Who Taught You to Talk Like That?

Posted: July 29, 2011 in fiction, humor, Life, Reading, storytelling, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Do parents wash their kids’ mouths out with soap anymore? That was a threat of my mother’s and my grandfather’s when I was growing up. I was very vocal as a kid, full of musings and opinions and anecdotes sometimes peppered with words that would make you think I spent an inordinate amount of time hanging out on the docks or in the back rooms of pool halls. Mouthy. That’s the technical term for it.

The soap thing was not just an idle threat. I only tasted Dove on my lips once and that’s all the farther the bar got because although I may have been mouthy, I wasn‘t stupid. When the scent of the soap in your nostrils is making your eyes water and the lather is close enough to lick without sticking your tongue out, that’s when you stop talking.

To answer my own question, based on the kind of language in books, movies, television, music and on the Internet these days, I’d say that a fresh bar of creamy solvent shaken menacingly at a young mouth would bring on more confusion than respect. We’re a world of blue streakers, we are.

I’m not a hypocrite about it; I can be as big a potty mouth as anybody, depending on crowd and circumstance. Unless the language is violently profane, it doesn’t even shock me all that much. The other night a friend and I were reading a blog so riddled with “that” kind of language that if my laptop had an audio censor function on it, it would have been dinging like a pinball machine nearing full-tilt. Yet at times, the writer had us laughing so hard we were crying, despite the profanity, because the comedy of his work was too great to ignore.

So, here’s the bigger question. Do movies, books, music, etc. use that language because that’s how people talk these days or do people talk like that because we see it, read it, and hear it all around us? And as a writer, if you want to appeal to a broad audience, does your work have to read like the bathroom wall of a broken-down beer joint that even the cops won’t go into?

If you draw a character so vividly that the reader can’t imagine them speaking without swearing and you put them in a situation in which only that kind of language makes sense, then yes. Profanity probably has its place. That doesn’t mean you should strive to write a book that has so many blacked-out lines in it that it resembles an aerial view of a rail yard but a good writer stays true to their story, even if it’s true blue. Readers who don’t mind profanity will read it. Readers who do mind either won’t read it or they’ll have a bar of soap handy when they do.

  1. Salty language is called as much because it should only be used as a condiment and not your whole meal. When it’s necessary it’s oh so necessary. And when you’ve used too much, you’ve ruined the soup. It’s a thin edge of a wedge. There’s a verse in the Bible, I think in Psalms or Proverbs and says, “Let all things be done in moderation.” That would apply here.

    I know two little girls who came into their house crying. “Mama, Mama, Jessica used the F word!”
    “No I didn’t.” “Yes you did.” Many more tears. Their Mother said, “Oh dear, well you know that means, we’re going to have to call and tell Daddy.” “NOooooooo” came their little wails.

    About that time the Mother started to rethink the whole situation and asked them, “Girls….what is the F word?”

    Through those dry heaves that come from long term, uncontrolled crying, Jessica and Allie both said in unison, “F..f..fagina.”

    True story.

    • I have a sister and absolutely no trouble believing that story…

      Here’s one for you: When my nephew D. was small, I took him to the childrens’ science museum. They have a display there which is basically two gigantic satellite dishes placed at opposing ends of the room, designed to show how sound waves travel. You stand in front of one dish, your partner in front of the other, and one of you whispers into your dish and the sound bounces off the other one so you can hear it as plainly as if they were standing right next to you.

      We station ourselves in front of our respective dishes and D. leans into his and whispers something that sounds suspiciously like “motherf—–“.

      Sure I didn’t hear him correctly, I respond, “What?” At which point, he turns into his dish and says it again, as loud as he can without screaming. When it hit my dish that time, there was no mistaking it. Even if I missed it, the Girl Scout troop and leaders standing at the next exhibit sure didn’t.

      End result, we were asked to leave the museum and not come back.

      True story.

  2. A case where less is more, I think. In my opinion, too much profanity detracts from the story, however, some characters personalities require expletatives to show their “rough and tough” side. When I hear lots of profanity coming out of someone’s mouth, I read them as being insecure. I’m sure there are examples to prove me wrong. Of course, I’m probably out of touch with what is “cool” and acceptable today. I recall hearing my mother use the f word once and could have died of embarassement for her. It’s so different now. I did use profanity frequently in my 20s and 30s mostly when angry, – having children helps curb the habit. I do know from raising three daughters that profanity seems to be the norm, however, I hope they too outgrow it like I did.

    • I don’t think I ever heard my mother drop the “F” bomb. Nor my father. I am clearly the most profane of all my immediate family and although I don’t have kids, I do watch my mouth when I’m around them. Thanks as always for the input, Rita. By the way, was checking out your poetry the other day. “Stand Exposed in the Light” – wonderful piece! kt

  3. halfcnote says:

    First, thank you for the addition to your blog roll.

    Second, I really enjoyed this piece. I recall having a note sent home from school letting my parents know that my language was a little too savory for the schoolroom setting!

    My partner & I received the same kind of note about our then 4 year old from his preschool teacher. Seems he lied to her about saying a bad word. Turns out that he did indeed say “Sh#t”, but in his defense we had never explained to him that there were bad or good words. He was telling the truth. Now we just tell him that some words are considered impolite to use in public.

    We’re more upset that “like” is creeping into his spoken vocabulary!

    • LOL. I think the list of words considered impolite to use in public is getting smaller! My goddaughter went through the “so then I’m like…” stage a couple years ago and one of my other nieces was big into “whatEVER!” for quite some time. I don’t even remember what the catchwords were when I was a kid. Maybe I wasn’t hip enough to have any.

      You’re very welcome for the add to the roll. I swing by your blog pretty regularly and really enjoy it.

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