How to swear effectively in narratives

Rule One:


I learned how to swear at my father’s knee, improved when I worked as a lumbar jack, and honed the art to perfection when I spent considerable time in the navy during wartime. I heard some very colorful profane, obscene, scatological, and inventive, language over the years. When it came time to write novels, I wanted to create realism, even gritty realism; and I also wanted to sell books. More church ladies, librarians, professors, and couth individuals, buy books than do plumbers, lumbar jacks, and navies; so, I had to come up with a way for my characters to curse without having to share such with the church ladies.

Actually, my mother was more or less a church lady, but she loved the rough-hewn men in our town, especially the plumbers. When the rotund plumber came to our house in his coveralls and set to work on the fridge, he had to reach around from front to back and to burn his forearms with some frequency. He held his tongue as long as he could.

            “Mrs. Nielson,” he said, “I gotta ask you to go outside. I am not gonna be able to finish this here job if I can’t express myself, if you get my meanin’?”

            She replied, “Bill, a team of horses couldn’t drag me out of this kitchen while you work. It’s the most fun I get in a month of Sundays. Just pretend I’m not here and get on with the work and the necessary communications you need to express.”

            He laughed and treated her to a veritable serenade of cursing, covering all the bases except those which denigrated women or that nice ladies like her really shouldn’t hear. It was very relieving for him and entertaining for her. He had been in the navy in World War II, I might add. That was a fertile learning ground.

            People like swearing… sort of. I find Netflix language boring and repetitious, especially if it rhymes with duck, or in other settings might seem like prayer with frequent calls out to the deity.

Rule Two:

Find another way. Your work is more readable, moves more smoothly, and with less impediments without cursing or use of coarse, inappropriate, language. To be precise, here are some definitions of the several kinds of that sort of speech.

  • Blasphemous: use of the names and titles of deities, such as g…d. it!; By G…! when used by a Muslim in a reverential fashion, this is not swearing. Jews—on the other hand—hold the name of their god in such sacred reverence that his name is “that which is never spoken.” For a Jew, to use his god’s name as a curse or in an insult is the very nadir of human vocalization.
  • Obscenity: an extremely offensive word or expression. Like profanity, obscenity has many names—consider bawdiness, coarseness, crudeness, dirtiness, filthy, grossness, indecency, lasciviousness, lewdness, raunchiness, smuttiness, disgusting, and vulgarity, in either communi-cation or behavior, to name a few. Legally, the term is ill-defined, even vague, but almost everyone, everywhere, recognizes it whenever it appears. It largely involves references to sex, usually in a vulgar manner, but it can be seen as obscenity even when used accurately but in graphic description. A few successful authors, e.g. Ken Follette, get away with it, but most authors eschew its use for reasons of marketability of their books. As an author, you may be able to write it, get it published, have it declared legal as a First Amendment right, but if you include such language or descriptions, you do so at the peril of selling your work.
  • Profanity: There are many euphemisms for such language–profanity, cursing, cussing, swearing, bad language, abusive language, foul language, obscenity, expletives, vulgarism, and vulgarity. Swearing, cursing and obscenity, are distinct forms ofbad languageProfanity usually centers on cultural taboos which differ over time and place. They are all socially offensive use of language; profanity is language use that is deemed rude, obscene, or culturally offensive; in certain religions, it constitutes sin. It often shows a debasement of someone or something, or is considered an expression of strong feeling towards something. Some words may also be used as intensifiers. The latter use reveals only an inadequacy of vocabulary despite it being widely held as a sign of extraversion, cleverness, coolness, or as a defining feature of a Type A personality. Using the name of deity as a curse is counterproductive in efforts to recruit readers. Many Catholics are unaware, but the vile term, “mother-f…” relates to sex with the Virgin Mary, who is essentially deified in that large religion. Its use by any author is unlikely to endear readers to one’s written work.
  • Scatological: pertaining to bathroom activities, excreta, and offal. The category includes a great many four-letter words which have become commonly used in mixed company and other inappropriate places. It is not necessary in written communication. Use of such terms constitutes a bump in the reading roadway, something to get over, left behind, and forgotten. It is good advice to leave them out.
  • Innuendoes or Double entendres: figures of speechin which a word or phrase can be understood in two ways, especially when one meaning is risqué. They are often rather subtle and may seem obtuse.

            Here are some examples:

Many of these come from Dr. Richard Nordquist, B.A., English, State University of New York, M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester, Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia. He is professor emeritus of rhetoric and English at Georgia Southern University and the author of several university-level grammar and composition textbooks.

※The Bellamy Brothers song, If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body (Would You Hold it Against Me)

            ※Rebecca Kordecki… created little booties and a slide kit to use while performing moves that strengthen and lengthen the body. The name Booty Slide [for her product] is a double entendre… [‘We wear the booties on our feet, but the workout also lifts your booty.’].

            ※Carlene Thomas-Bailey, American Fitness Crazes Hit the UK. The Guardian, Dec. 28, 2010… “a disproportionately large number of the songs are bawdy songs, often featuring poorly-veiled (and delightfully funny) sexual double-entendres… such as references to: ‘Big Bamboo, Juicy Tomatoes, Sweet Watermelon…”

            ※Mollie Sugden, Nicholas Smith, Trevor Bannister, and Wendy Richard in Are You Being Served?)


Mrs. Slocombe: Before we go any further, Mr. Rumbold, Miss Brahms and I would like to complain about the state of our drawers. They’re a positive disgrace.

Mr. Rumbold: Your what, Mrs. Slocombe?

Mrs. Slocombe: Our drawers. They’re sticking. And it’s always the same in damp weather.
Mr. Rumbold: Really.

Mrs. Slocombe: Miss Brahms could hardly shift hers at all just now.

Mr. Lucas: No wonder she was late.

Mrs. Slocombe: They sent a man who put beeswax on them, but that made them worse.
Mr. Rumbold: I’m not surprised.

Miss Brahms: I think they need sandpapering.


※Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844. “She touched his organ, and from that bright epoch, even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence.”


Nurse: God ye good morrow, gentlemen.

Mercutio: God ye good den, fair gentlewoman.

Nurse: Is it good den?

Mercutio: ’Tis no less, I tell you; for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.
Nurse: Out upon you! what a man are you!

(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, (Act II, scene three)

Note: [meaning the clock hand, something spiky, or the penis, a clumsy sexual reference. Try again.]


※William J. Cobb, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic. NYU Press, 2006.

“It’s impossible to ignore the prominence of water as a primary motif in black spiritual culture—from the debilitated Gospel pleas to be ‘washed white as snow to the rebellion-coded double entendre ‘wade in the water,’ which referenced both baptism and escape routes from slavery.”

(Edward Moore, The Double EntendreThe World, No. 201, Thursday, Nov. 4, 1756) Women’s Use of the Double Entendre in 18th-Century England.


“Of all the improvements in polite conversation, I know of nothing that is half so entertaining and significant as the double entendre. It is a figure in rhetoric, which owes its birth, as well as its name, to our inventive neighbours the French; and is that happy art, by which persons of fashion may communicate the loosest ideas under the most innocent expressions. The ladies have adopted it for the best reason in the world: they have long since discovered, that the present fashionable display of their persons is by no means a sufficient hint to the men that they mean anything more than to attract their admiration: the double entendre displays the mind in an equal degree, and tells us from what motives the lure of beauty is thrown out…”


Finally, save yourself embarrassment and earned criticism by avoiding euphemisms for swearing of any kind. You may have characters who are church ladies, ministers, missionaries, of overly delicate nature, who could be allowed to speak in euphemisms about all such subjects or other negative areas such as death, war, torture, molestation, criminal behavior, etc. You can do better than that, which will be discussed in the next article.

Here are few examples of euphemistic alternatives often used:

  • Darn, dang for damn
  • Oh, my heck for hell
  • Shoot, crap, poo, poop, potty, pee, whiz, sugar, number one, number two, for bathroom functions or products.
  • Boobs or boobies, bottoms, bums, backsides, derrieres; pee-pees, peckers, or wienees; muffs, mound of Venus, hoo-ha, foo-foo, coochie, vajayjay, pink canoe, flower, garage, camel toe, cave of wonders, down there; down under; Australia; front bottom, lady parts or bits, beaver, critter, etc., ad infinitum, as euphemisms for body parts. I would include the frank vulgarities here, but you get the idea.
  • For deity curses: Jeez, OMG, cheese and crackers, golly, gol-darnit, goodness, cheese and rice! God bless America, or God bless it, instead of blaspheming.
  • General expletives: banana shenanigans, fudge nuggets, shnookerdookies, fiddlesticks, Jiminy Crickets, son of a gun, egad, great Scott, great Caesar’s ghost, shucks. There are new such expletives on almost a daily basis.

In brief, avoid their use: they are too cute, too folksy, too obvious. Instead consider the suggestions in Rule Three.

I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.