the ones to keep the level of discourse high? Hasn’t the f*** word  become so common that it’s almost trite? And is it really censorship if an editor chooses not to print this particular word? As you can tell, this is really bugging me right now, so please let me know your thoughts.

Keep Writing,

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33 thoughts on “On the f*** word

  1. Ali

    Good morning. Everybody likes a kidder, but nobody lends him money.
    I am from Faso and also now am reading in English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "Book all your air tickets domestic or international at."

    With best wishes 8), Ali.

  2. Michael

    I don’t like to use the word, for many of the reasons cited above. However, I allowed myself to get in the habit of using it off and on over the years, and it is a hard habit to break. Somehow I have succeeded in not using it in the presence of strangers, kids, or women. Except. . . .

    Not long after I returned from Iraq, I attended a week-long writer’s workshop. I was new to the world of writers, and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I tried to be quiet and listen as much as possible, but as the workshop went on and I got to know people, I opened up more. One day I was having a one-on-one discussion with one of the women (I’m a guy). We were talking about someone who had made both of us angry, and I used the "f" word.

    I apologized and told her I didn’t mean to offend her. She gave me a strange look, and I thought, "she’s offended, and now I sound and feel like a trash-talking fool."

    Just as my blood turned my face into a ripe tomato, she said, "Don’t worry about it. I write erotica."

    I’m just glad I was already blushing.

  3. Brian Ansorge

    Opinions are like assholes: everybody has one.

    Me? I don’t particularly *like* the word "fuck." But, if you think about it, what’s the difference if somebody is truly offended by Tom Sawyer or by my using the word "fuck?"

    If the reader is actually offended by anything in Tom Sawyer, they should close the book and take it back to the library—not burn it or "ban" it so that others can *decide* if they want to read it.

    Censoring is censoring. Unless, of course, it’s "editing" based on sound, practical and articulable principles that can be implemented in ways that are *predictable* and *calculated* to be the most effective with the target audience.

    Then again, what the fuck do I know?

  4. Lisa Taylor Huff

    I, too, have been known to let the eff word fly on occasion, both in conversation and in my blog writing (there’s actually no place for it in the writing I do professionally, so it’s a non-issue). I used to work in a male-dominated industry before I was a writer, and it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to curse in that world. As such I picked up some bad habits. I certainly never saw anything wrong with it, and sometimes it was even funny, but I was also sensitive that some people wouldn’t appreciate it and I curbed my tongue accordingly, to spare them from discomfort.

    Then one day, I realized something that shifted my thinking about cursing altogether. Words are just words. At the core, they are all equal. It is US, the human beings, who assign MEANING to certain words. Who decided that "f***" was a ‘bad’ word while other words are "good"? I have no idea where that all came from, and there’s no real answer, of course. Curse words have been around forever.

    The reason some words are "bad" and others are not, is not about the words themselves. It’s about the INTENT behind those words. Typically, the naughty words have a tangible negative energy or intent behind them. They are often (though not always) laced with malice, intent to be hurtful, or even (more mildly) intent to shock or get attention. It is the INTENT, the ENERGY behind how those words are APPLIED that makes them "bad", and that’s what upsets people.

    Even in the job where I used to feel completely free to eff my way through a conversation, there were times I was uncomfortable with someone else doing it – like the guy who sat in the next cubicle from me, who was one of the most unpleasant individuals I’d ever met in my life. He would talk on the phone to who knows who, letting a torrent of obscenities roll out of his sewer of a mouth. He was loud about it, too, to the point where if I were on the phone with a client, I felt the need to apologize for the "background noise". I even complained to my boss about it, knowing full well my boss had heard me use a few choice words from time to time (and he’d been known to do the same). Why did that man’s language offend me, but not that of others in my workplace? It was his INTENT. He was just a hostile, miserable human being and it showed. His intent was hostile and it permeated the entire room.

    I drastically curtailed my own cursing (though not 100% of the time) when I thought of it this way: what kind of energy do *I* want to be putting out there? If my words have energy behind them, maybe I want to choose my words with more care. Not because there is some authority, spiritual entity, or even my mother who is judging me for my words… but because I’d rather contribute a better energy. The world has enough negativity and malice in it already.

    That being said, if I stub my toe, the "F" word or one of its cronies will probably escape my lips. I try to substitute something else when I can ("flipping" is one of my personal favorites, as in ‘That flipping taxi driver is going to get us killed’). Yet sometimes, the watered-down version just won’t suffice. Sometimes a good curse word is just an emotional pressure valve and you have to blow off a little steam. I just try a lot harder now to find other outlets. And you know what? I feel better swearing less and reserving those words for special occasions.

  5. Av

    My characters–when I deem it appropriate–curse regularly and with flair. I even use the occasional expletive on my blog. I see no reason to bury any word in cute little symbols or cut it away completely for the sake of the faint-hearted. I am an adult writer targeting an adult audience. Those who choose not to read work containing these words are certainly free to pass me by and find something they feel better suits them.

    I’m not interested in changing my style or myself to placate anyone’s offended sensibilities. If that decision categorizes me as ‘stupid and crude’ amongst the glowing ranks of the literary elite… Well, I just plain don’t care.

  6. :Donna

    I appreciate your whole post and how you explained your reasons for using the word. (It did cross my mind you were testing the filtering system, and it obviously works as well as my SPAM filter!) Perhaps you hadn’t realized that people use the word "shoot" instead of "sh*t", for the same reason: it’s less vulgar and offensive, yet you’re expressing the same thing, for the most part. It’s very similar to people using the word "Geez"; it is a substitution and respelling of the shortened version of the name "Jesus" when people tried to stop using that name in a disrespectful and meaningless way.

    Just last week I was at B&N and got into a conversation with a man who was curious as to what I was working on (my illustrations were piled on my table, the lighting in that cafe is perfect for sketching). I mentioned that the name of one of my characters was "Pudd". He then informed me that he was pretty sure that was a slang word for the male member. In all my almost 50 years on this planet, I’d never heard that, but I looked it up on urbandictionary.com and, lo and behold–the man was right! lol

    Yesterday I asked my 22-year-old son if he ever heard of it and he told me he had a feeling he’d heard that before, and it crossed his mind when I first told him the name, but he didn’t mention it.

    I’m sure glad I know now because the character is in a children’s picture book! As I stated before: it depends on where your words appear and who’s in your target audience.
    : Donna

  7. Kerry wood

    I’m not sure what a blog is. I have a website about my book. If you click Writings, it gives examples of book excerpts and writings I have done subsequent to self-publication. There are no comments from others, so I guess it’s just a website and not a blog. Anyway, it’s http://www.kerrymwood.com in case anyone is interesed.

  8. Zak

    The way I see it, if you choose not to use a particular word, then you ARE limiting your vocabulary, and ain’t that bein’ ignorant?
    Personally, I find it offensive when it’s blocked or beeped out. It’s insulting to imagine someone feels the need to protect me or that I somehow can’t handle it.
    As for the squeamish—just close your books, close your doors, and go back to baking cookies. Thank you.

  9. Jay

    Hi, Donna. That’s a really good post.

    I agree with a lot of what you say. I think that in most cases it comes down to a question of manners. I’m not advocating running down the street saying it, or saying it out loud in Barnes & Noble- those are issues of manners.

    However, saying the word has "no place in American literature," as some have said, is a little too much, and so is the implication that the single word, out of context, might "influence children." The first claim certainly isn’t true- with a little creative googling, I was able to confirm that most respected writers in American Literature since the invention of the word have used it at some time or another. And I have never heard any evidence whatsoever that seeing a single ‘curse word’ in type causes any harm or influence whatsoever.

    As for the asterisks, I guess my argument is as follows: first of all, it takes more than a single word to be *truly* offensive. It takes a sentence, at least, or better an essay. It is the idea of a word- its meaning, and especially its meaning in context- that is offensive. It isn’t the shape of the ink on the page. We have allowed ourselves to be conditioned- it no longer takes a whole idea to offend us. The bell rings, the dogs salivate. The ink is shaped like so, and we become offended. But if we shape the ink a series of asterisks- even though the meaning is identical- well, that’s ok.

    Let me take the example of Michelangelo’s David again, because I think it’s an appropriate comparison. If you’re offended by a sculpture of a naked man you can say, I don’t want this in my gallery. Or you can allow it and get ready for the complaints about how it’s harming the children. But covering part of the sculpture just feels wrong to me. It seems like the worst of all possible options.

    Now, to be sure, none of us are Michelangelo, nor are we Mark Twain. And it’s likely that in most cases- especially with unknown writers- that the editor really does have a better idea than the writer of how a story should be composed. But I can say that it’s almost never going to be the case that "fudge" is an appropriate replacement for our favorite f word. The only instance that comes to mind is in the movie "A Christmas Story," when Ralphie screams, "fuuudge!" But the voiceover explains that he actually, at the time, used that more horrible f word. It was better NOT because it was less offensive that way, but because it was more appropriate to the character and to the story.

    You’re also right that the f word is considered vulgar, and that "inquiringly" is not. However, if I were editing a story, I would be obliged to cross out the latter with a red pen. The former wouldn’t cause me second thought.

    Regarding why I typed it out- it seems the height of silliness to have a discussion about a certain word but to prohibit ourselves from using it. Presumably, we are all grown-ups. Second, I have to admit that I was curious about whether it would be filtered.

    Regarding my use of the word "shoot," I have never thought of it as a replacement for anything. It’s what I say when I have caused myself some small embarrassment, like using "reeling" when I meant to say "railing." Also, I wholeheartedly agree that it is an issue of manners. When I spelled out our f word, it was in discussion of the actual word. It’s what we’re all talking about. When I said "shoot," that was me talking. In conversation, we should strive to be polite. In writing, we should strive for the truth.

    An acquaintance once told me a funny story about automatic filtering systems. One had been installed on the email server at her office, and a couple of weeks later someone had written an email requesting more postits for the supply cabinet. It appeared on the other end of the email server as "pos****."

    Context is everything.

  10. Morgan Barnhart

    We all know what that word is. You may have placed asterisks to "mask" the word, but you weren’t censoring it. You weren’t taking out the word completely, you were just relieving the sense of the word just slightly so that anyone who doesn’t really want to read that word, doesn’t really have to.

    Just as you said you’re a writing magazine and have your own standards to uphold.

  11. :Donna

    Sheesh, in rereading my post, there were quite a few typos, mispellings and unfinished thoughts! Sorry, but I’m sure you understood my meaning 🙂
    : Donna

  12. :Donna

    Wow, now this is a heated topic, eh? lol It’s actually one I do have strong feelings about. I think that, just as with any other censorship with a purpose (thinking of film here), there should be some form of censorship with the written word too. In my opinion: it all comes down to WHERE it is being published.

    If a magazine article, novel, interview, etc. is being published in a publication that is intended for a broad or younger audience, there should be a line that’s drawn accordingly. If it’s intended for a demographic that expects raw or straightforward language contained within its pages, then it really doesn’t matter if it’s written out.

    Unfortunately, I curse on a regular basis (a habit I haven’t been able to break yet), though the word I use most often is s**t, which is fairly innocuous in comparison to many other vulgar words, but it is still vulgar none-the-less. There are words that are considered vulgar by the general population. We all know what they are, and words like "inquiringly" and "ubiquitous" are certainly not on that list. There are some words I consider offensive, such as the "n" word (and I’m caucasian, so it’s not a personal issue), and cringe when I hear it used, but in an old classic like "Tom Sawyer", it should be written out. It was written at a time when it was commonly used that way and it is true to what the story depicts in that setting. However, it is often used by one African American to another, and not considered offensive. It is largely dependent on context, as I see it.

    When I hear music that contains vulgar language, it also makes me cringe, especially if I hear it on the radio without any consideration on what ears may hear it, even in passing. When vulgar language is "sung", it feels much more vulgar to me, because it puts it out there as though these words should be used at any time, in any company, under any circumstances. It’s one reason that more of the younger generations don’t think twice about curbing their language in public places, and have total disrespect for other people present. Of course, this also has to do with parents not emphasizing that it’s unacceptable to do that.

    Vulgar language should only be used when you’re in the company of people you know who use or have no problem hearing vulgar language, or are using it in a place (whether a book, theater, night club, home, etc.) where it is expected to be heard, and if someone enters any of those arenas, they have no right to be offended or complain. If you are in a public place where vulgar language or behavior is unexpected and inappropriate (reading material for a broad or young audience would fall into this category, I think), then the language should not be used out of consideration for the strangers — the audience of unknown preferences or decorum.

    Society at large has become more inconsiderate and disrespectful, so there will be those who feel there are no such things as boundaries or decorum; I witness it regularly since I sit in the B&N cafe almost every day.

    I will point out that the choices of wording in the most recent J.K. Rowling novel, "HP and the Deathly Hallows" was done as tastefully as possible, it didn’t detract from anything and wasn’t overdone. She used the word "effing", a couple of times and used the word "b***h" in a VERY appropriate scene. I, who am one having a more conservative view on this, had no problem with her usage.

    What I am confused about is the thinking of one person posted and wrote out the word "f**k?" (not with asterisks) without thinking twice, yet in the following post substituted the word "shoot" for the word "s**t". It didn’t make sense to me because one word spelled out is considered much more vulgar than the one that was substituted for.

    And the other factor is that, even if we follow guidelines to help us choose our words wisely and appropriately, according to the forum, there will always be someone who will be offended by what is not typically offended, or someone complaining there’s too little vulgarity. I, for one, will avoid using vulgarity if I can. Granted, I mostly write for children and feel, but unless it’s necessary in dialogue, I won’t use it when writing for adults. There’s something about putting vulgar words in print, singing it or using it unnecessarily profusely in things like film, stand-up or conversation that seems to inflate the vulgarity of it.

    : Donna

  13. Jeff Yeager

    Maria –

    It doesn’t surprise – or disappoint – me that you and I interview different types of folks. That’s what makes the world interesting, yes (or "what the F")? I work in pretty dark trenches some days (folks who don’t have a dime to save their souls or maybe they do, but the vocabulary’s the same), and it’s sometimes a challenge to get anything other than a string of F’s – or even worse – when they talk about what their lives are like.

    My point is: Maybe fiction writers should take their lead from the real world, perhaps, maybe, possibly even those of us who write nonfiction, as spoken by those not used to be quoted.


  14. Maria Schneider

    You make an interesting point, although I’ve been practicing journalism for a long time and I’ve personally never had a source use the f*** word, so can’t comment from direct experience.

    Most magazines do clean up and edit quotes. That word would most likely be edited out of the copy, in my opinion. Magazines and newspapers have to appeal to a broad audience, and that word is guaranteed to offend a certain percentage of readers.

    If there are any magazine or newspaper editors who would like to chime in on this, I’d love to get your take.

  15. Jeff Yeager

    MARIA WROTE " I do understand why the word might have its place in fiction—especially in dialogue since it’s become so ubiquitous in our language, it would seem almost wrong for certain types of characters not to be using it.

    But especially in nonfiction, don’t writers need to be the ones to keep the level of discourse high? Hasn’t the f*** word become so common that it’s almost trite?"

    Maria –

    Gosh, as a (mostly) nonfiction writer, if someone says (as they often do) the "F" word when I’m interviewing them (well, OK, maybe I’m using it, too, in the interview), I’m honor bound, as I see it, to write it like they said it.

    I find your reference to fiction vs. nonfiction rather curious; it seems just the opposite to me. If the use of f*** wasn’t so common in real life "discourse," fiction writers wouldn’t even have to worry themselves about whether or not it "fits" with one of their fictional characters.

    – J.Y.

  16. Jay

    Wow- did somebody actually publish a Tom Sawyer and use asterisks over that word? That’s horrible if it’s true. You’re right, it’s not censorship- it’s bowdlerization.

    Mark Twain was a master of the language- he chose each word for a reason. Arguing to place asterisks over his words reminds me of arguments in favor of putting a fig leaf over Michelangelo’s David.

    I have to say, I’m really surprised by the response here. I can see reeling against words like "irregardless" or "breathily," which *really* have no place in literature. But "fuck?" Really? Sometimes it’s the only word that will do.

  17. JohnOBX

    It is not censorship to present the F-word as f***. Censorship is banning or deleting something entirely. By using asterisks the word remains, and anybody over the age of 8 should be able to fill in the blanks. The sentence "f***" is used in loses nothing. The presentation of the word with asterisks is, perhaps, a small distraction, but not one that would disrupt the enjoyment of a well-written story.

    To put it another way:

    Banning Tom Sawyer from a library is censorship.

    To publish a Tom Sawyer novel with "n*****" replacing the N-word is simply showing some respect for people’s sensibilities, particularly if a young person is going to be reading it.

  18. Shirley Lawrence

    Such constant use of the "F" word is, to me, a sign of the decay of our society. It has crept into out "entertainment media" and in books in recent years, and every time it is used it condones vulgarity. It reflects on the writer as being ill equipped to use far better descriptive words available in our wonderful language. In other words, it makes them look stupid and crude, and certainly not to be taken seriously. Who can respect them? We should expect higher standards of our writers and entertainers. Let those who must use these words, use them in private, and keep them out of the limelight where children can be influenced by them. Personally, I have zero respect for anyone who uses that kind of language. The images it conjures up are not of value to anyone but the miserably profane, and it has no place in American literature.

  19. Stephanie Young

    A word is a word. While many people do not like to see or hear it, it is still used and going to be used. The real issue is the meaning of the word or thought. If it is just an expletive, it matters not what is used, those who are easily offended will be offended.

    If the meaning is clear, it doesn’t matter what the word used is, the meaning and it’s vulgaity or unpleasantness will come through just as clear.

    If you as a writer do not like to use the f-word or other coarse language, don’t use it. If you convey the ideas well it won’t be missed. I have read a large number of books that do not contain that language and it did not lessen them in any way.

  20. T Ewing

    I dislike the word. I try not to use it myself (too many little ears in my house)and am usually quick to put a book down if it is used too often. That being said, I don’t feel the word should be censored, when used in dialogue. There are characters who would seem oddly unbalanced if they DIDN’T use it (could you see the hard drinking, chain smoking factory worker using the word "firetruck" instead?), and times when the word must simply be blurted in fright or anger.

    Often the f***(ed/ing) is used simply for shock value. I’ve read several works by up and coming literati where the word is tossed around in the narrative like "and". I found that, in all but ONE instance, the story was just as good without it.

    On the flipside, I once read a book in which the author was afraid to use the f-word. This book, set in small town america, featured a love afair between two shy and slightly mentally unbalanced characters. When they got around to the inevitable, clumsy sex, the author chose the word fornicate. Too cerebral a word for such simple folk.

  21. Lucinda Brooke

    It is censorship, but with good cause. Just as a good cause calls for censorship, using this word should come with good cause. My perception of a good cause for such language is that is should only be used in fiction to reveal a true foul character or the foul mood of any character with just cause. Because this word so honestly sums up the logic behind a heated emotional outburst so commonly felt and used by today’s majority, (those who admit the use or not) I see so need to find this word as a complete outcast of the english language, but to be highly selective about using it more than once in a novel. I agree it is unnecessary, as a more creative approach to characterizing should involve action and humorous sarcasm in place of the nasty little word.

  22. Martha Basco

    I have heard some of the best writers speak and one of the MUSTS they always impress is that a writer must "show" and not "tell" the character of a character in a writing, fiction or otherwise. Additionally, I have heard and read so many times that a writer should choose his/her words as though his/her book or article is costing the writer $1,000 per word. With that in mind, the F-word, when used by a written character defines that person more quickly than writing that the character used foul language or spoke like a trucker. And, the latter is BORING! So, though I believe that the F-word should be used sparingly in public concourse–I have even been known to tell teenagers at my local park to quite using the word–I believe that the F-word should never be censored in any writing. If a prospective reader is offended by the word in a book, they should not buy or continue reading the book. But, we should never think about censoring a writer or we will be returning to the stone ages. On the issue of whether the word is or isn’t ubiquitous, it is! It’s even appears in the Bible, as "fornicate." However, bestseller’s wouldn’t be bestsellers if character used language like: "Fornicate-off," or "Fornicate you!"
    Good luck with your dilemma! Martha

  23. Jay

    There are a great many words that are not ubiquitous in my circle of friends. "Ubiquitous" would be a good example of one of those words. But I just don’t use it. I don’t choose to use it and then insist on spelling it "U*********." And I don’t try to prohibit other people from using it.

  24. Larry Zimmerman

    The f*** word is certainly not ubiquitous in my circle of friends and aquaintances. More than once I have put a book back on the shelf when I find it being used.

  25. rainjoy

    When feminism was in its infancy, I often deliberately used the f-word in casual conversation. This caused people to react, and opened up a dialogue about equality of the sexes, which was my ulterior motive. Now that I’m older, I don’t feel I have as much to prove, but I admit, the word still slips out occasionally in stressful moments. As a fiction writer, I would use it to show character, but since the word itself is such a powerful force, I wouldn’t use it without deliberation.

  26. Jay

    If triteness is the real reason you’re censoring it, I would expect the same level of censorship for other banalities and bad writing. For example:

    "What is it?" he asked inquiringly.

    Should become:

    "What is it?" he asked i**********.

    I find the asterisks infuriating. Either it is the word that needs to be used in a particular situation or it isn’t. If it isn’t, the sentence should be rewritten altogether.

    But let’s take a case where the word absolutely must be used. Let’s say we’re doing a story on common acronyms, and we are explaining what "WTF" stands for. We only have a few choices in this case:

    1. What the f***?
    2. What the fudge?
    3. What the (and then actually using the word, which I’m not because of aforementioned filter which will only confuse the issue.)

    Another case where it must be used in nonfiction is in direct quotes- take Dick Cheney’s famous quote, for example.

    Let’s face it: we censor the f word not because it’s trite, or because there are better words to use, but because it makes certain people uncomfortable. But where should that line be drawn?

    I sometimes argue the point that whether a word is offensive is subjective. You’re bothered by the f word, I’m not. I may be bothered by different words. Will you censor those for me too?

    Some people will say that my argument is bunk- that the f word is patently offensive. However, let me throw out another word, a word that is acceptable on all television networks. The word is "Negro." I can think of one or two contexts in which this might not be offensive, but most of the time I hear this word it sets my hair on end. Should we instead write "n****?"

    Our job as writers is not to keep the discourse high, nor is it to placate the squeamish. It also isn’t to have a broad vocabulary, though it helps. Our job as writers is to choose the absolute best words needed to say the truest things we can. If the f word- or any other word- is called for, then use it. If it isn’t, don’t.

  27. Michael E Cope

    Hello Maria, like you I curse, but trying to stop it completely. In the book I am writing about my bartending career, I mention that I have thrown a billionaire out of my bar for using that word too often and too loudly. The word has no need to be used in polite conversation. I have found that most of the men and women who have used that word in my presence, were uncaring of others around them at the time.
    Most of the men that I know, cannot speak an entire sentence without using that word as a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, etc.
    Everyone would be better off without it in the vocabulary. Thank you for letting me vent some today. Michael Cope

  28. Deborah Bouziden

    I think using the astericks to exhibit the word is a good idea. I personally get fidgety when I see the word ‘just out there’. I don’t consider myself a prude. I have used the occassional S and D words. (And okay, my mother would tell me how ashamed she was of me if she heard.)
    With that said, in today’s society, I think you have to ‘try’ to be sensitive to everyone’s squeamishness. In fiction, when I read books whose characters use those words I immediately class them in a group. I don’t think I intentionally do it, the character just goes there automatically in my head.
    I think you are correct about non-fiction. Curse words shouldn’t be used in the copy. I once heard a conference speaker say that when a person uses a curse word, he doesn’t have a very broad vocaublary, because there are thousands of other words he could use to express himself. He uses "fudge".
    Just my humble take on your perspective.