A Favorite Past Post: Using Cuss Words in Cozies

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. This month we’ll be reprising some of our favorite past posts, and I’m starting it off with one originally published back in 2014. It was slightly revised to be included in I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries. So here goes:

Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from a reader taking me to task because Liss MacCrimmon, my amateur sleuth, after her earliest, cuss-free adventures, had started swearing. In this reader’s opinion, swearing disqualifies a novel from being considered a cozy mystery. Furthermore, such a book should not be left lying around the house lest a child pick it up, open it, and be exposed to bad language.

Needless to say, I disagree with this very limited definition of a cozy. And I make it a policy not to respond to e-mails that force me to go on the defensive, a no-win situation if there ever was one. However, I was curious as to what had prompted this complaint.

Since the e-mail was not specific, I pulled up the doc file of the book in question (A Wee Christmas Homicide) and used the “find” function to check for the presence of any words a reader might object to. I knew I hadn’t dropped the f-bomb, and I didn’t think I’d referred to any other bodily functions or . . . let’s call them byproducts. Of course, strictly speaking, none of those are swear words, although most would probably be considered inappropriate language for a traditional mystery. What did I discover? I did use the word “pissed” once, to mean “angry with,” but since the speaker was a man and the situation he was in warranted strong language, I figure that word choice was pretty mild compared to what he might have said in real life (or in a hardboiled detective story).

Swearing, so I was always taught in Sunday School, is taking the name of the Lord in vain. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done that, although the use of “damn” (as opposed to not giving “a Tinker’s dam”) implies the use of “God” before it. I’ll be honest with you. My search yielded more instances of the word “damn” than I’d expected. I probably should have cut some of them, but not because they were swear words. They should have been cut because they were repetitious. Liss is frustrated on several counts during the book and seven times, twice in one sentence, she uses the words “damn” or “damned.” She also thinks it once. Other characters use “damn” four times in conversation. But here’s the funny thing: neither the number of times I used the word nor the word itself struck me as excessive any of the many times I reread the manuscript, nor did they jump out at my first reader, my agent, my editor, or the copy editor, all of whom had the opportunity to tell me to remove some or all of them from the text before publication.

Having investigated this far, I was intrigued. By my definition, “hell” isn’t swearing, either, but I figured that was the second most common “offensive” word I was likely to have used. I found five instances in this same novel, but Liss herself didn’t use any of them.

What about other books in the series? According to the e-mail, the earlier entries in the series were in the clear, so I picked another later one at random and ran the same check. My grasp on realistic language appears to be consistent. One person, provoked, said “pissed.” The word “hell” appeared four times, used by two different characters, neither of them Liss, but Liss did use the adjective “hellish” on one occasion. As for “damn” and “damned,” Liss used the former four times and the latter once. Liss’s gal-pal Sherri said “damn” once. Liss’s love interest, Dan, said “damned” twice and other characters used that word three times. When I turned in the manuscript of that book it was 76,803 words in length. It contained seventeen “bad” words. In another in the series, Ho-Ho-Homicide, Liss only said “damn” once, but other people said “hell,” “damn,” and “damned.” Out of a total of 78, 411 words, those instances added up to a total of twelve. On the one occasion where Liss swore, she was under extreme stress, afraid neither she nor Dan would make it out of their predicament alive. I’d be more surprised if she didn’t swear.

“But wait,” as the TV commercials say. Here’s the kicker. I was taking that “fan’s” word for it that Kilt Dead and Scone Cold Dead were cleaner than A Wee Christmas Homicide. Well, guess what? On page five of the hardcover edition of Kilt Dead, Liss gets the bad news that a knee injury has ended her career as a professional Scottish dancer. Her reaction: “No. Damn it, no!”

And it doesn’t stop there. I counted twenty-nine “damns” in Kilt Dead. And twenty-three in Scone Cold Dead. There is one instance of “pissed” in each and several “hells.” My goodness me! That’s more cussing than in the book my correspondent was complaining about. How very strange.


Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her newest books are Murder, She Edited (the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.


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4 Responses to A Favorite Past Post: Using Cuss Words in Cozies

  1. kaitcarson says:

    Tsk, tsk! None of those words strike me as uncozy, and their appearance is sparse in comparison to many other books on the shelves. Gotta wonder what was going on in the reader’s life at the time she was offended. Especially as the prior books got a pass.

  2. Heidi Wilson says:

    On the issue of “hell” not being a swearword — I remember in Sayers’ *Unnatural Death* that Lord Peter says to the high-church Miss Climpson that a certain hard task is “the devil.” He then apologizes, “Sorry, Miss Climpson, respect for sacred personages.” I’d never thought of the devil as a sacred personage.

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