I Am Not Good At Swearing, by Elaine Owen

I Am Not Good At Swearing, by Elaine Owen

I am not good at swearing.

Growing up, my parents would not allow a word that was even the slightest bit “questionable” to be uttered in our house. Obviously the big, bad, notorious swear words were off limits, but milder ones like “heck,” “darn,” or even, “shoot,” would also earn a lecture. I had no desire to use the “really bad” words so I don’t know what the punishment for those might have been. To this day I wince inwardly when an expression like, “Are you flippin’ kidding me?” manages to escape my lips. That is as bad as it gets in our household!

This presents a problem when I’m writing because the reality is that some characters in my stories, both regency and contemporary, curse like sailors, and there’s only so much an author can do to get around having to use those colorful epithets. Sometimes a character just has to let one fly in order to be believable. Imagine, for example, Rhett Butler at the end of “Gone With the Wind”, facing Scarlett O’Hara with his famous cynical expression and saying, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a flip!” It just doesn’t have the same impact, does it?

The problem gets worse when I’m writing a character in regency times because if I am not good at swearing in the 21st century, I am hopelessly inept at it in the 19th. I don’t even know what the most common swear words were back then, let alone how my characters should or shouldn’t use them. That, of course, leads to researching “regency swear words” online, and a search history that would make a sailor blush.

It turns out that “socially restricted” words in the regency period follow some of the same themes that they do today. For instance, words related to sex tended to be off color then as much as they are today.  Yes, the “f bomb” was a thing back then just as much as now. (Actually society has become noticeably more tolerant in this area in the last decade or two.) People back then made scatological curses just as people do today. But there’s also a difference: in regency times swear words related to God, Jesus, or other sacred topics carried a lot more weight. An exclamation of “God’s wounds!” shortened to “Zounds!” wouldn’t even make sense today, but when the church and sacred life held more sway in society, it was considered profane.

It’s interesting that the notably pious Jane Austen had her most beloved hero, Darcy, take the Lord’s name in vain at a crucial point in Pride and Prejudice. When he meets Elizabeth at the inn at Lambton right after she receives Jane’s letters about Lydia, he sees the disturbance on her face and exclaims, “Good God, what is the matter?” I have no idea how offensive this exclamation  was to regency readers, but it is surprising even to our modern ears, given how reserved Darcy has been up to this point. But Austen uses the simple, heartfelt exclamation to show how much passion is hidden behind Darcy’s controlled façade. It’s concise and effective.

My work in progress, Elizabeth and the Fleur de Lys, has many scenes with soldiers and the inevitable swearing that goes with them. But so far, the worst cursing has occurred in this scene with our favorite villain, Wickham:

Holding his breath, the man crept past the lowest stair and advanced several feet until he was just at the edge of where the cavernous opening under the staircase began. He paused dramatically for a moment, listening intently. Then, with a loud exclamation, he threw open the lantern covering. At the same time he turned and sprang into the darkness. 

The shadows under the staircase receded and the furthermost corners showed clearly; all was revealed. From the smallest space directly under the lowest stair, all the way to the opposite wall, there was no place to hide. But the space was empty; there  was no one there.  The only person standing under the staircase, waiting for a secret meeting to occur, was the blond man himself. 

“Damnation!” He swung his lantern wide, back and forth, letting the light play over the walls and the back side of the stairs as he turned this way and that. His face contorted in fury. “Where is that man? Where is that blasted Fleur de Lys?” A distant sound of laughter made him straighten and look behind him, but when he realized it came from the ballroom he looked forward again.  A look of desperation came across his face. He held the lantern out at arm’s length. 

Starting at the far end of the space, he began to pace slowly back and forth, methodically examining every inch of the floor, working his way patiently towards the front.

At length his search was rewarded: there was a glint of metal in the carpet.  He crouched down to examine the item where it lay, directly under the edge of the staircase, where there was barely enough room for a man to stand. Then, with a curious look, he reached out and picked the object up. He held it in one hand as he rose to his feet and brought the lantern close. With a disbelieving gasp, he held it up to his eye and turned it slightly, trying to make out the details of the small piece of gold.  When recognition dawned he clenched his fist tightly over the item, and his lips tightened in a thin grimace. He spun on one heel and marched away without a backward glance.

The item he had discovered was a small gold cufflink. And the only decoration on it was a distinctive letter G.

If this excerpt intrigues you, you can find the most up to date version at www.darcyandlizzy.com.

I’d love to hear what my fellow readers and writers think about colorful language in their regency romances. Does it affect how you feel about the story? Do you think it needs to be included for the sake of authenticity? I’ve love to hear your thoughts!

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18 Responses to I Am Not Good At Swearing, by Elaine Owen

  1. I appreciate books that don’t include swearing. My parents used cuss words (I’m from the South) but because my momma is a Christian, my sister and I were disciplined for using them. However, it was a temptation for me. Ever since I became a Christian, the temptation has weakened but I still hate reading them. I also cannot allow my 17 year old daughter, who enjoys JAFF, to read certain books because of the language.

    Thank you for being sensitive to your readers while striving to be true to the Regency language.

  2. We weren’t allowed to swear either at the risk of severe punishment! I don’t remember my parents swearing so I suppose not hearing it made it easier. My own children found it harder, I didn’t swear in front of them but their friends at school certainly did!

    • My kids both went to public school, with all the swearing that goes on there, but I discovered that they were far more likely to imitate what they heard at home than what they heard from their peers. Fortunately!

  3. I grew up with mild swearing in the household and picked up enough of the habit that I have to be careful even today after many years. No gd or f word was ever used. Absolutely hate the f word. As to a character swearing, I endeavor to keep my characters mouths clean, and if the scene could support the use of a swear word, I would first consider my audience, the category, and whether it was needed. Probably, in any case, I would simply write he or she swore and follow through with the reaction of whoever heard it.

    As to running into damn or hell in reading someone else’s book, if it really fit the situation, it would not bother me. However, a book taking God’s name in vain or even one use of the f word, I would be done and return the book.

    When it boils down to it, each of us has to determine what we’ll tolerate and what we won’t and draw the line as we train our consciences.

    • It definitely is a personal decision! I can handle reading it in someone else’s writing, depending on the circumstances and how it’s done.

  4. I have trouble swearing as well although I grew up with mom and siblings that frequently used the “s” word not considering it a real curse word. Despite hearing it all the time, I still can’t find myself to say it.

  5. We were not allowed to take the Lord’s name in vain (my mother was Catholic and very clear on the commandment). That said, common cuss words were frequently heard in my home, though the f-bomb or anything similar were strictly forbidden. It could be confusing at times. I got slapped once for saying something sucked, but “what the h–?” didn’t get a blink of the eye.

    I think it depends on the character. Like you mentioned, it is almost expected with military men. I like to have my officers trip over themselves in an excitable moment in mixed company, trying not to let one slip. 😉

    Loved the excerpt!

    • My dear father, who would never have said either heck or suck, nevertheless watched military movies with cussing a-plenty, with the explanation that, “that’s just how they talk.” He would be deeply offended by the crassness of society today. I suppose we all have our blind spots.

  6. I was also not permitted to swear growing up. I recall using the word “poppycock” after hearing it used in the Peter Pan movie. Not a smart moment in my young life.

    As to reading them, I would prefer if they are used, there is reason for the “passion” around their use. Just tossing in one irritates me greatly, and I agree with J. W. Garrett in their use in amorous moments. Just not necessary.

    If you have not done so previously, you might look at Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written in 1788. [Note! The book might say 1811 in the title, but that was when it was published a second time.] The book has phrases which could add the necessary color, but not be an actual curse word. BTW, Grose was my 6th great uncle. To learn more of the dictionary here is a link of public domain material: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/a-classical-dictionary-of-the-vulgar-tongue-1788

    Or check out my piece on Grose and his father Francis Grose, Sr. (my 6th great-grandfather) who was a jeweler, who fitted up the coronation crown of King George. Grose’s wife was named Ann Bennett, whose father was one Thomas Bennett. LOL!

    • I can’t imagine swearing in an “amorous” moment. Maybe my naivete is showing, but do people really do that? *scratching my head*
      Your family history is awesome! I can’t wait to look up the vulgar tongue articles/material. Thank you!!!!

  7. Swearing was not allowed in our home. In elementary school, a child said something and the person next to me didn’t hear it and asked me what he said. I wasn’t allowed to use words like that so I couldn’t repeat them. Instead, I wrote it down for them and handed it to them. I was caught. Not only was I passing notes but was writing curse words. LOL! As a teen, my father chided me for using the word crap as an exclamation when frustrated.

    Using swear words, especially when unnecessary, bothers me. To read an educated person ‘swearing like a sailor’ is confusing and irritating. Why was it necessary? I really don’t appreciate it during amorous moments between a couple. Seriously?!?

    I agree with Kris in that it is up to the author to decide how they wish to portray their characters’ feelings and moods. Use your best judgment.

    • That’s funny with you getting in trouble for writing it down!!! Funny now, anyway. Probably not at the time. 🙁
      Some of this best judgment also has to take the audience into account. No matter how authentic swearing is to the character, you will search high and low to find characters who swear in Christian books. However it is tolerated pretty well in regency writing, perhaps a little less in Victorian.

  8. I’m the same, I was raised not to use swear words (in Australia), despite the fact everyone around me uses them on a daily basis, especially at work. I think in literature it’s down to the piece and the author, if there was no profanity I would be happy, if some came in I would probably question was it needed? I think the author has to make the judgement call on if they feel it helps people understand the feelings and mood of the character. It would be silly just to throw it in for no reason. Just my two cents 🙂

    • I entirely agree. When my regency characters use a swear word, it helps that they use something not in common use today, so it comes across as mild. At least I think it does!

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