The Language Barrier

When I was a kid, I apparently had a remarkably sheltered upbringing compared to my peers. One day in second grade, my friends were all atwitter over a certain entry on the bathroom wall. I don’t remember the entire thing, but I do remember seeing one word there that I had never seen before in my life. My friends all seemed to know what the word meant and that it was very bad. I had no clue what it was, and aside from the badness of it, no one could really enlighten me. I clearly remember reading the sentence out loud, trying to guess the meaning of the word from the context of the sentence, just as we had been taught in class. However, as I was sounding out the word “F-U-C-K” in a search for meaning, the teacher walked into the girls’ room – and I got pulled off to the principal’s office so fast that it felt kind of like flying!

After that little experience, I still had no clue what the word meant, but I had learned the power of naughty words. The idea that some words were absolutely forbidden just hadn’t occurred to me until that point. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to go through a day without hearing the occasional “damn”, “shit” or what have you. I practice law, so the idea of spending time around people who swear like sailors is not exactly alien to me.

Even so, many people still disapprove of the use of swear words in daily speech. For instance, if I ever got the fine idea of dropping the F bomb in court, it might be a few days before you see me back here on the blog. The use of curse words in written discourse seems even more controversial in some ways. On this site, the rule for years has been not to use four letter words. Occasional exceptions are made, but with the offending letters blocked out.

The censoring of letters fools no one, but I suppose it does observe a certain rule of propriety. In discussing the idea amongst ourselves, the other publishers and I have been trying to come up with a consensus that would accurately reflect current sensibilities in the books we read (reviewing erotica without using a lot of the “—” marks is very hard), but still not unduly offend readers or lower the quality of writing on the website. On the one hand, all those stricken letters look a little prudish, but then again, we have tried in the past to strike a balance and not offend readers or be gratuitously crass.

In general, I don’t think readers will notice radical changes here. It just wouldn’t be professional. After all, how many times have you looked over at Avon or Harlequin and seen copy that reads anything along the lines of “We have a debut novel that we’re sure you will enjoy. Seriously, you should check this shit out.” This type of language could fit some situations, and it works in some author’s voices, but it still is not generally accepted usage in many situations.

And then there are the practical considerations. Many people have content blockers or similar software on their computers, and lots of swearing can equal lots of blocked pages for some users. From what I hear, we’re already too racy for certain federal government offices and since we like having our readers, we don’t want to get ourselves banned on everyone’s networks.

Still, that being said, most of us here on staff feel like we have to acknowledge reality. We review books from all over the romance genre and sometimes we’re dealing with strong, visceral emotion or characters who live in a gritty world. There are times when the four-letter words just fit what we’re writing. While we want to bring good writing to the table, good writing and the occasional bad word aren’t exactly incompatible.

You may have already noticed some loosening of the old rules, but we would like to see where you all stand on the issue as we consider making what would be a fairly major change to our writing guidelines. So, what do you all think about it? Would the sight of the occasional swear word without letters blacked out ( “damn” vs.”d–n”) offend you, or do you think it simply reflects the reality of some of our subject material?

-Lynn Spencer

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