Vulgarity, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. I grew up in a household where the word “bull” was considered obscene, and mild expletives such as “gosh” or “gee” or “golly” were viewed as substitutes for blasphemy. I escaped that silliness, but I once came unglued when one of my sons, who was about eight at the time, used the n-word. He still remembers my reaction with a bit of awe. Now that he’s grown he understands and respects the fact that it wasn’t the word I found so offensive, but the cultural ignorance that had spawned the word.
George Carlin famously poked fun at the kind of censorship that made seven specific words taboo on TV and radio. Lenny Bruce went to jail for using those words on stage. Eddie Murphy’s stand-up routines were so peppered with them that one wondered if he had any other words in his vocabulary. On the other hand, The New York Times chose not to print what Dick Cheney told a colleague on the Senate floor to go do to himself — one of the seven words — because the Times still believes in keeping their paper clean.
It’s really pretty amazing what power we project on a few words our culture has decided are dirty. I’ve raised a few eyebrows because my characters, being like real people in the real world, occasionally use one of the dirty seven. Since I write for adults, and since I sometimes use some of the forbidden words myself, I won’t stop putting them into the mouths of my adult characters. But I’m thinking of using foreign language translations. Merde sounds sort of maternal, and scopata sounds like a yummy pasta dish. So next time Dixie Hemingway does something like dropping a concrete block on her foot, I may have her say, “Oh, merde, oh scopata, that hurt!”