Bad Language in Romances

By Poison Ivy,

Recently there has been some discussion (okay, argument) in the romance world about using bad language of any sort in romances. Some romance readers and writers object to heroes or heroines using bad words under any circumstances. Of course there are several varieties of words that are included as objectionable: References to god, scatological words that refer to bodily functions or parts, sexually suggestive words that refer to behavior, and racial slurs. That’s a big list and I still might have forgotten something. Oh, chauvinism. There’s probably more.

Right off the bat, romances eliminate the scatology and the racial slurs; we just don’t have characters who do that. We don’t do homophobia, either. Our characters either live in a completely hetero world or the sexual orientations of their friends, relatives, or acquaintances are not a cause for discussion. Romances also do pretty well at avoiding national chauvinism; if a romance takes place in a country notorious for its lousy government or even its slow postal system, no disdainful reference is made to that. Even desperate romantic adventures happening in drug-infested countries, where the governments often are corrupt, usually are placed in mythical countries instead of named real ones. Or if in a real country, the bad guys are specifically described as outlaws. Romance writers are so nice. We don’t want to offend anybody. And we do try to look on the bright side.

That includes avoiding using sexual terms that are degrading, negative, or nasty, including the “F” word, of course. In a romance, it’s making love, not “effing.” Descriptions of lovemaking may be colorful, but always, romance writers strive to paint a romantic picture, not a vulgar one. Perhaps this avoidance of the degrading, the nasty, and the vile is what turns a story romantic. Certainly there is a very definite line of demarcation between the language used in romances and what is common or acceptable in our culture today.

In our culture we’re now used to many various instances of bad language in public. We’re also used to sexually suggestive titles for everything, and suggestive advertising linking sex to products that clearly have nothing to do with sex. So it may come as a surprise to hear that in olden days, a lot of people didn’t talk this way. I am told there was a day and age (I think it was the Victorian age, and my goodness, what a long time ago that was!) when people did not ordinarily try to include sexual innuendoes and references in their daily chat and their written work. Somehow, I think that part was a lie; I think people just love to talk about sex, no matter how obliquely. But it is true that for a limited number of people at any time there have been polite standards of language that did not include swear words and all manner of other bad language, and those people adhered to them fairly scrupulously. A hundred years ago, acceptable public language for mixed company (what we now call a “family audience”), used not to include words like “hell” and “damn.” I remember going to a play with my great-uncle when I was a teenager, and he was outraged at the dirty language: Yep, it was “hell” and “damn.” And that’s all. I already thought the language was very mild, despite having never heard worse in our household while growing up. In fact I barely ever heard those words, period. Grown-ups I knew did not use any swear words around women and children. Television did not use them. Radio did not use them. Movies did not use them either. This has all changed since I was a child. But we did have a high school teacher—briefly—who said those two bad words. We kids were totally titillated. Then we did our sanctimonious best to get him in trouble for saying them. In college it was different; all the teachers used the two bad words, and some others. The big revelation there was that the students, especially the prep-school girls, used really filthy language. Until then, because I had a sheltered upbringing, I had never known that a word for defecate (yes, the “S” word) could be declined like any regular verb. My big college accomplishment was to learn to swear like the rich girls!

The world has moved on, and I would be surprised if a young girl entering college today would be shocked by bad language she might hear around her. But in the romance world, we exact higher standards of behavior from our characters than we usually do in real life. This is fine for the romantic moments in a story. But what about other moments?

The big problem is that if the men do not say even one tiny bad word here or there, it is hard to cast them as believable alpha males in macho occupations. I know a very tolerant lady who says she had to beat up on her husband when he came home from the Navy; he was swearing a blue streak, as was typical of servicemen. And although she was willing to accept a certain amount of bad language in her home, the Navy level was way over the top. So, why do romances about Navy SEALS sanitize their probably rough language? Because, for one thing, nobody really wants to hear it in a romance. For another, these instances of bad language no longer have much meaning.

Imprecations, that is, curses, used to invoke the power of god, the devil, fate, or whatever against the person being cursed. The person cursed thus felt under attack by unseen forces. And for millenia people have believed in the power of cursing; think how many have accused enemies of the evil eye, or of hexing their family or their animals, or the like. The power of cursing was real in the past. Today, there are not many people in our culture who would worry if someone said, “I hope you get run over by a bus.” Yes, the hostility in the thought comes through. But the enemy has no power to make the bus run you over. (Unless this is happening on the weird TV show, “Lost.”) Cursing just doesn’t carry much weight for most of us anymore.

Similarly, profanity, taking god’s name in vain, has also lost its power. Not only is being damned to hell meaningless to many of us—plenty of people do not believe there is a hell or a god, for that matter—there is little aversion to using the name of god in a non-religious context. That’s what profanity really is. People may not like it. But we just don’t see instances of a god striking someone dead for mentioning her name irreverently.

But people do say bad words. So what is a romance writer to do? Well, one method is to say that the hero “cursed.” Not to write out the curses as actual dialogue. This can work very nicely because, just as we have learned to tolerate a lot of bad language, the meaning of the language itself has been lost. The hero who curses isn’t trying to make the villain’s cow stop producing milk. The hero is just trying to express his frustration and anger. It’s not likely that a man’s man, an alpha male, is going to use soft-edged terms from pop psych self-help books to describe his feelings: “When you try to kill me, that upsets me. We should discuss this problem in a neutral setting.” Alpha men don’t talk like that. A few viciously delivered curses cover the emotional territory much more believably. And yet, the reader and the heroine don’t really need to know the details of those words. Only that they were spoken. Sometimes, though, romance writers don’t want to pull back from active dialogue to deliver the curses as descriptions. It can stop the flow of the scene. And therein lies the creative problem. Should the actual words be used?

Comics have long since solved this dilemma quite beautifully, by using the symbols of the keyboard. When a comic character says “@#$%^&*!” it is understood that these are bad words. The effect is there, but not the specific detail that might be offensive. Usually, though, these symbols are used for humorous effect, not to be serious. Either way, at, since we use the graphic format we have that option. But we have chosen to take the high road and try to eschew all bad language. When our characters get emotional, though, they might say a word or two that some people today still don’t like to see.

Ideally behaved people do not say bad words, do not use coarse language, do not ever denigrate another person, and so on. But in romantic fiction as in real life, people are not ideal, although we certainly edge them a lot closer to ideal than in, say, gritty street fiction. So bad language is likely to be with us forever. The debate continues to rage about where and how to draw the line. Meanwhile, don’t be giving me the Internet version of the evil eye, a flamethrown response.