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Characteristics of Curse Words

Characteristics of Curse WordsCurse words are useful tools for characterization and worldbuilding. Rather than picking or making up curse words at random, however, I find it useful to consider the characteristics of curse words first.

What Curse Words Have in Common

There are two basic types of curse words: the funny ones that are more socially acceptable and the ones that are more taboo. I’m going to focus on the second grouping today.

Phonetic Characteristics of Curse Words

Many curses, including ones I know from other languages, have specific similarities in how they sound:

  • harsh consonants
  • consonant emphasis
  • short vowels
  • short (or have shorter versions)

Since they are generally used to express anger or frustration, the words themselves tend to have a harsh, abrupt sound that flows easily (trippingly off the tongue). Many of them are also directional – they can be followed by a direct object (like “it” or “you”).

Whom characters direct their curses at can be very telling: does the person only direct curses at inanimate objects? Only at adults? At everyone including children and people who’ve done nothing aggravating? Each option makes a big difference in how the character is perceived.

Social and Moral Characteristics of Curse Words

Besides the way they sound, curse words also have similarities in meaning – they’re all related to something that’s taboo, not talked about, or generally considered bad. Things like sex, poop, or being condemned by God. Things we use euphemisms for in polite company.

What curse words a person chooses or is offended by can show a lot about his/her background and beliefs. For example, in the Bible Belt, “God d@#$!” can be more offensive than other words because “taking the Lord’s name in vain” goes against their religion. In other, less religious circles, on the other hand, it’s considered mild compared to the f-word and others.

Interestingly, society also deems it more appropriate for men to curse than women – especially with the most taboo curse words. Women are supposed to use milder oaths if they curse at all.

That’s why the curse words you choose for a specific character and world can be so important. And some situations and characters are going to require cursing to make sense or seem real.

So why pick something random when taking these two aspects of foul language into account can let you use vile oaths to build characterization and setting on purpose?

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Horror or Humor? A Writing Prompt

Tis the season to be scary, so why are so many “horror” movies funny instead? What is the boundary? What makes a story horror or humor? Explore the answer with this hilariously scary writing prompt.

Are You Writing Horror or Humor?

Interestingly, what determines whether a story is funny or scary is less the topic and more how the topic is treated. As an example, let’s discuss a comedic Halloween classic: Hocus Pocus.

Main Concept: 3 witches who suck out the souls of children to stay young

Is it just me, or is that a pretty creepy (see terrifying) idea? So how can it be a funny movie?

The answer is “the emphasis.” More of the movie is spent on the goofiness of witches, their confusion about modern stuff, re-inflatable cats, and rolling heads, and the last two are practically Looney Tune-like with their abilities to be mangled but unharmed.

In other words, although the scary idea provides impetus for the plot, it is overshadowed with hilarious hijinks.

To prove the idea works, here’s a writing prompt to take the same idea and make 2 totally different stories. Here’s what the two parts will have in common:

  • a frightening condition or situation (serial killer, hungry witches, etc.)
  • the basic characters (3 witches, 2 vampires, and a human teenager)
  • the beginning mood (for about the first scene or the exposition)

The rest… well, the rest is going to vary a bit.

Writing Horror

This time, we’ll make it creepy and try to give our readers nightmares (*wicked cackle as lightning flashes*). That means we need to emphasize the darkness of the situation.

Here are some pointers for keeping it headed in a scary direction:

  1. The consequences are experienced repeatedly (people die, are maimed, etc.).
  2. Focus on the losses and the main character’s plans to avoid experiencing it.
  3. Frightened reactions need to be serious and realistic (no flailing in a panic in a way that lightens the mood – if someone flails in a panic [because people do], it had better emphasize the overpowering helplessness caused by the fear rather than how ridiculous the person looks).
  4. No stupid, clichéd actions (we’re not trying to emphasize character stupidity).
  5. Ends badly or at least not completely happily (a chirpy, perky ending shouldn’t really be possible if you took step 1 seriously).

To summarize, the emphasis is on negative aspects and realism.

Writing Humor

With that same situation and even the same starting mood, you can make the story funny instead of scary. All it takes is a different focus:

  1. Having few consequences or glossing over them (So-in-so isn’t really dead – it was just a sleep spell! Someone died? Sorry, I was too busy laughing at these crazy antics to remember that.).
  2. The villain(s) is goofy in some way – clumsy, has a stamp collection that he waxes poetic about at the slightest opportunity, can only kill someone who’s facing him and ends up chasing people in circles like a dog chasing his tail (you get the idea)…
  3. Characters do stupid stuff and survive (how, we’re not sure).
  4. Survival is as much by unfeasible circumstance as by intelligence/bravery (“Thank God that tree fell when it did!” or “If you hadn’t driven into a garlic store, we’d be goners!”).
  5. Ends happily (all the main characters survive and any previous deaths are already forgotten or somehow ok – “He was a killer, too,” or “Their spirits are free and happy now”).

That’s a formula that has turned a number of terrifying circumstances into a funny movie. Just don’t use it when you actually want something to be scary. It won’t end well.

Ok, actually, it will (that’s one of the rules), but it won’t be scary!

All right. Ready to write 2 totally different versions of the same story? These ones would be especially good to share! 😀

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Up With Which I Will Not Put: Not a Winston Churchill Quote

Nope. “This is just the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put,” is not a Winston Churchill quote according to quote investigator. We have been mislead yet again by the internet (well, it actually started with newspapers and such).

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of why I’m not a big fan of trying to make English conform to Latin rules (AKA avoid ending with a preposition). It really shows how horribly awkward sentences can get when you try to use a common phrase (“put up with”) without ending with a preposition.

Sooo awkard…

What I like best about this quote, however, is how it shows the humor long associated with this debate. And, really, read the quote investigator article for quite a few variations on the story, its set up, and how newspaper men apparently didn’t get it (because they ruined the punchline).

All that aside, it might also remind you of some traditional blonde jokes and various other forms of a tongue-in-cheek protest of this Latin rule.

The older form (including the “up with which I will not put” story) goes like this:
  1. A job or work context is given, and within that, someone (usually in management) sends out a message that ends with a preposition.
  2. A reply to that statement mocks its lack of grammatical correctness.
  3. The original speaker replies to the insult with a sentence that deliberately avoids using the preposition at the end and results in an overly elaborate and, therefore, humorous response (Oh, the irony!).

This is the format of the Winston Churchill story (which is apparently false), several versions set in the military, and more.

The new form varies in the aggressiveness of the response:
  1. A person asks a stranger a question that ends in a preposition (usually something along the lines of “Where are you from?”).
  2. Instead of answering the question directly, the stranger scornfully scoffs at the use of a preposition at the end of the sentence.
  3. The original person re-asks the question and uses direct address with an insult (usually a curse word) to keep the preposition from being at the end of the sentence (“Where are you from, b*%$?”).

Did you realize what that means?

There are actually traditional forms of jokes about this preposition rule. Multiple ones!

Now, that’s funny.

Of course, so is “up with which I will not put.” Even if Winston Churchill didn’t say it.

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The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word

Unlike many other quotes falsely attributed to Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word” is truly a Mark Twain quote. It is also (IMHO) an excellent metaphor to illustrate the vital importance of word choice.

Word Choice Makes Writing an Art

Like sense of urgency and frame story, word choice can be defined by its name – it’s the words you choose when writing (*gasp* No!). As obvious and redundant as that seems, this literary device is actually the core of not only what makes writing an art but also what makes one writer different from another.

Think about it. No, seriously, picture a scene from real life. Interesting, banal, recent, historic – it doesn’t matter as long as you can clearly picture what happened. Now, think about how many different ways you could write that scene. You could turn it into horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical realism, romance, etc. You could write it from first person, second person, third person limited, or even narrate it. You could use elaborate descriptions or lean, mean sentences that are cut down to the action alone.

Hundreds of ways to write the same scene.

And all those differences come from the words you choose and how you put them together. The mood you want to create, the tone of the piece, and even your personal style as a writer, it all comes down to this one literary device.

Down to “the difference between the right word and the almost right word…”

Don’t believe me? Well, imagine if Mark Twain said this quote today in today’s language. Would he have said, “lightning and a lightning bug” or “fire and a firefly”? They have the same relationship, right? And “lightning bug” and “firefly” are words for the same insect.

But doesn’t that word choice change the characterization of the speaker? Could it change the setting? If you write the same story with different words, is it the same story?

Or is it as different as “lightning and a lightning bug”?