Thursday, February 18, 2010

I Swear

I've been postponing this blog thing. I have a hard time even keeping up with my e-mail, so the thought of having yet another kind of communication to sustain is daunting. But at every writers' conference I attend, I'm told: "Blog!"

An agent who spoke at the Austin SCBWI conference in January said that the best blogs give people information. And I'm an information junkie. I'm always collecting it -- tearing articles out of magazines (yes, I actually subscribe to ink-on-paper mags); quoting the best bits I read and hear; even passing along catalogs (like the wonderfully offbeat Thinkgeek catalog) and recommending my favorite sources of essential writerly supplies (Lasermonks, for one).

So maybe this blog thing won't be a bad fit after all. Instead of sharing magazine articles, quotes, and catalogs with a "lucky few" friends (I hope they consider themselves to be the beneficiaries of my hunter-gatherer impulses), through a blog I can share stuff with the whole wide world.

For starters, then, I will discuss a piece I tore out of the August 10, 2009, TIME magazine: "Why Swearing Is Good for You." Author Tiffany Sharples says that swearing "can do more than vent frustration: it can actually reduce physical pain." A study in Britain found that test subjects could endure painfully cold water longer while swearing. Repeating "a curse word of their choice" made the ice water feel less intensely painful.

"In swearing," said the study's lead author, "people have an emotional response, and it's the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain."

I tore that article out to pass along to a writer friend who often advises his colleagues to "put more cussing in" our stories. He seems to instinctively appreciate the emotional power of swearing. Of course, for those of us who write middle-grade or young-adult fiction, swearwords can be problematical. Some teachers, librarians, and parents frown on including obscenities in stories aimed at young readers.

In my YA fantasy WATERSPELL, my deuteragonist (the character taking the part of second importance) swears like a sailor, and my protagonist, Carin, can almost match him. Their swearing habits are essential to revealing who these characters are.

To get around the objections that would surely be raised if I used standard American profanity, I've given my characters a different divinity to swear by. They're in a parallel universe, so it makes sense that their holy figures would have different names than the gods do on Earth. Instead of swearing "By God!" it's "By Drisha!" in their world.

Another helpful source of inoffensive profanity comes from old English expressions like "gorblimey," which is a euphemism for "God blind me." My wizard is fond of saying "Drisha blind me!" It makes people wince in his world, since it's such a strong oath to them. But Earthlings are not offended.

In my never-ending quest for good, pain-relieving swearing, I mine sources such as old Irish fairy and folk tales. From them I've gotten such gems as "A thousand murders!" and "My breath and blood!"

Thanks to TIME's Tiffany for giving me even more reasons to collect the best in profanity. My characters get into painful situations that require them to vent via a good outburst of colorful language.


  1. Excellent! I wonder if repeating one's favorite swear words produces a physiological response similar to that evoked by spiritual chants. Ha! Wouldn't it be a hoot if that turned out to be true? And what would George Harrison say to that, I wonder?

  2. Cerelle, the TIME article said: "The study found that when participants used a curse word, their heart rates were consistently higher--a physiological response consistent with fight or flight--than when they were repeating a neutral word." So I think we may have three steps on the scale: Cursing (fight or flight); neutral; and chanting (calm, peaceful, spiritual).

  3. Does the article mention women in childbirth? I'm just thinking of all the swearing that commonly accompanies the "transition phase." Hey, if it's a proven pain reliever, I think they ought to teach it in Lamaze classes!

  4. C., are you sure you didn't read the whole article back last fall? It does indeed mention women in childbirth: "There is a certain four-letter word that is forbidden in polite company but often uttered by women in labor. According to a study in the journal NeuroReport, saying the F word can ... actually reduce physical pain ... [In the study] cursing reduced the perception of pain more strongly in women than in men. That may be because in daily life men swear more than women, which could have a dulling effect on these verbal painkillers in men."