Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is It Worse To Be Obscene Or Profane?

Or should I say, Is it better to be obscene or profane?

One of my listservs has been having a discussion of "cursing and YA books." This began with a question about whether cursing among teenagers is common everywhere. I think that's a legitimate and interesting question. The language in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which is always brought up when cursin' and cussin' are discussed) reflects a certain sophisticated urban lifestyle. But will kids all over the country recognize it as their own? In spite of the way TV, movies, advertising, and books tend to create a uniform culture, this is still a big country. Buy a local newspaper when you're traveling, and you'll see that people in different parts of the U.S. have different concerns. Are we all the same?

Well, to get on with the subject at hand, only recently in the listserv's discussion has anyone brought up the point that obscenity and profanity are different things. Obscenity is, for example, that word both Nick and Norah used nearly every sentence. Profanity is breaking the...uh...uh...oh, the third commandment--"Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain."

Which is more acceptable? In particular, which is more acceptable in a children's book?

This question is weighing on my mind right now, because I've realized that the adults in The Durand Cousins are not the types to say, "Oh, fudge" when they need to unburden themselves of angst or frustration. And they have plenty to be angsty and frustrated about. Would they lean toward expressing themselves with vulgarities or with rants to God?

In my own experience as a child and teenager, the adults in my family used just the most basic garden variety obscenities. Many of them, though,"spoke" with Jesus requently. In fact, they were on such close terms that they knew that his middle name began with H. My cousin used to say that he wasn't swearing, he was asking the Lord for help. And when I was growing up in Vermont, we all said Jeezum Crow. (You really need to draw out the vowels in that expression.) I was in college or older before I found out what that was a stand-in for.

I had to deal with the profanity issue once before while writing The Hero of Ticonderoga. Ethan Allen figured prominently in that book. His use of profanity was (and is) legendary and well documented. Before I began writing the book, I e-mailed my editor and asked, "Just how many times can you use 'god damn' in a kids' book?" (Three times in my case.)

Determining whether to go with obscenity or profanity--jeezum crow, what a thing to be spending my time on, eh?

7 comments:

TadMack said...

Interesting topic - this was on my mind today.

I was taught not to be profane: calling someone's name means that they answer. BUT, my agent said, in aggravation one day, "For God's sakes, let the characters swear!"

I wasn't raised that way, and people have told me that the angrier I get, the more syllables are in my words. Profanity is easy; screaming "Your obfuscating basic facts!" is much harder (mainly pronouncing 'obfuscating' without spitting).

Seriously though, I have gone back and forth. I've read and read and read and plenty of books are written in "real" language. Most of my characters aren't particularly sophisticated and urbane/urban, so maybe the tract housing set speaks in a whole 'nother lingo?

Chris Crutcher says his work is speaking 'the language of the people,' and I agree - thoroughly. It is a big country indeed - and the language of my peeps is a bit tamer. I am just hoping that doesn't count against me.

gail said...

I was left scarred after teaching Sunday school for eleven years. I have to be seriously out of control to use profanity, myself, and never allowed it in my presence from the young ones in my care. But the reality is that it is used regularly all around us, and I am wondering if what I'm working on now doesn't sound unnatural without it.

As I said, profanity sounds more natural to me than obscenity since profanity was more common when I was growing up.

TadMack said...

I now have to admit a deep love for Jeezum Crow, and now want to figure out a way to inject it into conversation. I'd never heard that before in my life.

When I was a kid the minister's wife used to say, "Well, forevermore!" and my high school boss said, "Shootabear." Which was as bad as he got. In first year French, we decided that the word 'Wednesday' sounded fairly profane. (We were freshmen.)

And I've lived my life long in CALIFORNIA. Wow. I guess the people I knew (or is that a time period thing that just doesn't reflect today?) (am I dating myself?!) were tame.

gail said...

Yeah, Jeezum Crow may take care of my problem in the project I'm working on now.

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