Curses! The Poor Abused Asterisk

by Janis Patterson

At least it used to be mistreated by overuse. Now, with the new ‘freedom’ (or abuse, as some would say) of the language, the poor asterisk has almost been forced into retirement.

These days there seems to be no depth to how low some users of the language can go. Years ago in the rare times they were used, vulgar words were filled with asterisks, such as ‘f**k’ and ‘d*mn’ ‘p*n*s’ and – well, you know what I mean. Nowadays more often than not those words are not only fully spelled but repeated several times as if the writer wants to make sure you see them and – probably – expects you to applaud or at least acknowledge their courage and honesty in using them.

Sorry, I’m not buying that.

I’m a purist about language. Language is perhaps the highest order of civilization, one which allows precise and exact communication for the exchange of ideas. To let it not only sink down to but revel in dirty words is to me a crime.

Ah, you say, but aren’t you being judgmental to condemn certain words as being ‘dirty’?

You bet I am. I believe when a word describes something dirty or societally disapproved of, a function or action not welcome in polite discourse, it should be judged. (I can hear some of you muttering most unflattering things such as censorship and prudery, but – hey – this is my column and I’m going to say what I really think.)

I was raised to believe that language is a living thing, and like all living things it should be handled with respect, if not reverence. There was a time – for most of history, actually – when use of ‘those words’ was a sure marker of either being very uneducated or very lower class, or probably both. Then suddenly the earth heaved and to use them became a mark of modernity, of freedom from antique societal restraints. And, like most revolutions, it went too far.

In the literary arena writers had to straddle both worlds – to be modern enough to interest readers and publishers who put sales above mores, but still, for those who loved and respected language or more honestly feared the censors, they tried to preserve the integrity of the language and moderate offensiveness. An impossible task.

Thus the necessity for the asterisk. It found itself inserted into words that were at best questionable and at worse obscene, turning them into a form of code understood by all, but still standing barely under the edge of decency’s shadow. In those antique days, it is to be noted that villains and bad people were the ones who used those words, even with asterisks inserted. You could almost tell who was a villain and who was a hero/heroine just by the language they used. Sort of like smoking is used as such an indicator today.

No longer, though, and both language and culture are the poorer for it. When a so-called hero or heroine rips out with what I will call the full version of the ‘f-bomb,’ ‘the c-word,’ ‘the n-word’ or any other rude/pornographic/nasty word they immediately drop in my estimation. If the usage is egregious enough, the book usually does too, all the way to the wastebasket.

While mysteries have produced more than their share of curse words, usually masculine-type expletives, it is romance novels which blew the lid off any semblance of scatological restraint. In the late 70s and early 80s romance went from a dreamy landscape of feelings and handholdings to a clinically correct – albeit originally rife with euphemism – technical manual of lovemaking and the physical parts used to do it. Not all, understand – even today you can still find romances filled with dreamy feelings and chaste kisses, but sometimes it’s a difficult hunt.

Maybe I’m just a dinosaur who lives in a different age. If so, so be it. I know what I like, and I will stand up for it. That does not mean, however, I am a total nerd. In person I have been known to let fly with a hearty ‘d*mn’ when I put a finger through a brand new pair of pantyhose or a loud ‘bl**dy h*ll’ on the rare occasion, but usually only when alone. I have been known to write those words too, but not often and usually only with villains and other slime – the only exceptions being when an insertion or six (usually mild words, like d*mn or h*ll) were not only insisted on but demanded by a publisher. (I guess they were wanting to appear au courant with ‘modern’ usage.) I’ll admit to being sometimes overly picky and proper, but not to being positively antediluvian.

I know there are those who do not find those ‘asterisk words’ – bowdlerized or not – as offensive as I do. That is their right, but on the other hand it is my right not to like, use or choose to read them. Chacun à son goût!

7 thoughts on “Curses! The Poor Abused Asterisk

  1. Here’s my question: often swear words are used for shock value. Remember at the end of Gone With The Wind, when Rhett Butler said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn?” Scandalous at the time, today that would mean nothing. So, movies, etc., have had to up the ante. What happens when the harsher swear words become so commonplace they lose any impact? Seems to me, language has gotten more and more graphic to meet that perceived need. Always pushing the envelope. But, many, many excellent works still manage without going there. Stick to your guns.
    Lida Bushloper

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  2. I agree. And, yes I swear in private or with my hubby, but not with the written word. There are other ways to get a point across without using foul language.

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  3. I kind of disagree, respectfully, of course. When writing genre fiction, we are writing through a character’s eyes, ears, and thoughts. I have characters who do not say curse words, but I also have characters who do because, when someone (men, ahahaha) are frustrated, sometimes coherent sentences and words fly out of their heads…

    But then, I guess that’s why writing is so subjective. Great post. Even with all the ast**t*ks. 🙂

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  4. You are so speaking my language. I completely agree about curse words. I use them sometimes in my writing, but honestly, the ones I use people always tell me they aren’t bad words. Which ALWAYS shocks me. Thank you for the post and your bravery!

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  5. Great post, Janis! I can’t stand movies or books that use the F word in every other sentence. It isn’t necessary. I agree, it just makes them look unintelligent. I do have characters (even my MC) now and then mutter a curse because they are mad or something went entirely wrong. But that is to show the depth of their anger/stupidity.

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  6. I totally agree. Though I know my characters may swear at times, I don’t quote them. I am really sick of movies where every sentence has at least one swear word. As for books, it’s the good writer who doesn’t have to use all those f-bombs and other words that are not needed to convey what is being said. Good post!

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