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Cat London

Talking Sh!t: Editing Swear Words

Three people hold an oversized speech bubble with the symbols, "#@&!!*."

As editors, we think and talk a great deal about words. We analyze words, we move them around, we cross some out and we add others in. When we gather at conferences and meetings across the world, we talk about words and then we come home and frequently read and write about words.

But there’s a category of words we rarely discuss: the category that comprises the f-bombs and the a-holes, the foul and the filthy, the curses and the cusses. In a word (well, two, according to CanOx), the swearwords.

This omission strikes me as curious because when I gather with other editors, I’m often surprised by how much profanity gets thrown around (and I played roller derby for five years; foul language rarely surprises me). And also because the frequency of swear words in books is clearly on the rise: throw any expletive you like into Google Ngram Viewer for a visual demonstration, or consult San Diego State University’s 2017 study on swear words in American literature that found that “motherfucker” was used 678 times more in the mid-2000s than the early 1950s, “shit” 69 times and “fuck” 168 times.

I’ve been a substantive editor and copy editor in trade fiction and non-fiction for over 15 years, and I’ve edited enough gritty detective novels to stack above my own head. When I’ve run into questions about what to do with obscenities, I’ve had trouble finding reliable guidance. Thus, in the hopes of opening a conversation among editors about how we handle profanity, I present some of the lessons I’ve learned.

Decide whether they belong

Of course, swear words are not suitable for every written work. Rarely would you find uncensored profanity in an academic journal article or, say, an Editors Canada blog post. 

If your author has included swear words, take a moment to ensure they are included deliberately and with purpose. If the words have been mildly censored — for example, parts of the words replaced with asterisks — consider whether they should be censored at all or simply removed. Most books that include swear words spell them out in their full glory.

Ensure swear words are appropriate

This may sound counterintuitive when discussing the most inappropriate words in the English language, but hear me out. People use swear words for different purposes — propositional swearing to emphasize a point, nonpropositional swearing from the emotional part of your brain when you accidentally hammer your thumb — and their degrees of offensiveness vary culturally and geographically as well as over time. As editors, it’s our job to ensure the words we edit serve the reader, which means making sure the words the author has used are appropriate for the text.

For example, religion-based swear words, once the most offensive of profanity, no longer hold the broad shock value they once did, whereas a racial slur is likely to stop a conversation in its tracks. If you encounter a swear word in fiction, ensure it’s appropriate for the time, the place, and the character. Consider where the word might land on a scale of its offensiveness and think about how likely the character would be to have that word on the tip of their tongue. And, as always, conscious language and the impact of language on readers need to be considered: just because a word makes sense historically doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful to someone who may read it today.

This may require some research into an expletive’s usage or even its etymology. For example, a prim and proper classics teacher in a mystery novel I worked on slipped into Latin when a couch’s spring poked her. The word the author had used never came up in my classics degree, but a quick Google confirmed my suspicion that it was both referencing the wrong body part and decidedly not the kind of language this genteel character was likely to employ. (The author substituted the alternative I suggested.)

Look for parallels

Swear words work the same way as any other words in questions of hyphenation, capitalization, and punctuation. Think of compounds: just as door bell became door-bell and then doorbell, we have arrived at a point in history where “motherfucker” no longer requires a hyphen. 

If you’re uncertain about how to style an obscenity, an indispensable resource to consult is Kia Thomas’s A Very Sweary Dictionary. Still not sure what to do? See if you can find a grammatically parallel “regular” word or phrase to compare it to — shithouse to mailbox, for example — or just follow the same rules you would for any other phrase. (I waffled for a while about “goat-fuckery” before deciding to hyphenate for clarity based on CMOS 7.89.) 

Follow the changes

Language is, of course, always changing. We have come a long way from the time when “zounds” — a shortening of “Christ’s wounds” — could land you in the social, if not the literal, pillory. Especially in this global age, swear word usage can change faster than the speed of typing. 

American linguist Ben Zimmer’s Slate article (originally posted on the Strong Language blog) about the epithet “shitgibbon” chronicles the origin of the term and its meteoric rise in popularity after it was applied to then U.S. president Donald Trump. (Trump himself is a contributor to the normalization of obscenities: not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a world leader to use phrases like “shithole countries” in public discourse.)

Our attitude toward curse words is changing rapidly as well: a survey by Research Co. and Glacier Media shows a noticeable increase in swearing in Canada, especially in the workplace, and Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, is collecting data that indicates that children are learning to swear earlier than ever before.

It behooves us as editors to pay attention to changes in language. Watching as expletives rise, fall and evolve can be an entertaining and instructive — if whiplash-inducing — practice and can influence how you approach obscenities in your work.

Learn more

The way we swear, the reasoning behind it and the way our expletives evolve over time and location are fascinating topics linguistically and culturally. For further reading, I would direct you to What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen; Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr; In Praise of Profanity by Michael Adams; the podcast Very Bad Words; and the blog Strong Language: A Sweary Blog About Swearing

Or just take me out for a goddamn coffee and let’s talk about it.


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2 Comments on “Talking Sh!t: Editing Swear Words”

  • This is an excellent and fun and informative piece. Thanks! I like the matter-of-fact use of the actual words—it always seems so juvenile in other media when I see “f–k” or “sh*t” or, worse, a descriptive phrase such as “a homophobic epithet” with no mention of the word at all. Another aspect of swear words I find interesting is the punctuation of them. There are some occasions when people do pronounce the “ing” in “fucking” to rhyme with “ring,” but mostly it sounds like “un” to rhyme with “bun.” So, how to punctuate? In some of my own writing, I’ve often tried to normalize it as a word, and so just used “fuckin” but most often I go with the rules and use “fuckin’ .”

    I like the list of books, too. Thanks. Another one is Rufus Lodge’s “F**k: An Irreverent History of the F-Word.”

    The one thing I pause a little about in the piece is: “And, as always, conscious language and the impact of language on readers need to be considered: just because a word makes sense historically doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful to someone who may read it today.” I’m happy you are not saying not to use the word at all in such circumstances, but the writer is better off being true to the historical context than worry about offending someone in the present context.

    Overall, though: thanks. I fucking loved it (an example where the “ing” would be fully pronounced).


    • Cat London


      Thanks so much for the kind words, Wayne! I didn’t want to give any specific advice for such a general question, since I think there are a huge number of factors that go into questions of conscious language, but I think the question always needs to be carefully considered if a word can cause harm to a reader. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Happy to chat about swearsies anytime!


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