Monday, December 28, 2009

What a load of #!*%: Swear words in fantasy books

My main characters are a cranky pair and they're often finding themselves in sticky, violent situations. Naturally they want to let off a little steam by having a good cuss. But I'm having a world of trouble getting the right words in their mouths. One is a noble-born sixteen-year-old girl who rather resents the prissiness that's expected of her and picks up dirty words with glee and alacrity, and the other is a low-born but highly educated man who's a little bit proper but doesn't mind letting rip when something really awful happens.

Getting the cussing right is something I'm struggling with. There just aren't enough words for the right situations. I've got exclamations like "rot", "pigswill" and "blood and piss!"; "what the Deuce/blazes" (for snottier bit characters). Then there's the handy insults "Go swive a goat" and "son of a donkey's turd". All these I'm very happy with. But they only go so far.

Plenty of writers get around this by making up their own curse words, such as Battlestar Galactica's "frack!" "fracking hell" and "go frack yourself" and James Dashner's "klunk-head", "go shuck yourself" in The Maze Runner. The problem with made-up curse words is they can sound a bit naff. I don't really want to do this.

Then there's the fact that the world I've created is secular, so my characters can't take the lord's name in vain, damn anyone to hell or swear by Zeus's armpit or some such. They do, however, refer to the heavens and describe things as hellish. In fact, hell has sneaked in several times and I'd rather like to get rid of the bloody thing (said the sinner to the saint, hehe...) I've been watching the fantabulous series Rome recently and they have some mighty colourful swearing, such as "by Juno's c#%$!" and "I pull a hair for what my mother will think". Actually, that second one could come in handy. I shall appropriate it.

But the one curse word that I love, that I use all the time myself, that pegs Lharmell as being written by an Aussie and couldn't be less appropriate (in an anachronistic sense; propriety be damned) is "bloody". I bloody love saying bloody. It's the Aussie adjective. There are infinite uses. "What the bloody hell is going on?" "Not bloody likely." "Bloody hell!" "I can't bloody stand it." In fact, I don't think there are two words in the English language you can't use it between. You can even use it in the middle of words, as in "Abso-bloody-lutely". Such a happy, versatile curse word it is. (Apparently "bloody" came from "bloods", which is eighteenth century slang for a noble person. "Bloody drunk" meant "drunk as a blood" or "drunk as a lord". And I suppose that lords did drink a bloody great deal.)

But "bloody", along with "f---" "b----" and "c---" do not have a place in fantasy literature. I don't believe there's anything wrong with these words in urban fantasy, for example, or contemporary realism, but they just stick out as wrong wrong wrong in fantasy lit.

I read on a forum that swear words not about gods, sex and excreting just don't cut it as swear words. What are your favourite swear words or pseudo-swear words?


  1. Sh** sh***y sh*t sh*t sh*t f*cking hell mothersh*tter.

    Too much?

  2. Piss Off! Wanker. Tosser. Especially when they are said with a British accent. Hmm, is my addiction to accents obvious? lol.
    I'm with you though, it's hard for me to throw around cuss words in any of my stories. But some of my characters require it. It's just who they are. ;)

  3. "F---" is really hard to turn down! I don't think i agree that it doesn't belong in fantasy (even fantasy aimed at young readers) - fantasy readers are already happy suspending disbelief over everybody speaking English, and technically that's a bigger leap than using familiar swear words.

    (I understand the thing about wanting to avoid things that sound anacrhonistic, but I prefer to think of it like in "The Hunt For Red October" movie: all the Russian is magically translated into Scottish-accented-English and we just accept that. In Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson and the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf, languages are kept relative to each other, like: the main characters sword is called "Terminus Est" in New Sun because within the book's mythology, it is named using an 'ancient dead language' that has the same relationship to the language the characters 'really' speak as Latin does to English. So it's kind of a different attitude to anachronism than the one people usually advise, and it works well in both those books. This is a long set of brackets.)

    Anyway, "f---"'s one of my favourite swear words. I don't think it's the "gods, sex and excreting" thing - i think it's the hard consonants at the start and end. In my head, that's why "frak" sounds better than many other fake-science-fiction-swear-words: it keeps the consonants in place.

    I don't think that one, in particular, is too anachronistic - "f---" is an ancient word, i think a lot of the best swear words are too, but Monash uni won't let me access the Oxford English Dictionary for some reason this morning so im not sure. I think it's actually a very modern idea that these words are recent inventions, maybe because we think of the past as being more proper that it actually was. But the Anglo-Saxon swear words probably go back to the Angles and the Saxons. So i guess i would argue in their defense in fantasy lit! (Galileo's Dream - sorry, it's in my head right now because im reading it at the moment - has f---'s and c---'s all over the place, because 15th century Venetians had filthy, filthy mouths.)

  4. What a dilema. Truly. I have it a lot easier in a nautical fiction. Stump-winged lubber, mangy sea-dog, bilge-drinking wharf rat, scurvy land cur, slithering snakes! In fact, it is FUN to come up with these. And Karen, please, please read them with a British accent. I don't know if that is of any help. Could you toss a ship into the mix?

  5. Oh I so use the F word way to much. I use the word "freaking" sometimes in the YA writing I've done so far... And the B word once... My MCs have also cut themselves off before a cuss word came out, but have (hopefully) made it pretty obviousl what they were thinking.

    Personally, I think cussing is totally fine when used appropriately. If it's used for shock value, it can probably be replaced with a different word.

    Oh and PS. I sooooooooooo wish I could pull off he word "bloody". Unfortunately, coming from my darn American accented mouth it just sounds like I'm trying to hard. SIGH. But I do love that word!!!

  6. Dude, you so need to get out of my head. When you started talking about your world being secular and how they wouldn't take their lord's name in vain, I immediately thought of Rome (one of my absolute favorite shows, btw) and how they did it all the time despite the fact that it was an immensely superstitious culture. And then what do you do? Mention it a few lines later. STOP! LOL!

    But what I would do is sit down for a good Rome marathon (full-frontal of James Purefoy? Hello! Not to mention the giant slave dong of gargantuanness.) and listen to how they swear and twist it to make to fit your world. Or research more into ancient and medieval swearing. Or read some Shakespeare for some spins on stuff. Granted Pullo does say fuck a lot, I'm sure the general public would go O_o at Rome's actual equivalent anyway.

    They say Juno's mercy a lot. When they speak of cursing, it's feared to an extreme. Like Servilia cursing Atia after that whole writing on the wall episode or Lucius cursing his children after Naiobi's death. I mean, that's worse than Juno's diddle. That's the ultimate fuck you, to say you curse someone. The sign of the devil (aka the Rock On sign or I Love You without the thumb) is pretty bad, as Lucius's oldest daughter does it behind her back at him after he rescues her from slavery. Kind of like crossing your fingers while saying something but I think it has greater connotations.

    When Lucius smashes the statue of Concord and these hard ass pseudo-Mafia men are about to shit themselves with fear and Lucius claims himself as a son of Hades, they're freaked. Talk about sacrilege to smash a likeness. That'd be like taking a gold club to a crucified Christ. No no.

    Did I mention I liked Rome?

  7. I've never had to make up my own cuss words, so I've no advice in that department. I will note that Tad Williams, in his "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy, makes up his own swear words, and they're mostly god-related.

    How can any society be completely secular, though? Are gods just not mentioned? That's more curious to me than anything, since every culture since the dawn of time has made up gods for themselves, so the truly "secular" culture hasn't yet existed. Just a thought. :)

    (I'm personally partial to the f-bomb and its derivatives, though. And, as a Scot, I claim the right to use "bloody" however and whenever I want.)

  8. I don't write fantasy, so I get to use lovely everyday curse words ... though I'm very careful about when and how I include them in my writing. This post comes at a perfect time -- I wrote a post (that just went up) about taboo subjects in YA and actually linked to this one and to your post on masturbation in YA. Thanks for writing about these great issues!

  9. I feel like a total pansy after reading this post. I occasionally say sh*t and damn, but otherwise I stick to 'eff' and 'freaking.' Yes, really. You guys are hardcore.

  10. in Leviathan, they used 'barking' and 'Blisters!' as swear words, and I couldn't stand it..
    That aside, my favourites have to be F word, and sh*t. But only when I'm being serious, when just joking around I say eff, freak, frack, and sh*te. I love Owf*ck too. I say it whenever I get hurt :)
    bloody interesting post!

  11. I have to confess, I absolutely love swearing, but I try to limit myself to using swear words in a creative, amusing or expressive way. In my opinion, swearing is only amusing if you know how to use the rest of the language properly. (Picky? Moi? Or maybe I'm just trying to justify it to myself.)

    My favourite is definitely the f word, but I also throw in a fair few motherf*****s, sh*t, sh*te (for regional flavour), b*****ds, and a *lot* of bloodys. I say arse rather than ass, but don't tend to use the c word because I don't like the fact that people think being called *that* is the most offensive thing ever. My mum tells me that one of my first sentences was 'Where's my bleedin' bike?', which kind of set the tone for my life.

    I think you're right about certain swearwords really not working in fantasy... but I definitely think that some variations of familiar ones may be okay. I also had a problem with the use of 'barking' in Leviathan, but only because it occured about twice a page and it was complete overload for me.

    Quite an interesting BBC article here that might help:

  12. Oo, I love bloody! I used to babysit this English/South African couple (she was English, he was South African) and he used to say bloody all the time...I loved it.

    My WIP is future dystopian, and I just feel like curse words would have evolved by then. But I can't bring myself to make anything up. So far they've only said "damn," but now I'm doing edits, and in the really high-action scenes I know I want to add in some more cursing - it just seems natural for the characters. It's hard because you don't want it to sound cheesy, but you need to emphasize that this is bloody f*cking important.

  13. Oh, this is a good one, and a topic I've certainly broached. I've been known to make up my own curse words in my fiction--it makes perfect sense to me as I do it all the time in real life. I've also been known to write "[insert curse word here]"...yeah, it happens. But I find that the whole cursing issue doesn't have to be intimidating in YA fiction, even in fantasy. It can be fun, if you accept that making up your own words can be fun, too (which for me it is)...but this is only doable if it fits your characters. And as my characters are generally rather quirky, it fits. And it can also be fun if you don't mind letting lose on the profanity. You can always clean it up a bit in the edits. Indeed, I generally let lose in all respects in the first draft (and that goes for the sexual content as well); so yes, I must now go back and make my YA manuscript a bit less R-rated.

    On a side note, I had great fun with a British character who was rather fond of "bloody."

    As for my faves...I don't know. I make them up all the time. Think of the dad's scenes in A Christmas Story, and that will give you some idea. But I generally have a few stock curse words that are different for each character, even if they are made up.

    Excellent post, m'dear. Hope you're having a wonderful holiday season.

  14. "I spit in the milk of your mother." A favorite of my off-his-rocker English teacher.

    Also, the Romeo and Juliet equivalent of the middle finger: "I bite my thumb at you."

  15. Oh, this is such an interesting post. And a topic I've struggled with myself. I opted to do the "make up your own" cuss words in my work--but I do like Amelia's ideas of reverting to some of Shakespeare's gems...

  16. I'll share with you my all time fav cuss word-nothing rolls off the tongue quite like- Son of a Bitching Bastard it!! But I only pull it out for really intense situations or people that really deserve the title. That said-how I wish I could pull off a Bloody Hell or Wanker with out sounding like a complete dumb ass.

  17. LMAO! I like the fact that many authors make up their own curse words.

    I have a hard time not using "rat's _ss, sh_t, _sshole, _sswipe, bastard, or d_mn it to hell."


  18. Rome is one of my fave TV series gooooood! i was so annoyed when they axed it!

  19. But some of my characters require it. It's just who they are

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  20. So many great responses! I am glad that "bloody" has such a big following. It's like the swear word that's no longer a swear word, and you have to be from the Commonwealth in order to say it correctly! And I like the way we say "arse", whereas Americans say "ass".

    The nautical and Shakespearian words are amazing, and yes Melanie there will be a boat--in book two! I'll leave the made up swear words for another book, though, I think.

  21. Really great post.

    I am quite fond of "bloody", particularly when it is paired with "hell". Never could understand people overseas being so offended by the "where the bloody hell are you?" tourist campaign... It seems like such an everyday, Aussie phrase to me.

    As a science fiction lover, I can often be heard saying "frak" from Battlestar Galactica and "gorram" or "gorrammit" as from Firefly. If only I could speak the language I would probably curse in Mandarin like they do in Firefly, too.

    1. You are F@cking hot, I would love to F@ck the sh@t out of your corn hole. Your hair is off the f@cking wall.

      Good Example of writing, with curse words.