Friday, March 21, 2014

Must We Be So Profane?

This past week, Jennifer Balink  ( ) published a blog post entitled, Sex, poop and periods, a plea for open and frank discussions between women and their daughters about issues of women’s health. She notes that, prior to about 1980, many such issues were considered “taboo,” including even mentioning the word, “breasts.” Ms. Balink applauds the falling away of such mental barriers and the relative openness of today’s speech in the Western democracies.

Having personally grown up in the last years of the so-called “Victorian morals” age, I must say that I have to agree with Ms. Balink. However, I am not so pleased with another facet of the openness of today—the coarsening of speech within our society and the casual use of profanity.  In my youth, there were certain words that one simply did not use in what was called “polite company.” Men were reluctant to offend women by speaking profanity in their presence. Conversely, women were not bashful about expressing their displeasure at men’s use of profanity within their hearing range. These words were always around, of course, but they were reserved for male only gatherings and usually spoken in soto voce. Nowadays, it seems to me that a large number of people just casually drop the S-bomb or the F-bomb as punctuation marks in their sentences.

The coarsening of our speech began in the 1960s. The political and social upheavals of that decade spurred on the change. I first noticed it while serving in the Vietnam War. The mixing of all levels of society brought about by the draft (often cited as one of the advantages of conscription) appeared to reduce the refinement of speech to the lowest common denominator. All conversation became laced with the foulest of profanity. With such a long war and the rotation of hundreds of thousands of troops through the war zone, this tendency soon spread to society at large. Hollywood led the way. How many movies of the 1970s dropped the F-bomb in strange contexts just for the shock effect? A lot! During this same period, the Women’s Movement promoted sexually equality to the fullest. This was a good thing, but unfortunately, too many interpreted equality as the freedom for women to be just as profane as men. Many women gave up their traditional role as the keeper of “polite society.” In fact, with children hearing both parents use casual profanity in everyday speech, we may have now produced whole generations that no longer even have a concept of “polite society.”

I’m not pretending that my generation didn’t have its own speech faults. I grew up in the Deep South during World War 2. The casual use of the N-bomb among white society at the time still pains me. I haven’t used that word as an adult. My children and grandchildren have never heard it from my mouth. The fact that it is still in use anywhere today is heartbreaking to me. But so is the use of the F-bomb as a punctuation mark.

I came face to face with this problem when I began my current writing project, Asphalt and Blood: Navy Seabees in the Battle for Hue City. I have always striven for historical accuracy in all my novels. When writing dialog between Seabees in Vietnam, I started by using the exact language that I heard while serving there. I wasn’t very far into the book before I realized that the excess profanity broke up the chain of thought I was trying to convey. After discussing the problem with some of my Seabee veteran friends, I decided to take out most of the gratuitous profanity. In my Author’s Forward, I explain my reasoning for this and instruct my readers who insist of speech authenticity to simply insert their favorite expletive whenever there is a punctuation mark.

Perhaps I am just an old “mossback” from a passing generation. I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the restrictive society of the 1950s. But can’t we at least show respect for each other by cleaning up our speech?

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific.  


  1. I struggled too with profanity in my YA novels about street kids and biker gangs. For some reason, the f-word is much more stark and offensive in print than in speech. I'm so used to it in real life, I hardly notice when someone uses it in conversation. In print, though, yeah...I agree. It jumps out and bites you and destroys the chain of thought. I cleaned my novels up somewhat but in addition to cussing being just a cultural thing, on the street coarse and violent language is often used to intimidate, control, belong, and to create and conceal fear. I decided the language was necessary in places to accurately portray the lifestyle. In the Discussion and Teaching Guide at the back of my novel THE TRAZ, I did include a discussion about the reasons people use profanity, along with exploring freedom of speech and literary licence.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Eileen! Warren

    2. Eileen, Like you, I have run into some circumstances where profaniy is necessary to convey the context of the story. When these occur, I do not hesitate to use it. U.S. troops in Vietnam were incredibly profane. Warren