Sunday, 19 June 2016

'Lazy' is a four letter word, by Veronica Zundel

I hate to say this, but there is a small town in Austria called Fucking (pronounced in a northern way). Yes, it's embarrassing. As a German word, however, it's just a combination of consonants and vowels denoting a place. Why am I sharing this less than enlightening fact with you? Well, like several others who write for this blog, I was recently at the ACW writers' weekend at Scargill House. And hardly were we there a few hours, when a discussion arose about using 'bad language' in  fiction.

Now I've been around the Christian writers' scene for around 35 years, and I am sick and tired of this topic. Is Graham Greene a Christian writer? Yes, he's a novelist who was a Christian. Do some of his characters swear? Yes, when appropriate. Is J K Rowling a Christian writer? Yes - she holds a lay office in her church. How can anyone read the final scenes of the last  Harry Potter and not see profoundly Christian themes? But Ron Weasley says 'bloody' a lot. 

What is 'bad language'? Is there even such a thing? Many years ago someone called me the laziest person they knew. I must admit I lost it and swore at them. But in context, who
Any language can be bad
was using 'bad language'? The word 'lazy' is bad language if used to do someone down (and it's a four letter word). True, there are words we should never use: because they are racist, sexist, or cruel. Nevertheless, if we create a racist, sexist or cruel character, we may have to put such words in their mouths.

Of course if your calling is to write 'safe' fiction for easily offended Christians (since when was being offended a fruit of the Spirit?),  you will have to avoid those pesky Anglo-Saxon words. However if readers don't want what they read to confront them with language they surely already know, they had better stop reading the Bible, which is full of curses and earthy language. St Paul, for instance, said he counted everything as - well, I'll say excrement, but in the Greek he used a stronger word - for the sake of knowing Christ.

If however you want to write fiction or non-fiction that communicates the down-to-earth gospel to ordinary people, you may find it necessary to be less mealy-mouthed. What we call 'strong' language is weak language when used as punctuation; but if you sprinkle it sparingly like that hot seasoning in a grinder from Traidcraft, it might make the all-important contrast between the character you want people to admire, and the one you don't.
A US president disobeying Jesus...

One last point. Jesus never said anything about swearwords. No really, he didn't. When he told his disciples not to swear, he meant don't swear oaths in court to prove you are telling the truth, since you should be telling the truth all the time. A command that Mennonites and Quakers take seriously, but no other Christians I know of. But 'bad' language? No such thing. It all depends how you use it.

Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for New Daylight. Veronica used to belong to what was, before it closed, the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and is currently churchless. She also blogs at


  1. Thank you for the point that 'What we call 'strong' language is weak language when used as punctuation'. I have thought the same for some time; even that four letter words are unimaginative (lazy, too, for many). My characters are set in a different time and place and can use more imaginative ways to insult each other or reveal their character, but as I don't use swearwords myself I know I would find it strange going down that route. That said, there are many who challenge our narrow understanding of what swearing and loving really look like, and the imperative we have to shock at times - may be an eye-opener to some.

  2. I agree with much of what you say, Veronica. I'm not one who believes certain words are bad or sinful in themselves - context is all. But I also believe that there are, if our audience/publisher/conscience puts constraints on the amount of swearing, other alternatives for portraying the use of swearwords and characterising someone as a sweary type. If it pains us to do so, we can try another audience or publisher. We could try changing our conscience, too, but I've had a go at that one plenty of times without success, believe me.

  3. I am with you on this one, Veronica. I write for young adults and I have been taken to task for allowing those characters who are cruel and offensive to speak (within inverted commas) as they normally would. We are meant not to like them and to identify with the heroes who have to confront them - as our young people have to do in real life.
    I have also been criticized for having young people communicate as they do: "He went, 'I seen you before?' What kind of, like, chat up line is that? As if!" According to some I'm supposed to encourage proper English use: "He said to me, 'Have I seen you before?' What sort of romantic advance is that supposed to be? As if I would be interested."
    If our characters are to come across as authentic, then I believe they have to talk in character and use the words they would. Similarly, if I personally went around using 'swear' words, it would be inappropriate and out of character, and everyone, including the kids, would be shocked. Just as they would think I was a doubtful old bloke if I used 'like' in every sentence.

  4. On the Polish Baltic coast, there is a village called Fuck which is situated on the Hel Peninsular. This is listed on the signboards on the trams in Gdansk. When my husband and I saw this, we almost died laughing.

  5. Thanks Veronica - and you made the point which I made in the discussion - and was overlooked - that 'swearing' in the Biblical context does not mean using 4-letter words of a basic nature but a quite different, legal, situation is referred to! (People so often don't listen, do they?) (Sometimes my 'good' characters have been known to use a 'naughty word' ... my publisher doesn't object ...)

  6. Penelope Wallace6 August 2016 at 12:05

    I agree so much. I have written characters who speak more crudely than I do, because they would. In literature and life generally I find casual blasphemy much more offensive than obscenity.