Please note: bad words aka slurs, swears & other nasties appear in this article.
As writers and as people, we all have ideas on what constitutes ‘bad words’. Hardly week goes without someone contacting me and saying that whilst they enjoy B2W’s writing advice, they’d like to ask me to stop swearing.
Yes, you heard that right. A platform literally built on sweary writing advice should apparently be less sweary. Erm, okay.
This blog and its accompanying social media accounts uses swears; it always has and it always will. If a small minority of would-be Bang2writers don’t like that, they can unfollow and go elsewhere for their writing advice. It really is that simple.
Toxic Words & Writers
That said, it’s definitely true that language has power. There are certain bad words and language use that can actively denigrate the people they are used against. (Some of these will involve swear words; though they don’t have to).
I call these bad words ‘toxic words’. Some become forbidden, not just in so-called ‘polite company’, but EVERYWHERE. Others can be considered indicators of a ‘lack’ of something … Education, empathy, manners or so on. (Whether this is true, or a judgement, or form of social control is of course another matter).
Language is governed not only by rules like grammar, but also by agreements between the people using them. This means writers may use BAD WORDS not because they personally like them or believe in them, but because they may reflect the attitudes of their characters and the storyworlds they inhabit. (This is especially true of antagonists, but may include any character).
But how does a word become ‘toxic’? More, next.
It’s All About Context
If language is also about agreements between the people using it, then it’s clear context is very important. This means the number of people offended by said bad words also has its part to play.
But I would also argue a number of other factors come into play, which I have broken down … Ready? Let’s go!
First up, the obvious. If bad words are used by dominant voices in actively oppressing others, its use should be discontinued. This ends up being agreed as ‘common sense’. This is why white people who are not explicit racists refer to ‘the N word’ and don’t even write it if they can avoid it.
I wondered if I had ever used it in a writing context on this blog, so did a search … Nope. I also did a search of my files for the purposes of this blog post, discovering one use, in my Writing Thriller Screenplays book. It referred to the movie CON AIR and its use of *the actual word*. (I am not looking for pats on the back by the way. Instead I am attempting to illustrate the concept of ‘forbidden words’ we agree on, that appear unconscious ‘common sense’. I hadn’t even thought about NOT writing it; I just didn’t).
Obviously there are many other racial slurs pertaining to Asian people too, both South and East Asian. The UK insult ‘Paki’ is not JUST short for ‘Pakistani’ as some racists insist, but carries with it dismissal and contempt. The now archaic ‘WOG’ aka ‘Western Oriental Gentleman’ may sound fairly innocuous on the surface to a white person, especially a younger one who’s never heard it used … But it is not, especially in Britain.
Put simply, dominant voices do NOT get say what should be deemed offensive (or acceptable) to those who have faced oppression. More, next.
Another obvious one. Bad words may change in some countries, places or languages. There may also be some things ‘lost in translation’, especially when someone is speaking in a language that is not their own.
However, even in the case of countries where the language is the same, translation issues can still occur. For example, there are lots of words in use in Britain that are not in use in the USA. This is why the phrase ‘divided by a common language’ exists about the difference between UK English, AUS and US English.
In contrast to the above, there are certain bad words that may require specialised knowledge of oppressed people, a different perspective, or a certain phenomenon to appreciate.
Those who are active on LGBT Twitter will have seen reference to the ‘T word’ or ‘t***y’, for example. For the uninitiated, this stands for ‘tranny’, which is a hurtful slur to transgender people.
Another issue-laden word is ‘wheelchair bound’. This is a word skewed towards the perspective of many able-bodied people who don’t use wheelchairs. This word connotes the idea of being ‘trapped’ in the chair … Yet wheelchair users themselves may tell you their chairs represent the freedom to move around. A crucial difference.
Similarly, many people who have mental health issues consider the phrase ‘commit suicide’ to be offensive, as suicide is not a crime. (The phrase dates back to when it was). They prefer the term ‘die by suicide’.
It’s very fashionable to at the moment to say intentions are not ‘get out of jail free’ cards (especially online). But we all know throwing insults at someone is very different from calling someone the same insult as a term of endearment. Context and agreement again.
But is worth remembering there are also insults that exist almost always to denigrate. In contrast, others may exist in descriptive and even neutral contexts too.
You won’t find the word ‘bitch’ used in its ‘correct’ way outside of people who keep and/or breed dogs, for example. That said, many women delight in using the word ‘bitch’ as a noun about other women and even themselves, both complimentarily and in a derogatory fashion. People generally may also use it as a verb about anyone who is complaining in a more neutral manner.
Words like ‘cunt’, ‘cock’, ‘dick’ and ‘asshole’ all exist as neutral descriptors of body parts too, which may also influence an individual user unconsciously when choosing certain insults … ie. The more likely you are to use the word ‘cunt’ to describe an actual vagina, the less taboo it seems, so the more likely you are to use it as an insult too.
In contrast to the above, the more ‘colourful’ an insult, the more likely it will be almost always used in a derogatory manner. Insults against homosexual men such as ‘shirt-lifter’, ‘uphill gardener’ and ‘poofter’ have been created with malice and are typically used as such.
Even the American word ‘faggot’, sometimes spelled ‘faget’, is also derogatory. Americans don’t even call meatballs by that British word over there, after all.
There are certain words that are forbidden to some communities and not to others. Reclamation of words previously used against certain communities is also a thing. Whether that reclamation is a good idea or not will be up to the individual within that community.
As a white person, I don’t know whether reclamation of the N word is a good thing or not. I have heard black friends make cases for both sides of the debate. But end of the day, it not up to me. It will never be up to me. The word’s reclamation is not about my community. This means what I think is not important.
More recently, the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by some younger LGBT people, especially those who are trans. This has lead to the acronym becoming LGBTQ in some places, for example. Older LGBT people are most likely to object to this, usually because they recall this word being used against them growing up. So, it depends on the person within that community and where they are coming from.
Some of my fellow women have tried to reclaim the word ‘cunt’ in a similar manner. I recall this as starting around the time I was a teenager in the 90s. It’s no accident we are far more likely in 2019 to see or hear the word used in general conversation, online or in writing.
In books and screenplays, use of ‘cunt’ may be neutral (as in sex scenes). It may be a derogatory descriptor about a character, both male AND female. Occasionally it is even a term of endearment.
Some (usually older generation) feminists may disagree with the use of the euphemistic ‘C word’, sometimes likening its use to the ‘N word’. They will say calling a man a ‘cunt’ (or an equivalent like ‘pussy’ or even the milder Scottish colloquial ‘fanny’) is actively adding to the oppression of women because its intention is to suggest men are ‘lesser than, like women’.
Whilst I have a certain sympathy for this viewpoint, it doesn’t take into account the far larger number of insults based around male genitalia (or indeed words like ‘bastard’, ‘tool’ and ‘wanker’ nearly always levvied against men). These can all connote stupidity and nastiness.
More important however is the aforementioned reclamation of said word by younger generations of women. There’s a growing number of younger Millennial women who also call one another ‘cunts’ now. This is most likely to be derogatory, but may also include terms of endearment too (just like ‘bitch’ in section 4).
Lastly, if language use is about context and the agreement of various numbers of people, then time also has to have an impact on how bad words are used and why.
I’ve seen and heard white people express confusion about the phrase ‘people of colour’. They will say ‘coloured’ is considered bad now, so how come ‘people of colour’ is okay?
Here’s why … people of colour originated that phrase; it’s what they want to be called. ‘Coloured’ originated with white people and was part of Jim Crow laws.
Time has made an obvious impact here. As times have progressed, laws have changed. BIPOC voices have also become more visible (especially via social media), so their preferences have been heard.
Also, regardless of whether white people understand exactly why ‘coloured’ is considered one of the bad words, they will still know they are not supposed to use it. The agreement has filtered through the communities and cultures.
- What the word’s history is
- Why it is deemed bad or toxic
- Whether its meaning changes according to who uses it
- If the context of your use is clear
- If you are using the word ‘correctly’ (whatever that means)
- Your intentions are clear (again, whatever that means)
- Whether your use is justified
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