Sunday, September 27, 2009

Using Language (Or What the #$@$%&$??)

In the course of writing as many books as I have, various readers have called me to task for being too liberal, too feminist, too parochial, too snobbish, too ignorant, too tolerant, too intolerant, too informal, too didactic—you name a possible fault I could have committed, and someone has written to correct me.  Most times it’s done politely, occasionally it’s with a rudeness that takes my breath away.

But after twenty-six books and several dozen short stories, only once has anyone ever complained about my use of foul language even though I’ve probably used them all, including the F-word and the N-word.  I think that’s probably because I’ve tried to use them with restraint and to put them only in the mouths of characters to whom those words come so naturally that it would strike a false note to have those characters speak like Sunday School teachers at a Wednesday night prayer meeting.

Amusingly though, it’s the expressions used by Sunday School teachers that have elicited more questions when it comes to using swear words.

I forget which book it appeared in, but in one of my novels, I had a woman say something like “What the L-M-N-O-P was he thinking?”

Over the years, several readers have written to ask me what those letters stand for?   “Did I miss something?” they ask in bewilderment.

“No, no,” I tell them and explain that here in the south, "nice" women aren't supposed to swear, so they resort to arcane substitutes.  My aunt would have washed her own mouth out with soap had she ever slipped and uttered the word damn.   Nor would she even say darn.  When thoroughly provoked however, she would exclaim, “Oh, sew it!” and everyone knew to step back.

One of her friends used to say, "Oh, H-E-double toothpicks!" and a former hairdresser of mine would take one look and know that I’d trimmed my bangs between haircuts.  “Now what the L-M-N-O-P did you think you were doing?"  she would scold me.  Neither woman would ever come right out and flatly say, "What the hell—?"

So imagine the consternation of an elderly and very proper lady earlier this year when she saw her granddaughters pointing toward the license plate on the rear of her new car and cracking up with laughter.  The woman saw nothing funny about the plate—three letters, four digits.   What was so amusing about that?   North Carolina’s Department of Motor Vehicles had issued several thousand with those three letters before someone drew it to their attention that nice people might not want to drive around with WTF on their license plates.  Red-faced, the DMV immediately stopped production on that combination of letters and offered to replace any that had already been issued.  (And yes, those sweet little girls had to explain it to their grandmother, who didn’t get it.)

So if you’re ever reading along in one of my books and you find an older woman using an unfamiliar exclamation, just mentally substitute your own favorite expletive and you’ll have it!

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