3. Slang and Obscenities in Writing



The first-person narrator

Slang, obscenities, and colloquialisms are generally not used in straight, third-person narrative. It becomes, however, extremely instrumental when narrating in the first person. Let’s consider a few examples from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The opening sentence immediately sets the tone of the novel:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The reader is drawn into the intimate world of Holden Caulfield. His language is casual (“I got off at our floor—limping like a bastard—and started walking over towards the Dicksteins’ side.”), and even the swear words are personalized through their unorthodox spelling (“’Hold the sonuvabitch up! Hold it up, for Crissake!’”). Nothing is gratuitous or affected.

The reader is made privy to his every thought, sight, and smell, and the familiar objects we recognize with delight (“..and everything smelled like Vicks Nose drops”). We recall the eucalyptus of the Vicks from our own childhood and we feel comforted; had it been a less familiar brand, the reference would have been lost on us.

Over sixty years after its publication, we still use the same swear words and slang as the narrator. Writers should avoid using terms and expressions that won’t survive the year—remember how in the early ‘90s everything was “radical” and “wicked”?

The key is to get your message across, and this cannot be achieved if your reader has no idea as to what you are talking about—and if a particular word is but a fad, it will never make it into your reader’s dictionary. My students take much delight in Chaucer’s General Prologue in The Canterbury Tales when he uses the term “shitten”—“Did they really use that word, too?” they ask, wide-eyed. Swear words, slang, even brands, can be used if they have a purpose and if they can endure the test of time. If you are considering using a word that is as perishable as a ripe fig on a hot day, resist the temptation. Your readers will thank you.

Obscenities in writing

There is much debate on whether obscenities should be used in writing.

On the one hand, obscenities can be completed avoided while still achieving a great sense of obscenity. It is certainly possible to describe abuses exchanged between two brawling drunks without ever having to resort to any four-letter words.

On the other hand, if used properly, they can add texture to your story. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), one of the most disturbingly beautiful novels about an insomniac who, under the lure of Tyler Durden, establishes a ‘fight club’, actually has very little swearing or obscene depictions. The story is half over before we arrive at any swearing–once from the first-person narrator, the second in dialogue:

“Oh, this is bullshit. This is a dream. Tyler is a projection. He’s a dissociative personality disorder. A psychogenic fugue state. Tyler Durden is my hallucination.”


‘Fuck this shit,” Tyler says. “maybe you’re my schizophrenic hallucination.”

Metaphors over Obscenities

It is an obscene story and yet obscenities (as either swearing or ghastly descriptions) are hardly present. Adding obscenities simply to ‘shock’ is cheap—and hardly rewarding. Just as a writer who is writing about a boring man does not need to write in a boring manner, so descriptions of something grotesque need hardly be grotesque. In a description of a clinic, meant to be horrific, Palahniuk carefully selects the connotations of his comparisons, creates the right metaphors, and yet there are no gratuitous vulgarity:

“When Marla found the first lump, she went to a clinic where slumped scarecrow mothers sat in plastic chairs on three sides of the waiting room with limp doll children balled in their laps of lying at their feet. The children were sunken and dark around their eyes the way oranges or bananas go bad an collapse…”

Metaphors are always better than gratuitous obscenities.

Metaphors are always better than gratuitous obscenities.

The very last metaphor masterfully conveys the attribute of concavity, of collapse, of those deeply recessed features that can only come from severe hunger, illness, or stress. We all know the feeling of picking up an orange only to feel one’s finger sink into the wasted flesh of the fruit—that horrible feeling of revulsion at something gone wasted. It is this same visceral, sensuous reaction we get when learning about the eyes of those children in the clinic.

Palahniuk suggests the horror of the sight, but he does not go into excessive detail of their appearance. Of all the options he had thought of, he chose one metaphor—the strongest, more pungent one—to describe the children.

The writer must write authentically. Expletives can be used in creative writing (in school books like Salinger’s and in cult classics like Palahniuk’s), and they can either enhance your story (by adding vividness) or detract from it (as in the case of a writer trying to sound ‘cool’ or ‘real,’ but failing utterly). It is possible to write a story about young drunk soldiers frequenting prostitutes without using any swear words at all, just as it is possible to describe a macabre series of murders without using the most sensationalist gruesome language. This is achieved primary through using the right metaphors.

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