I have a potty mouth so I’m not doling out advice about restrictions on some of these words because I’m a prude or anything. You can trust me on that one.
Some genres tolerate cursing/swearing and expletives much more than others. Some genres (Victorian Romance, for example) have their own wonderful way of calling someone out without actually using any curse words or expletives. Good old subtext rides again!
I’m not a religious zealot either but I strongly suggest we restrict the use of the words Christ, Jesus, Allah, God, etc., when our characters are ranting. And never in narrative unless — there are always exceptions, aren’t there? — the story is written in 1st Person and we need to show the narrator as having the type of personality who would use these words to express anger.
I see words in the following list being spelled in a variety of ways. In the … what one might call “the better publications” (Doubleday, Random House, Scribner, Viking, Bantam) … these are the spellings I have found to be most consistent across the board, and the meanings they convey.
Those with a non-English mother tongue will have come across variants but if we are writing in English with a North American English market target in mind, it’s best to stick with North American English.
I have left out particularly offensive words from this list — but their meanings and some delightful ways to use them are accessible through a few links at the end of this Post.
It’s best we restrict our expletives to one character per book and this, with restraint. A group of gang members (secondary and tertiary characters) could use similar expletives/exclamations to portray the stereotypical gang mentality — blatting sheep — but once or twice only.
Once it’s established that a character has a potty mouth, it’s not necessary to continue showing it. We can treat this the same way we treat accents. Establish that a character has one, then structure the sentences afterwards to indicate the accent/cursing without actually writing it out.
Two characters who didn’t grow up together or come from the same geographical area, most likely won’t use the same expletives/exclamations — the author’s own, for example — so we need to watch out for this.
If we must have one character swearing, we can always get creative with a secondary character, our Sidekick, for example. There are enough ways to show our Protagonist’s anger/frustration/rage without resorting to expletives. I think we all remember having our mother, a spouse or a friend go silent on us. A spew of bad words is much easier to deal with. And as far as readers go, even I am offended if I’m required to wade through an overabundance of curse words.
agh: medium frustration
ah: often followed by: “I see …” as in: “Ah. So you don’t have an alibi for that time slot. I see …”
ahem: “excuse me”
argh: greater frustration
aw: isn’t s/he/it cute; awe is a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder
aww: what a kid would say as a complaint to a parent, “Aww. Do I have to?”
Christ: [a curse] avoid; but acceptable for one [male] character, once per book
christly: an adjective (despite the “ly”); preferably used only by one male character per book to describe something that’s not working properly: “that christly dishwasher isn’t emptying right again”; not generally to describe people (but could refer to “the neighbour’s christly cat” or “that woman’s christly dog”). [NOTE: MS Word will insist on a capital letter but it should be lower case. In any case, it would not be “Christly” to describe a holy Christian, it would be Christ-like.]
crap: a euphemism for shit but still not in polite usage for female characters, although a female character can shoot craps (play dice); mostly used when a character is “sick and tired of putting up with his/her/their crap” and a totally fed up and angry female character could use it in this instance
cripes: euphemism for Christ; probably regional
cum: in reference to ejaculate or to the act of attaining organism, should be spelled come except when texting
dammit: I have seen this spelling much more often than damnit. Damnit in my view should really be written as “damn it” (two words) and which would then mean that whatever the “it” is, should be sent to whatever hell the character is referring to. Not the relatively innocent “Oh, dammit. I missed the bus.”
damn: see dammit
damned: not dammed; rivers are dammed; it’s sinners who are damned to hell/eternal damnation/etc.
dang: euphemism for damn, damned, dammit, damn it, etc. Usually used by elderly religious country folk
gee: euphemism for Jesus. It isn’t spelled jee.
God/god: with the capital, signifies a named deity so should be used with respect. I recommend, for instance, if a character is using the OMG expression, that the writer types it out as “oh my god,” rather than “oh my God” which would be closer to praying than to expressing shock.
god-awful: is an acceptable expression that does not offend [most] Christians or [most] other religions
goddammit: is the right way to spell this expression to use it in a mild form. If an exorcist were to use the expression, it would be written as “God damn it.”
grrr: comedic frustration
ha ha: this is the correct way to spell a laugh, not haha
hah: variant of aha (see above) but with a slightly different meaning as it contains more contempt than joy of discovery. “Hah! I thought so, you rotten [expletive]. You were lying all along.”
hardy har har: I would imagine that this term [today] would be used only within dialogue to mock another character sarcastically: “Well, hardy har har. Aren’t we funny this morning.”
harrumph: what a stuffy old man or woman back in the Victorian era would grunt to express his distaste
hee haw: this is the sound donkeys make
hee hee: this is a giggle
heh heh: this is not exactly a laugh. This is what a character would say — usually to him/herself — when s/he has just gotten away with something, or when planning to do something sneaky. Usually used comedically. Picture a cartoon villain twirling his moustache with a speech balloon over his head saying “Heh heh.”
hem and haw: this isn’t a dialogue expression. It’s an actual term meaning to vacillate (be indecisive). Not to be used in place of “Hmm” or “Aha”.
hip hip hooray: a cheer and this is how it’s spelled. British spelling is often hoorah, but in North America, it sounds like hoo RAY, so needs to be spelled that way.
hmm: usually the first expression in a bit of dialogue as: “Hmm. Very interesting,” or by itself to convey the same concept
ho hum: not used in dialogue to express fatigue or boredom; instead, it is used as an adjective to describe something: “The opening act was ho hum but we really enjoyed the main event.”
howdy: usually in Westerns as a greeting
huh?: “What?” “What do you mean?” or without the question mark as: “Huh. I never thought of that … Amazing.”
I dunno: very informal in dialogue to mean I don’t know
I wanna: very informal in dialogue to mean I want to
jeepers: see gee
jeez: see gee
Jesus: [a curse] avoid; but acceptable for one [male] character, once per book. (When I was a teenager, my elderly auntie overheard me use this word to express my anger. She took me aside and said, “Don’t use Jesus as a swear word. ‘Fuck’ is ladylike. ‘Jesus’ is not.”)
ma’am: how to spell it in cases like “Yes, ma’am.”
mmm: usually the first expression in the sentence and means pleasant: “Mmm. This wine is lovely,” or “Mmm. You’re a good kisser.”
nah: no. This is kind of a rude way of saying no. In a breakfast scene when Mom asks little Johnny if he wants strawberries on his cereal and he says “Nah,” he’s gonna get a good [figurative] slap.
naw: a misspelling of nah, above
nope: a stronger no than nah. Little Johnny will get a [figurative] slap if he uses this one on Mom, too. It’s firmer than nah
num num/nom nom: “this gets my salivary glands operating” num num is the usual, but nom nom seems to be quite prevalent on social media. Suggest we stick with num num
oh oh: “That can’t be good.” See also, uh oh, below
OK/okay: I’ve seen it as okay. In fact, I used to think this was the correct way, but after seeing it so many times as OK, I just had to go check things out more thoroughly [by searching “origin of okay”]. OK is the original
oops/woops: oops, I’ve done something clumsy; woops is also used on occasion (mostly social media, so suspect); whoops are sounds, example: war whoops, but I’ve seen it (mostly on social media, so suspect)
ouch: that hurt
ow: that hurt more
shite: a cute, much less offensive way to say shit. My grandfather, who came from an Irish background, used to mention Skeever McShite to us grandkids on occasion, as though he were about to begin a story, but he never did. I have no idea who Skeever McShite was and Google doesn’t either.
ta ta: bye bye; mostly British
tata: baby talk for thank you
tsk tsk: what a shame you did that; usually tsked by some older woman with her judgemental nose in the air; this is the way it is spelled
uh huh: yes; often absent-mindedly
uh uh: no
uh oh: that’s not good! See also, oh oh, above
umm: give me a second to think about this; I don’t quite understand; I’m thinking of some way to get out of what you just asked me to do and I’m letting you know that. Hum is what bees do; humm is not how to spell it, either
yay: hurray (not yeah which means yes)
yeah: informal yes
yee haw: cowboys say this and it can mean anything from let’s go to way to go, buddy!
yep: one say of saying a very informal yes
yikes: caused by a sudden fright or by a sudden, unexpected injury but [usually] not an injury by anything larger than a bee stinger
yippee: a youthful way of saying hooray
yup: informal way of saying yes. Can contain happiness, full agreement, or sarcasm
The British are exceptionally good with insults, cursing, and profanity: http://www.youswear.com/index.asp?language=British
In my opinion, however, nobody beats the Spanish. [Warning! Extreme language even for me.]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_profanity ; http://chromlea.com/spanish/swear-words-extreme.php
Next Post — Malapropisms — Say it Isn’t So
Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them: http://www.amazon.com/Really-Stupid-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid/dp/1479308226
… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction): http://www.amazon.com/Death-lAcadie-Kesk8a-Sherrill-Wark/dp/1511501154/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8