Volume 43, Number 2
Winter 2016

Geneive Larson Ford

“Creative Cussing”: The Sacred and the Profane in Rick Riordan’s Mythical Middle Grade Novels

Ideologically, childhood is viewed pervasively as a sacred, idealized, timeless, innocent, even mythic space. This social construct is reflected in the ways that gatekeepers often maintain boundaries around what is considered acceptable content for younger readers (e.g., Coyne, Stockdale, Nelson, & Fraser, 2011 ; Shanahan, 2007 ). In contrast, adolescence and young adult literature has traditionally been the place where those boundaries are tested, where risqué language and content may be deemed an important part of the maturation process as the teenager struggles with authority ( Trites, 2004 ). However, arguments about whether YA is becoming too dark for the average adolescent (see Alexie, 2011 ; Gurdon, 2011 ) and debates in the media surrounding frequent adult readers of adolescent novels (see Graham, 2014 ; Howlett, 2015 ; Rosenberg, 2014 ; Wolitzer, 2014 ) intimate that young adult literature may be becoming even more adult in content. Current YA literature generally does not buffer readers from taboo topics, if it ever did, and it may present readers with realistic, sometimes vivid portrayals of profanity, sex, abuse, death, drugs, and rebellion against authority ( Campbell, 2007 ; McClung, 2012 ).

Readers do not usually transition immediately from books that avoid taboo topics to those which revel in them. The middle grade novel, therefore, exists as a critical limbo space where adult topics are mentioned, yet are handled with delicacy, evasion, and circumlocution. For middle grade writers and publishers, this requires balancing the demands of verisimilitude and the anxieties of age appropriateness ( Birdsall, 2013 ; Rosen, 2014 ). Middle grade novels carve a plot between the sacral space of childhood and the boundary-testing, authority-challenging blasphemy of young adulthood. This article will look at examples from one of the most successful middle grade novelists, Rick Riordan. By creating humorous pseudo-profanity, Riordan appeals to what he sometimes calls the “immature” humor of his young readers and manages to capture what seems to be one of the most important developmental tasks of this age: learning to balance self-expression and freedom of speech with personal responsibility and social awareness.

The Contexts of Code-Switching and Cursing Avoidance

In an essay about the importance of knowing your audience, Riordan blogged that after writing adult mysteries for ten years, the main stylistic choice that shifted when he debuted writing for middle grades with The Lightning Thief ( 2005 ) was that he left out profanity. He says:

My prose hasn’t changed much since my adult mystery writing days, except for being curse-free. . . . But I do write with a middle grade sensibility. . . . I write for the middle grades for the same reason that I taught the middle grades so many years. I know those kids. I relate to them. I get their sense of humor and I understand what they’re looking for (I hope) in a story. ( 2013, January 1 )

While it is debatable whether Riordan did or did not make other linguistic and content switches when imagining a new, younger audience, what is salient here is the question of cursing, or rather, the creative avoidance thereof in books for middle school readers. Just as writing for children is conceived simultaneously, almost subconsciously, as a sacred trust and a subversive medium, Riordan approaches the sacred stories of various cultures with both mild irreverence and a deep respect, and he treats his middle grade subjects the same way. The use of offensive language in middle grade novels remains more controversial than that in novels for teenagers; therefore, authors often self-censor, drawing upon ideologies that assume that children and middle readers need at least a modicum of protection from “adult” subjects and language. Even though in some linguistic contexts using profanity is normative, in order to be considered full members of society, teens of all ages must learn the appropriate contexts for their expressive vocabulary. They need to learn to code-switch between formal and informal uses of language, and skillful novelists such as Riordan may provide models of ways to communicate in officially sanctioned and formal ways while amply allowing for humor, creativity, and self-expression.

The use of profanity by adolescents, although common, is still a behavior that especially younger teens need to learn to control and use in suitable contexts. Aitchison ( 2006 ) argues that as early teens experience a surge in vocabulary size, they “are learning how to adjust their language to the world(s) they live in.” Aitchison calls the skill of adapting language to differing linguistic contexts “appropriacy” (p. 20–21). Coyne, Callister, Nelson, Stockdale, and Wells ( 2012 ) investigated profanity in adolescent literature and state that most uses of profane language by adolescents are considered a socially unacceptable problem behavior. This reminds readers of YA novels that “profanity is included in several child or adolescent problem behavior checklists” and that when profanity is utilized “with the intent to hurt others it has been identified as a form of verbal aggression” (p. 361).

[Teens of all ages] need to learn to code-switch between formal and informal uses of language, and skillful novelists such as Riordan may provide models of ways to communicate in officially sanctioned and formal ways while amply allowing for humor, creativity, and self-expression.

In her controversial essay about YA literature, “Darkness Too Visible,” Meghan Cox Gurdon ( 2011 ) theorized that “foul language is widely regarded among librarians, reviewers, and booksellers as perfectly OK, provided it emerges organically from the characters and setting rather than being tacked on for sensation . . . . But whether it’s language that parents want their children reading is another question” (para. 19–20). Two decades ago, Caroline Hunt ( 1996 ) contended, “Many books that speak directly to the adolescent experience use language that some adults do not like . . . . children’s books do not always involve obvious taboos, but the YA ones generally do” (p. 228). Undoubtedly, the issue of whether or not those subjects labeled taboo by critics, educators, politicians, and sociolinguists are allowable in books for adolescents is not as simple as either Gurdon or Hunt would paint it, and the use of more explicit content in schools still causes raging censorship battles. The Supreme Court wrote in Bethel School District no. 403 vs. Fraser , “It is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse” ( First Amendment Center, 2015 ). Most schools have policies about the use of offensive language, although these policies are not always practicable to consistently enforce in hallways, and although teens are likely to hear and employ a wide variety of offensive language between classes, school texts are always liable to scrutiny (see National Coalition Against Censorship, n. d. ; Center for Public Education, 2006 ).

Timothy Jay ( 2007 ), a premier psycholinguistics researcher on cursing, believes that the ability to assess situations in which to use language that society considers profane is a maturation skill. Since “language values clearly vary from one community to another” (para. 1), it is difficult to gauge how well middle school students understand “the etiquette of swearing.” In a related work, Jay and Jay ( 2013 ) say that preteens are still learning the necessary sensitivity “to contextual or pragmatic variables (e.g. gender, age, ethnicity, social status or occupation of listener, social occasion, physical location) that constrain taboo word use” for adults (p. 473). It isn’t until children learn to “intellectually appreciate the impact of language on listeners and can empathize with them” ( 2007, para. 8 ) that they learn to evaluate which situations are appropriate for the use of taboo words.

Middle grade writers have the potential to influence their readers by modeling appropriate contexts for profanity use.

Teachers often become the arbiters of district and school policies regarding profanity and may be caught in the crossfire in episodes of profane language usage in textbook selections, student written work, or classroom discussions. According to Jay’s ( 2007 ) research, it is useful for educators and anyone who deals with children’s media to be aware of these categories of offensive speech and the various situations they might encounter. He delineates these different categories of offensive language and demonstrates that each type of language “represents a different speaker intention”: “name calling, insulting, profanity, slang, vulgarity, obscenity, epithets, slurs, and scatology” (para. 4). Developing the language skills to appropriately navigate various social and academic settings while preparing for adult roles can be challenging. This involves continually increasing demands on a person’s vocabulary, but it also involves learning the contexts in which to use certain types of language. Jay ( 2009 ) reminds us, “We all grow up in a culture in which we have to learn which speech is appropriate and which is offensive in a given situation” (p. 91).

When it comes to profanity, this need for awareness of socially acceptable behaviors becomes even more apparent. Early adolescents may struggle to find ways to express themselves, but they might find models in fiction. Bandura and Walters ( 1963 ) theorized the importance of imitative models in the influencing of behavior and include textual models such as books. They argue that “the provision of models in actual or symbolic form is an exceedingly effective procedure for transmitting and controlling behavior” (p. 51). This influential social learning theory argues that the media children and teens consume likely affects their behaviors. Middle grade writers have the potential to influence their readers by modeling appropriate contexts for profanity use.

A number of writers have reflected on the issue of profanity in their blogs or have spoken out in interviews, but few have systematically described their thought and writing processes. Parry ( 2013 ) categorized the options that writers have in her essay, “To #%&* or Not to #%&* : Profanity in Fiction.” She considers the question, “Do you need swearing to sound authentic when writing for teens and adults?” She determined that:

The issue is balancing authenticity with respect for your audience. Everybody encounters profanity; it is a language intensifier and can be useful in conveying the weight and reality of your character’s situation. And yet it is the nature of profanity to offend, so any use will have consequences in how the book as a whole is received. (para. 2)

Parry gives an example of ways that offensive language may affect reception, stating that middle grade books that include profanity will get shelved with the young adult titles. “On the other hand,” she says, “excessive swearing in any adult or YA books can come across as clichéd or amateurish” (para. 2). She reflects on the five different ways she deals with “an opportunity to use a swear word” (para. 2) in her novels. She may: 1) omit the word altogether; 2) reduce the amount of swearing a character may use; 3) evade using profanity; 4) substitute creative insults instead; and occasionally 5) commit to using profanity “when the first four choices are wrong for the voice of the character or the gravity of the situation” (para. 3–7). Musing on the same subject, Russell-Williams ( 2010 ) argues that swearing in children’s and young adult books “used to be pure anathema,” but now “it’s probably easier to get away with a cuss word in a children’s book than it is on the news.” She points out that going at rudeness obliquely, while being cautious about using invented profanity, is still probably the best way to go. That’s where creative avoidance of profanity becomes effective.

Riordan Models “Creative Cussing” Avoidance

Rick Riordan’s avoidance of most types of offensive language in his middle grade novels offers an interesting case study. A former teacher, he is cognizant of both the various ideologies used to define his readers and the adults who select, promote, or challenge his books. He has repeatedly claimed a pedagogical purpose in the instigation and continuation of his Percy Jackson series ( 2005–2009 ), which began as a way to motivate his son, who has ADHD and dyslexia, to engage with reading, and which Riordan also utilizes as a forum to teach readers about the myths from Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and Norse mythology. His interest in the welfare of his readers elucidates much of his motivation for self-censorship.

At the same time, if Riordan completely avoided taboo language, it might restrict his characterizations and realism (verisimilitude being one of the main arguments behind including controversial elements in books for middle grade or teen readers). Instead, he has turned this self-restriction into an asset. Like many other middle grade writers, Riordan exercises a modicum of self-censorship due to audience concerns. He models for his readers some ways to expertly avoid cursing while occasionally finding humor in skillfully manipulating language; this generally results in avoiding offensive language as a weapon against peers, but inserting it during life-and-death moments of extreme duress. He scaffolds methods of using language in socially acceptable ways by demonstrating often humorous and skillful ways not to curse (see Bright, 2013 ).

Language Has Nearly Divine Power
Riordan portrays early adolescents as heroic, powerful, yet self-conscious and awkward individuals who accomplish super-human tasks, including gaining linguistic maturity. He clearly expects his readers to be capable individuals and to accomplish their own super-human tasks along with the characters, such as recalling the names of dozens of mythical monsters, heroes, and gods. Along the way, he successfully balances ideas of the sacred and the profane, of reverence and irreverence, of prayer and sacrifice employed by his most heroic characters, contrasted with the blasphemy and curses in which the more negative characters indulge. This is true in both the mythic sense and the linguistic sense. There is a playful attitude toward modern profanity, as well as blasphemy against the Hellenic and Egyptian pantheons; however, boundaries are drawn. Disrespect is dangerous when those you are disrespecting are godly beings (and, in some cases, teachers at school).

He models for his readers some ways to expertly avoid cursing while occasionally finding humor in skillfully manipulating language[.]

Also, in Riordan’s tales, oaths aren’t just flippant phrases; they may be solemn promises made to the powers that be. In fact, curses may be more than just taboo language that sometimes causes listeners emotional harm; they may also be magical incantations that can cause bodily harm. Riordan’s first book, The Lightning Thief ( 2005 ), includes a caveat that it won’t deal with the religious or spiritual directly: “God—capital G, God. That’s a different matter altogether. We shan’t deal with the metaphysical” (p. 67). However, Riordan’s characters do learn to deal with the existence of “great beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors: the immortal gods of Olympus” (p. 67). Language in Riordan’s novels literally has power to invoke the wrath or the blessings of the gods (or the junior high school principal) and is far more than a symbolic representation; Riordan’s version of potent cursing originates in the power of language to curse or bless in ancient Greco-Roman and Egyptian religious ritual and myth (see Faraone, 2005 ; Frankfurter, 2005 ).

Understanding the proper use of language is only one of the skills Riordan’s heroes demonstrate; his characters learn that names have power, and words are the language of creation. Predictably, as adolescents, the main characters aren’t always reverent about their relationships with the gods. For instance, the young Egyptian magicians use the sun disks on statues of Ra as basketball hoops, and Percy Jackson has a tendency to do impertinent things like ship Medusa’s severed head to Mt. Olympus. The relationships between Riordan’s protagonists, children of the Olympians or the Pharaohs, are reminiscent of the relationships between adolescents and any authority figures. The Greek gods in The Lightning Thief are portrayed as the ultimate deadbeat, absent parents. It’s unsurprising, then, that the demigods in the story teeter between respect for their parents’ godly powers and frustration and anger over their distance.

The adult content is muted without insulting the intelligence of the middle school reader.

The creative cussing techniques that Riordan invents are part of that careful balance between reverence and irreverence. I use the term “creative cussing” in part because Riordan has been known to use the phrase himself, but also because when his characters curse, they speak in euphemisms rather than actual curses or other forms of profanity. In The Throne of Fire ( 2011 ), part of Riordan’s Kane Chronicles ( 2010–2012 ) series dealing with Egyptian mythology, the teen magicians are at the Brooklyn museum attempting to collect an artifact that could save the world from total annihilation when they encounter an obstacle in the form of a major protective enchantment. The narrator reports: “I muttered an Egyptian curse—the cussing kind, not the magic kind” (p. 21). In this case, the profanity is muted twice: first by it being in a different language, and second because the “cussing” is summarized rather than directly reported. A hint of a joke can be seen in the connection between magical curses and profanity, as well, which makes the mildness of the language function more as an intelligent choice made by the narrator, rather than an uncomfortable restriction.

Riordan’s characters already seem to understand when certain types of mild profanity might be socially acceptable and that name calling could harm others, but they allow for mildly rude nicknames as a form of middle school bonding (e.g., Seaweed Brain, Wise Girl, Chicken Man). None of the protagonists use racial epithets, and when bullies or more serious enemies use epithets, it is done off-stage. Taboo language is toned down or elided, just as some of the other “mature” content is modified to make it middle school appropriate. A striking example of this is when the riotous god of wine, Dionysus, is on probation as director of the demigod camp, and he is forced to drink Diet Coke instead of wine. This and the centaurs who get tipsy drinking root beer become a few of the many gags in the story where the bawdy Greek myths are modernized, but not exactly bowdlerized. The adult content is muted without insulting the intelligence of the middle school reader. Profanity is similarly modified to satisfy a sense of realism and propriety simultaneously.

Language Usage Reveals Character
For writers, an important part of characterization is deciding how different characters will speak as a means to distinguish them from each other. Along the way, writers must decide how these characters will react under the pressure of the plot. Much is revealed about a character’s personality, background, and choices by the language he or she uses. For instance, one of Riordan’s characters, Leo Valdez ( Mark of Athena , 2012 ), ran away from home at an early age and spent much time in the foster system. Instances where he uses mild oaths (e.g., “heck” or “dang”) or creative insults are notably higher than those of his peer Frank Zhang, who was raised in a conservative home with a strict Chinese grandmother. Another way that minor characters are painted with broad strokes is through their choice of epithets. A satyr (half-goat, half-man) traveling with the group of Greek and Roman heroes exclaims things like “Pan’s pipes!” and “Holy mother of goats!” Conversely, the son of Hades, god of the Underworld, says, “Oh, Styx” or “How in Tartarus?” (swearing by locations in the Underworld), while a Pegasus bellows, “Holy horse feed!” (a more equine oath).

Some of the most memorable creative cussing in Riordan’s books is when his heroes use ancient languages to curse. The attraction of swearing in a second language is one that many language learners are familiar with, lending this technique an air of getting away with the forbidden in a relatively safe manner. One of the first instances where Riordan uses this technique is in Lightning Thief when Percy Jackson first comes to the camp for demigods. His tour guide, Annabeth, orders a group of bullies to back off by crying, “Erre es korakas!”—literally translated as “Go to the crows!” in Greek (p. 89). Many characters invoke the Olympians by exclaiming, “Di Immortales!” (p. 125), and Percy finds himself speaking in tongues when he spontaneously shouts, “Braccas meas vescimini!” or “Eat my pants!” (p. 166).

Other times, characters make oaths casually or seriously to relieve stress in life-or-death situations or to make promises. More frequently used exclamations, such as “By the gods” or “May the fates forbid,” may be complemented with original profanity using Egyptian concepts like “By Ra’s Throne,” “Thoth’s Beak,” or “Holy Horus!” In the Greco-Roman stories, “Pluto’s Pauldron’s,” “Hephaestus’s Hand Grenades,” “Mars Almighty!” and even “Poseidon’s Underpants!” represent some of the creative phrases Riordan invented to use in his novels. Many moments of creative cussing involve humorous homophones. In one scene in Titan’s Curse ( 2007 ), a group of questing demigods reaches Hoover Dam. One character, an immortal huntress of Artemis, uses archaic language and misses the nuances of modern English. She cracks up the rest of the group when she says:

“Let us find the dam snack bar,” Zoë said. “We should eat while we can.”
Grover cracked a smile. “The dam snack bar?”
Zoë blinked. “Yes, what is funny?”
“Nothing,” Grover said, trying to keep a straight face.” I could use some dam French fries.”
Even Thalia smiled at that. “And I need to use the dam restroom.”
. . .
“I want to use the dam water fountain,” Grover said.
“And . . .” Thalia tried to catch her breath. “I want to buy a dam T-shirt.” (p. 208)

In Son of Neptune ( 2011 ), one character, Hazel, who can control precious gems and metals, uses a large outcropping of semi-precious stone to escape some small demons. She doesn’t know the name of the stone she has pulled up from the ground until her pursuers curse the stone for stopping them:

“Schist,” said an angry voice from the grass.
Hazel raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“Schist! Big pile of schist!”
A nun at St. Agnes Academy had once washed Hazel’s mouth with lye soap for saying something very similar . . . . (p. 215)

Reporting or summarizing the cursing that other characters engage in occasionally becomes an opportunity to provide a few cheap laughs. Percy of Son of Neptune ( 2011 ) can understand the speech of horses, which results in a translation of only part of what the horse snorts at the group in one particular scene:

Arion nickered.
“Jeez, Hazel,” Percy said, “Tell your horse to watch his language.”
Hazel tried not to laugh. “What did he say?”
“With the cussing removed?”
. . .
“This time Arion whinnied so angrily, even Hazel could guess he was cursing."
“Dude,” Percy told the horse, “I’ve gotten suspended for saying less than that.” (p. 439)

Readers may find in Riordan’s novels subtle reminders that using strong language in front of authority figures can lead to trouble; they may also learn that while rude language can sometimes help them gain status with their peer groups, using such language in humorous ways works better than simply being crude or abrasive. They will also discover that saving taboo words for stressful situations rather than using them on a daily basis gives them more cathartic power (see also Stephens, 2011 ).

He demonstrates that avoiding profanity while attempting to create realistic characters and situations requires a fine balance.

Riordan appears completely aware of the possible impact his creative cussing avoidance may have on his audience. He demonstrates that avoiding profanity while attempting to create realistic characters and situations requires a fine balance. In Mark of Athena ( 2012 ), one of his less-restrained characters, Leo Valdez, is initially scornful of his fellow quester Frank Zhang’s use of mild epithets: “‘Dang it!’ Frank barked, which Leo figured was probably severe profanity for him. No doubt Frank would’ve cursed some more—bursting out the golly gees and gosh darns —but Percy interrupted” (p. 260).

Avoiding Oath-breaking, Blasphemy, and Other Social Etiquette
When characters swear oaths, most of the time they are making solemn promises that have dire consequences if broken. For example, if someone swears by the River Styx and breaks it, the punishment can be severe. Oath-breakers, or those who are faithless to their friends, are villains. Similarly, when someone invokes a magical curse similar to those in Egyptian tombs or otherwise calls down godly wrath on someone, the curse generally gets results, as in the exploding donkey curse or the curse for summoning fruit bats. There are even mythical creatures that embody the curses of dead enemies, such as the aria in House of Hades ( 2013, p. 227 ).

It is notable that by far the most commonly used actual profanity in Riordan’s books is the use of “Oh, my gods!” as an expression of surprise, annoyance, disgust, fear, or sometimes just as a filler word or phrase. Casual blasphemy that would have been elided or eliminated in nineteenth-century novels has become a commonplace interjection, almost a nonce word. The plural is typically used to make it contextually appropriate, just as Hades replaces hell in most of the characters’ exclamations.

It is important for adolescents to learn the social etiquette surrounding taboo words, and Riordan’s characters model many of these avoidance techniques.

It is important to note that the context in which the offensive language or use of an avoidance technique appears can impact their reception. Mildly offensive language may be used to add comic relief to a situation. Insults may be used for social bonding or as weapons, depending on the way they are used. It is important for adolescents to learn the social etiquette surrounding taboo words, and Riordan’s characters model many of these avoidance techniques. Educators can have fruitful conversations talking about situations in which formal and informal language should be used, including slang or insults. However, discussions of profanity in class should be handled carefully. Riordan’s work may aid middle school or high school classes in discussions of socially acceptable contexts for various types of language and code-switching, thus helping students learn to move confidently from one language register to another.

Categories of Creative Profanity Avoidance or “Creative Cussing”

In this section, I’ve categorized a number of ways that taboo language may be avoided in any type of novel, and I’ve included clarifying examples. It should be noted, however, that Riordan’s work does not use every one of these methods. The chart in Appendix A (which contains page numbers and book references for each of the italicized quotations below) catalogs Rick Riordan’s wide use of a variety of these profanity avoidance techniques in his first two series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians ( 2005–2009 ) and Kane Chronicles ( 2010-2012 ). (Interested parties may contact me for copies of data from Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series [ 2011–2013 ].) In the Appendix, each type of profanity avoidance or use is organized into the following categories:

A. Character never curses; no replacement necessary

B. Swearing is summarized; e.g., she swore , he cussed

C. Grawlixes; use of a string of symbols to replace offensive language (e.g., #@$%!) is more common in graphic novels and comics than in regular novels.

D. Partial excision; some letters in the word are elided, shortened with hyphens, or turned into acronyms. (This is not a very common method in recent years, although a character who is beginning to swear may be cut off by another character in conversation, leaving just a hint of what was to come. The most modern version of this may be the texting acronym of OMG for “Oh my God.”)

E. Spelling changed to fit a dialect; e.g., dem for damn

F. Contracted phrase; e.g., helluva

G. Swearing in another language; e.g., di immortales, vlacas, bifurcum

H. Archaisms; e.g., zounds, blast

I. Minced oaths; commonly used replacement words—e.g., golly, heck, flipping, bleep

J. Euphemisms; e.g., kick you in your soft spot

K. Homophones; words that sound like profanity but aren’t (e.g., schist, dam)

L. Invented replacement words or phrases; this can be done very well or very badly. Too many middle grade fantasy books only use one replacement word ( Artemis Fowl [ Colfer, 2001 ] uses D’Arvit and nothing else). This is where Riordan’s work is above average, often using the names of mythical places or people—e.g., Hades’ gym shorts! By the twelve gates of night! Pan’s pipes! .

M. The Captain Haddock approach; in the Tintin books (1929–1986; Haddock appears first in The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 3 , 1932), Hergé used long strings of erudite, tangential words for his hard-swearing sea captain—e.g., billions of blistering blue barnacles . (See Lopresti, 2009 .)

N. Characters curse; generally the choice of words is still mild in middle grade fiction and nearly nonexistent in writing for younger children. The terms that are found in middle grade fiction are most likely to be blasphemous (e.g., my god ) rather than execratory or sexual in nature (e.g., suck). See Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath ( 2009 ).

O. Miscellaneous; speech acts related to swearing, but that aren’t actually acts of profaning. These include blessings, curses, insults, invocations, oaths, and names.

Implications for Instruction

Much more research can be done on the ways that Riordan’s work and other middle grade novels differ linguistically, thematically, or materially from those marketed as children’s books or young adult books. However, it is useful for educators and other promoters of these books to realize that most middle grade authors do see their readers as qualitatively and quantitatively different from older teens or children. While these young people are beginning to find ways to articulate their own experiences, a good novel may help them learn linguistic etiquette and originality.

Instructors can benefit from initiating classroom conversations about how language is never used in isolation. The context in which certain types of language are used is as critical as the words themselves ( Jay, 2009 ). It can be valuable for language arts instruction to explore together issues of school and workplace policies of propriety, respect, selfexpression, censorship, and other related debates, such as dress codes. Students may be asked to identify creative profanity avoidance, insults, and/or slang in various novels and then comment on the contexts of usage in each instance. Studying the ways in which middle grade authors deal with the appropriateness of certain types of language may be paired with secondary materials relating to First Amendment issues or cases where a student or teacher faced censure (including suspensions and firings) due to controversies surrounding profanity (see Sutton, 1992 ). It can be useful to have students write honest reflections about the types of slang, grammar, insults, and even profanity that may be common in their home lives, perhaps contrasting that with the expectations that schools have. Students may also participate in the crafting of a classroom policy on respectful language use with an acknowledged goal that all students feel the classroom space is a safe haven, free for self-expression while free from any forms of verbal abuse.

Simultaneously, it is important to be aware that students come from broadly divergent backgrounds, and how a child speaks can be closely tied to identity. Vajra M. Watson’s ( 2013 ) study deals brilliantly with the complications surrounding language use and systems of power that disenfranchise and silence many student voices. She wishes instructors to be aware that “classroom decorum is a culturally based assumption” (p. 403). One of her recommendations is that “teachers remain open to the truths students speak while offering them the tools to understand their audience, and furthermore, to code-switch when they deem it necessary and useful” (p. 403). Rick Riordan’s strategies and those used by many other professional writers who have already had to grapple with the tension between writing honestly and writing respectfully, may empower some of those students to find a way to enrich their own voices.

Genevieve Ford is an assistant professor at Utah State University’s Blanding campus, located near the Navajo and Ute reservations in southern Utah. Her doctorate specialized in children’s and young adult authorial memoirs. Her most recent publication was on the subject of cultural sensitivity in the classroom. Her areas of interest are Native American literature for children, authorship, and pedagogy. A highlight of her career was when, at an interdisciplinary conference, Jerry Spinelli mused that he hadn’t used the name Genevieve yet, and he might just have to steal her name someday.


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Gurdon, M. (2011, June 4). Darkness too visible. Wall Street Journal . Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038 .

Howlett, G. (2015, February 24). Why are so many adults reading YA and teen fiction? The Guardian . Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/feb/24/why-are-so-many-adults-reading-ya-teen-fiction .

Hunt, C. (1996). Young adult literature evades the theorists. In A. S. Wyile & T. Rosenberg (Eds.), Considering children’s literature: A reader (pp. 223–239). Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Jay, T. B. (2007). When young children use profanity: How to handle cursing and name calling. Early Childhood News . Retrieved from: http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=59 .

Jay, T. B. (2009). Do offensive words harm people? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 15 , 81–101.

Jay, K. L., & Jay, T. B. (2013). A child’s garden of curses: A gender, historical, and age-related evaluation of the taboo lexicon. American Journal of Psychology, 126 , 469–475.

Lopresti, R. (2009). Billions of blistering blue barnacles! Criminal Brief . Retrieved from http://criminalbrief.com/?p=9734 .

McClung, P. (2012). Shedding some light on the darkness of teen lit. School Library Monthly, 29 (3), 35–36.

National Coalition Against Censorship. (n.d.) The First Amendment in schools: A resource guide . Retrieved from http://ncac.org/resource/first-amendment-in-schools/ .

Parry, R. (2013, May 10). To #%&* or not to #%&* : Profanity in fiction [Web log message]. The Writers’ Block Blog. Retrieved from https://writersblock.loft.org/2013/05/10/2282/to-ornot-to-profanity-in-fiction .

Riordan, R. (2013, January 1). New Year’s thoughts (redux) [Web log message]. Myth and Mystery . Retrieved from http://rickriordan.blogspot.com/2013/01/new-yearsthoughts-redux.html .

Rosen, J. (2014). Middle grade and YA: Where to draw the line? Publisher’s Weekly, 261 (29), 24–25.

Rosenberg, A. (2014, June 6). No, you do not have to be ashamed of reading young adult fiction. The Washington Post . Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/actfour/wp/2014/06/06/no-you-do-not-have-to-be-ashamedof-reading-young-adult-fiction/ .

Russell-Williams, I. (2010, September 8). Curse of swearing in children’s books [Web log message]. The Guardian Book Blog . Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/sep/08/swearing-childrens-books .

Shanahan, S. (2007). Lost and found: The sociological ambivalence toward childhood. Annual Review of Sociology, 33 , 407–428.

Stephens, R. (2011). Swearing as a response to pain—effect of daily swearing frequency. The Journal of Pain, 12 , 1274–1281.

Sutton, K. D. (1992). Profanity in schools: Academic freedom and the First Amendment. Clearing House, 65 , 146–148.

Trites, R. (2004). Disturbing the universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature . Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.

Watson, V. M. (2013). Censoring freedom: Community-based professional development and the politics of profanity. Equity and Excellence in Education, 46 , 387–410.

Wolitzer, M. (2014, October 17). Look homeward, Reader: A not-so-young audience for young adult books. The New York Times . Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/fashion/a-not-so-young-audience-for-young-adult-books.html .

Young Adult Fiction Cited

Colfer, E. (2001). Artemis Fowl . New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Hergé. (1994–2007). The adventures of Tintin. New York, NY: Little Brown. (Originals published 1929–1986)

Riordan, R. (2005–2009). Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. New York, NY: Disney-Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2005). Lightning thief . New York, NY: Disney-Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2006). Sea of monsters . New York, NY: Miramax- Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2007). Titan’s curse . New York, NY: Disney-Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2008). Battle of the labyrinth . New York, NY: Disney-Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2009). Last Olympian . New York, NY: Disney- Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2010–2012). Kane Chronicles series. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Riordan, R. (2010). Red pyramid . New York, NY: Scholastic.

Riordan, R. (2011–2013). Heroes of Olympus series . New York, NY: Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2011). Son of Neptune . New York, NY: Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2011). Throne of fire . New York, NY: Scholastic.

Riordan, R. (2012). Mark of Athena . New York, NY: Hyperion.

Riordan, R. (2012). Serpent’s shadow . New York, NY: Scholastic.

Riordan, R. (2013). House of Hades . New York, NY: Hyperion.

Vernon, U. (2009). Dragonbreath . New York, NY: Dial Books.

Appendix A:

Profanity Usage and Creative Avoidance in Percy Jackson and the Olympians (2005–2009) and the Kane Chronicles (2010–2012)

Book Title Instance of Avoidance or Usage Point of View Speaker/ Actor Page Type (see pp. 14–15)
Lightning Thief “Darn right!” yelled the driver. Percy Bus driver 27 I
Lightning Thief Grover was freaking me out. Percy Percy 29 I
Lightning Thief Maybe if I kick you in your soft spot, I thought. Percy Percy 35 J
Lightning Thief O Zeu kai alloi theoi !” he yelled. Percy Grover 42 G
Lightning Thief “Oh, Styx!” he mumbled. Percy Grover 59 L
Lightning Thief Erre es korakas! ” Annabeth said, which I somehow understood was Greek for “Go to the crows!” Percy Annabeth 89 G
Lightning Thief “By the gods, Percy.” Percy Luke 111 M
Lightning Thief Di immortales! ” Annabeth said. Percy Annabeth 125 G
Lightning Thief “Dirty rotten” (Annabeth grumbling) Percy Annabeth 128 I
Lightning Thief Heck, it was nothing. I eat hellhounds for breakfast. Percy Percy (thoughts) 133 I
Lightning Thief “Gee,” I said. “Thanks.” Percy Percy 166 G
Lightning Thief “May the Fates forbid.” Percy Grover 161 G
Lightning Thief Grover whimpered. " Di immortales. " Percy Grover 166 G
Lightning Thief Braccas meas vescimini! ” I yelled. I wasn’t sure where the Latin came from. I think it meant “Eat my pants!” Percy Percy 166 G
Lightning Thief “Oh, goodness,” Annabeth said. Percy Annabeth 260 I
Lightning Thief “Shoot, take a nap. I don’t care.” Percy Procrustes 278 I
Lightning Thief “Almost, darn it.” Percy Procrustes 279 I
Lightning Thief Annabeth and Grover got to their feet, groaning and wincing and cursing me a lot. Percy Annabeth and Grover 282 B
Lightning Thief “Let’s whup some Underworld butt.” Percy Percy 284 I
Lightning Thief “Jeez, Annabeth,” he grumbled. Percy Grover 357 I
Lightning Thief “May the gods curse him.” Percy Annabeth 371 O
Sea of Monsters “Oh my gods, you were looking in my bedroom window?” Percy Percy 23 N
Sea of Monsters “Found one. Thank the gods.” Percy Annabeth 29 N
Sea of Monsters “Oh, man,” said Annabeth. Percy Annabeth 38 I
Sea of Monsters “Swear upon the River Styx.” Percy Chiron 54 O
Sea of Monsters “Blast!” Tantalus muttered. Percy Tantalus 59 H, I
Sea of Monsters “By the gods, I can see the family resemblance.” Percy Tantalus 64 N
Sea of Monsters “Oh my gods, Percy! You are so hopeless!” Percy Annabeth 86 N
Sea of Monsters “May the gods go with you.” Percy Hermes 106 O
Sea of Monsters “Curse my relatives!” Percy Chiron 136 O
Sea of Monsters “Oh my gods.” Percy Annabeth 136 N
Sea of Monsters “Damn the heroes!” the girl said. “Full steam ahead.” Percy Clarisse 146 N
Sea of Monsters Somehow back in my regular clothes, thank the gods. Percy Percy (thoughts) 182 N
Sea of Monsters I made a silent promise to the gods that if we survived this, I’d tell Annabeth she was a genius. Percy Percy 211 O
Sea of Monsters “Tyson, thank the gods. Annabeth is hurt!” “You thank the gods she is hurt?” he asked, puzzled. Percy Percy/ Tyson 221 N
Sea of Monsters “Father Poseidon, curse this thief!” Percy Polyphemus 226 O
Sea of Monsters The Pegasus mare bucked and whinnied. I could understand her thoughts. She was calling Agrius and Luke some names so bad Chiron would’ve washed her muzzle out with saddle soap. Percy A mare 242 B
Sea of Monsters “Gee, thanks,” Grover mumbled. Percy Grover 249 I
Sea of Monsters I cursed. Percy Percy 267 B
Sea of Monsters “Curse the titan lord,” Chiron said. Percy Chiron 276 O
Titan's Curse “Curse you!” Thorn cried. Percy Thorn 25 O
Titan's Curse “What in the name of the gods were you THINKING?” she bellowed. Percy Thalia 87 N
Titan's Curse “If you tell anyone,” I swear—” Percy Thalia 173 O
Titan's Curse At Hoover Dam:
“Let us find the dam snack bar,” Zoë said.
“We should eat while we can.”
Grover cracked a smile. “The dam snack bar?”
Zoë blinked. “Yes, what is funny?”
“Nothing,” Grover said, trying to keep a straight face. “I could use some dam french fries.”
Even Thalia smiled at that. “And I need to use the dam restroom.”
Percy Zoë, Grover, Thalia 208 K
Titan's Curse “Holy Zeus, what were those tourists thinking?” Percy Bronze angel statue 219 L
Titan's Curse The loudest sound was the voice of Atlas, bellowing curses against the gods as he struggled under the weight of the sky. Percy Atlas 275 B
Titan's Curse “Dad! You flew . . . you shot . . . oh my gods!” Percy Annabeth 276 N
Titan's Curse Apollo said, “Jeez, you need to lighten up.” Percy Apollo 290 I
Battle of the Labyrinth “What in Hades?” Annabeth tugged on the bars. Percy Annabeth 109 L
Battle of the Labyrinth “They’re sacred to Apollo.” “Holy cows?” “Exactly.” Percy Annabeth/ Percy 135 I
Battle of the Labyrinth “Holy Poseidon,” I muttered. Percy Percy 209 L
Battle of the Labyrinth Annabeth said, “Gee, I wonder.” Percy Annabeth 277 G
Battle of the Labyrinth Di immortales ,” Annabeth muttered. Percy Annabeth 277 G
Battle of the Labyrinth There wasn’t even any thought to it. No debate in my mind about—gee, should I stand up to him and try to fight again? Nope. Percy Percy 304 I
Battle of the Labyrinth “That sucked,” he said. Percy Nico 206 N
Battle of the Labyrinth She looked really angry, like she was going to tan somebody’s backside. Percy Juniper 328 J
Battle of the Labyrinth Di immortales .” Chiron yelled. Percy Chiron 329 G
Battle of the Labyrinth “Zeus knows how many more.” Percy Dionysus 340 L
Battle of the Labyrinth “Oh, Hades if I know.” Percy Dionysus 340 L
Last Olympian “Oh, gods,” I muttered. “Don’t even think about it.” Percy Percy 10 N
Last Olympian Demigod dreams suck. Percy Percy 28 N
Last Olympian “Dear, me. It didn’t work out, did it?” Percy Mrs. Castellan 95 I
Last Olympian “Oh, goodness.” Percy Mrs. Castellan 96 I
Last Olympian “Let the gods witness.” Percy Achilles 134 O
Last Olympian I cursed and got to my feet. Percy Percy 139 B
Last Olympian “Oh gee,” he said sarcastically. Percy Nico 139 I
Last Olympian Di immortales .” Percy Annabeth 160 G
Last Olympian “Gods we have a lot of work to do.” Percy Annabeth 161 N
Last Olympian I bit back a curse. Percy Percy 171 B
Last Olympian Holy horse feed! Percy Blackjack the Pegasus 183 L
Last Olympian “I called her some names. . . . I doubt that helped.” Percy Michael Yew 184 B
Last Olympian Pomona cursed in Latin and threw more fruit. Percy Pomona 195 B, G
Last Olympian “I swear,” Hades said. . . . as long as I labor under the curse of your Great Prophecy, the Oracle of Delphi will never have another mortal host.” Percy Hades 211 O
Last Olympian “Oh, gods,” she said. Percy Rachel 212 N
Last Olympian “That’s a load of minotaur dung,” Thalia said. Percy Thalia 220 L
Last Olympian Erre es korakas , Blinky!” Dionysus cursed. “I will have your soul!” Percy Dionysus 267 G
Last Olympian “Gods, you’re annoying.” Percy Percy 268 N
Last Olympian Na pari I oychi! Percy Dionysus 269 G
Last Olympian I cursed in Ancient Greek. Percy Percy 286 B
Last Olympian Oh-my-gods-that-big-snake-is-going-to-eat-me type of paralysis. Percy Percy 287 N
Last Olympian “Gods, I hate heights!” Thalia yelled. Percy Thalia 321 N
Last Olympian “Oh gods,” I said. Percy Percy 341 N
Last Olympian “Gods, that would be embarrassing.” Percy Rachel 380 N
Red Pyramid “Background noises such as scuffling, hitting, and cursing by the two speakers have not been transcribed.” Author Preface B
Red Pyramid [Shut up, Sadie.] Carter Carter 3 I
Red Pyramid "God" Carter Sadie 12 N
Red Pyramid "God" Carter Sadie 22 N
Red Pyramid [Give me the bloody mic.] Sadie Sadie 29 N
Red Pyramid “He’s a bloody Egyptologist!” Sadie Sadie 35 N
Red Pyramid Bloody typical. Sadie Sadie 37 N
Red Pyramid “Oh my god . . . .” Carter Sadie 54 N
Red Pyramid Carter gave me one of his God, you’re stupid looks. Sadie Sadie 90 N
Red Pyramid “Just open the bloody box.” Sadie Sadie 90 N
Red Pyramid “Excuse me?” I asked, because cartouche sounded like a rather rude word, and I pride myself on knowing those. Sadie Sadie 97 K
Red Pyramid “Oh, god,” I said. “Sorry, sorry. Do I die now?” Sadie Sadie 190 N
Red Pyramid “Oh, god.” Carter Sadie 212
Red Pyramid “God, no.” Sadie Sadie 220 N
Red Pyramid “By Ra’s throne!” Carter Bast 221 L
Red Pyramid “Bloody awful reason to keep us apart,” I muttered. Sadie Sadie 245 N
Red Pyramid God, I look awful. Sadie Sadie 247 N
Red Pyramid God, why hadn’t that occurred to me? Sadie Sadie 285 N
Red Pyramid I had to use all my will to keep Isis from blurting out a string of insults. Sadie Sadie 290 B
Red Pyramid “God,” I said. Sadie Sadie 299 N
Red Pyramid I kept yelling at the spot where Anubis had stood, calling him some choice names. Sadie Sadie 366 B
Red Pyramid “Thank Thoth I found you!” Carter Zia 374 L
Red Pyramid “Thoth’s beak! You are impossibly stubborn.” Carter Zia 376 L
Red Pyramid God, I can’t believe I just said that. Sadie Sadie 403 N
Red Pyramid I was a bloody twelve year old. Sadie Sadie 442 N
Red Pyramid “Oh, god.” Sadie Sadie 466 N
Red Pyramid God forbid, she might not even like Carter. Sadie Sadie 488 N
Red Pyramid Carter, god help me, was also my friend. Sadie Sadie 490 N
Red Pyramid God only knew. Sadie Sadie 491 N
Red Pyramid Sadie looked at me and mouthed O-M-G. Carter Sadie 510 D
Red Pyramid Sadie raised an eyebrow. “God, you’re thick sometimes.” Carter Sadie 512 N
Throne of Fire I muttered an Egyptian curse—the cussing kind, not the magic kind. Carter Carter 21 B,G
Throne of Fire “God, thank you,” I said.
“Goddess,” Bast corrected.
Sadie Sadie/Bast 33 N
Throne of Fire Adele’s 19 began playing. God, I hadn’t heard that album since . . . . Sadie Sadie 36 N
Throne of Fire My god. Sadie Sadie 42 N
Throne of Fire “Not bloody likely.” Sadie Sadie 66 N
Throne of Fire Neckbutt (Neckbet) Sadie Sadie 102 N,O
Throne of Fire “For god’s sake.” Sadie Sadie 105 N
Throne of Fire For a brief moment, I thought, My god, it’s Khufu. Sadie Sadie 106 N
Throne of Fire Lord, he was good-looking and so annoying. Sadie Sadie 112 N
Throne of Fire Emma demanded. “God, he was hot.”
“A god,” I muttered. “Yes.”
Sadie Sadie 113 N
Throne of Fire Liz made a gagging sound. “Lord, no! That’s wrong! Sadie Liz 135 N
Throne of Fire “Gosh, thanks.” Sadie Sadie 189 I
Throne of Fire “Holy Mother Nut.” Carter Bes 238 I
Throne of Fire Di immortales! Sadie Roman ghost 266 G
Throne of Fire “Oh, Jupiter. You’re novices.” Sadie Roman ghost 267 L
Throne of Fire “Ptah, son of Pitooey? Is he the god of spitting?” Sadie Sadie 273 O
Throne of Fire “Oh, god.” Sadie Sadie 277 N
Throne of Fire “God, you’re annoying.” Sadie Walt 283 N
Throne of Fire Bes unfroze, found himself halfway submerged in sand, and did some creative cursing. Carter Bes 299 B
Throne of Fire “The bloody sundial—the stupid gates—we failed!” Carter Sadie 282 N
Throne of Fire “Stuff it, moon god,” Bes said. Carter Bes 389 I
Throne of Fire Sadie called Apophis some words so bad, Gran would’ve washed her mouth out with soap for a year. Carter Sadie 408 B
Throne of Fire “Oh, god.” Carter Sadie 416 N
Throne of Fire “Holy Horus,” Carter said Sadie Carter 422 L
Serpent’s Shadow “You’re a god, aren’t you? You can bloody well do what you like.” Sadie Sadie 30 N
Serpent’s Shadow Bloody gods and their bloody riddles. Sadie Sadie 32 N
Serpent’s Shadow She muttered something in Arabic—probably a curse Carter Zia 55 G
Serpent’s Shadow “Please. War gods do not poop on blankets.” Carter Horus as pigeon 65 I
Serpent’s Shadow Gods of Egypt. Sadie Sadie 79 N
Serpent’s Shadow “Oh . . . my . . . god,” Drew whimpered. Sadie Drew 84 N
Serpent’s Shadow We left the Plastic Bags behind us, all of them muttering, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” Sadie The Plastic Bags 84 N
Serpent’s Shadow Gods of Egypt. I was a mess. Sadie Sadie 85 N
Serpent’s Shadow It was so bloody unfair. Sadie Sadie 94 N
Serpent’s Shadow Oh, gods of Egypt. Sadie Sadie 107 N
Serpent’s Shadow The news didn’t sit well with my brother. After several minutes of swearing and pacing the room he finally calmed down. Sadie Carter 175 B
Serpent’s Shadow It wasn’t bloody fair! Sadie Sadie 179 N
Serpent’s Shadow “Oh by the twelve gates of night,” Dad cursed. Sadie Dr. Kane 189 L
Serpent’s Shadow I nearly discovered the hieroglyph for accident in my pants . Carter Carter 209 J
Serpent’s Shadow “Oh, gods of Egypt—please don’t let that be Hapi’s loincloth.” Carter Zia 222 N
Serpent’s Shadow “What’s in there?”
“Bull,” Setne said.
“Excuse me?”
Carter Setne 223 K
Serpent’s Shadow A year ago, I would have said, “Freaky, but at least it’s just a statue.” Carter Carter 230 I
Serpent’s Shadow “Gods of Egypt, not that again!” Sadie Sadie 247 N
Serpent’s Shadow “Gods forbid!— ” Sadie Sadie 264 N
Serpent’s Shadow And what bloody business? Sadie Sadie 266 N
Serpent’s Shadow “Holy Horus, pal!” he complained. Carter Setne 290 L
Serpent’s Shadow Whatever he told me was complete and utter Apis-quality bull. Carter Carter about Setne 290 L,N
Serpent’s Shadow “Oh . . .” I uttered some words that were definitely not divine. Carter Carter 208 B
Serpent’s Shadow “Oh, Holy Horus.” Carter Carter 312 L
Serpent’s Shadow Gods of Egypt. Sadie Sadie 317 N
Serpent’s Shadow Gods of Egypt, this was confusing. Sadie Sadie 327 N
Serpent’s Shadow Zia’s jaw dropped. “Gods of Egypt.” Carter Zia 381 N
Serpent’s Shadow “It’s so bloody hard,” I complained. Sadie Sadie 389 N

by EMW