So today I’d like to talk about fantastic profanity — by which I mean not “really good” profanity, but “made up for fantasy and science fiction” profanity. Therefore this post will contain quite a bit of cussin’. FOR ART AND SCIENCE. You are warned.
There are some words that are universally vulgar, in my opinion. I only speak 1.25 languages — English and just enough of a few other languages to mangle them all magnificently — but in my vast experience I haven’t yet found a language that doesn’t treat either the act or the product of defecation as something rude/crude to talk about.* Nobody likes shit.** But several languages that I’ve thus far encountered seem to have no vulgarization for the act or various by-products of sex. Not being a linguist, I can only speculate as to the reason for this, but my guess would be that Anglophone countries tend to be kind of sexually regressive and repressed, so naturally “fuck” is one of our harshest epithets. We don’t like sex. Many other cultures think it’s no biggie, and they find other things to malign in their slang. So when I’m creating a new fantasy world, if I want to include a fantasyism for “fuck”, I have to pause and do some deep thinking about whether this is a culture that’s got some issues with sex. And if so, then I have to think about why they might have issues with sex. In Anglophone cultures, most of our hangups about sex have to do with religion; Christianity doesn’t like sex. That’s because Christianity enshrines Western cultures’ various forms of patriarchy as doctrine — in England, frex, sex was the means through which men historically passed on property rights to their sons. In order to know who their sons were, men had to control the source of those children, i.e. women, which meant sex with women had to be rigidly controlled. (Ditto sex with men, actually, though to a lesser degree, and any other forms of non-procreative sex. While I’m at it, it’s kind of remarkable how many cultures’ religions have made statements about sex with farm animals. But I digress.)
But in cultures where property can be passed to anyone, sex doesn’t need to be regulated to the same degree. An example is ancient Egypt (researched this while writing the Dreamblood). Granted, ancient Egypt’s culture changed lots over its 3000+ year history, but as far as historians can tell, Egyptians regarded all property as belonging to the gods. It was merely overseen temporarily by the Pharaoh and officials for the benefit of the whole community. …So, naturally, the Pharaoh and high officials owned most land, and everybody else paid those folks rent. However, among landowners, anyone — male or female, firstborn or other, relative or some random schmoe the landowner chose — could inherit their parents’ property. In fact there was a special “land overseer” or judge/official in most Egyptian communities who made sure property was fairly distributed, precisely to prevent arguments among the children/acquaintances of property owners. This might be why — as far as I can tell — the Egyptians did not have a vulgar word for sex. They also didn’t particularly care who fucked whom or how said fucking occurred; their lore is rife with lurid tales of marathon oral sex sessions, hilarious anal sex follies (well, hilarious for the people hearing about it), and sex contests to honor the gods. (Seriously. As a harvest celebration, villagers would sometimes imitate Nut and Geb: a chosen couple would lie beside the river, and the woman would kneel over the man. The man would then try, using just his penis and while lying on his back, to have intercourse with her — generally while his fellow villagers were looking on and laughing it up. I think the idea was to give the gods a good laugh, too.)
Which means that before I toss off a “frak” or a “frell”, I have to decide whether and why the people of this society have such a problem with sex that they’ve made a curse of it. How do they handle property? Is it especially important that men know which children are theirs? If so, how have they codified this — does their religion mention sex? Do they listen to that religion, mostly? And so on. I didn’t use “fuck” in the Dreamblood because that was based on ancient Egypt. In the Inheritance Trilogy, though, most of the story takes place in the patriarchial parts of the world (Amn-controlled or -influenced nations, which is most of the world). I imagine there was no “fuck” in the Darre language because the Darre were matriarchial, and a woman always knows who her children are; there’s no question in primogeniture. But the Amn are slightly patriarchial — once more so, though they’ve egalitarianized over the ages — and the remnants of that patriarchial past linger in their language. Moreover, I had to consider what curses gods would use, since they exist as another culture in this world. That’s how I came up with “mortalfuck”, which Sieh used in The Kingdom of Gods. Gods have trouble having meaningless sex with mortals; they can’t quite help sharing something of themselves whenever they copulate, and catching feelings as a result. Mortals are painful to love, though, because they will inevitably die. So although gods fuck each other with abandon — sometimes even the abandonment of form and flesh altogether — fucking mortals is an altogether different thing, risky and potentially devastating. Worthy of an epithet or two.
“Damn” is worse, though. Goddamn it I hate the word “damn”. Because the instant I want to use it, I have to stop and consider a fantasy culture’s beliefs about the afterlife. Do they have a Bad Afterlife Place to which people can be damned? Who does this damning, and why? Why is being damned such a problem? I mean, if the culture has an afterlife that’s full of ice cream and rainbows — or if they don’t believe in an afterlife at all — there’s no reason for “damn” to exist as a word. But since I come from a culture that constantly rants about the afterlife, my own language is deeply permeated with damnation, and that one slips out even when I don’t want it to. Every time I write a short story I have to do a scan for damns, because I always include them, and they don’t always belong.
In my novels I’ve gotten around this thus far by writing worlds that have a Bad Afterlife Place — the infinite hells of the Inheritance Trilogy, the shadowlands of the Dreamblood. Right now, though, I’m working on the Untitled Magic Seismology Project, and it’s a very different beast. In this world of frequent catastrophic seismic events, life is pretty damn (argh) harsh, so they regard death as a relief, not something to fear. And most cultures of this world don’t have much religion, in part because every few centuries there’s an Extinction Level Event that reboots society. Not much time to develop or syncretize beliefs. The majority of nations at the time of the story have been influenced by the oldest country in the world, a sprawling Romanesque empire which views Father Earth as god — and they hate him, because he keeps trying to kill them. There’s a bit of self-blaming cosmogony around this: they believe that some of their ancestors pissed off the earth by becoming too numerous. But for the most part they just think the earth is an evil dickwad who is and will always be the Enemy. So these are the curses I’ve come up with thus far:
- Evil Earth (e.g. “Evil Earth I’m tired. Let’s get some rest.”)
- Earthfires/Underfires (e.g. “The town… it’s gone.” “Earthfires, no…”)
- References to earthquakes or volcanic activity — which they call “shakes” and “blows”, and which allows me to use “blows” for a similar-yet-different reason to the way modern English does. (e.g. “What a shitshake.” “Yeah, that blows.”)
But then I had to also consider what they would value in this world. Property’s not much of an issue; most parts of this world are essentially socialist, with a central authority in every community apportioning property in ways that will best-benefit everyone. This does cause problems in times of plenty and ordinary seasons, but it’s a lifesafer during the years-long volcanic winters, when nobody has the time or wherewithal to waste on arguments about inheritance or paternity. So if land doesn’t matter, what does? The answer I came up with was stability. This is a world in which people avoid coastlines (because of frequent tsunami) and faultlines whenever possible; only the poorest people are forced to live in such areas. The ideal community is built on good solid bedrock; the biggest cities are located at the center of a tectonic plate. And given that early metallurgy would not provide especially useful building materials — most primitive metals have relatively low flexiblity and are quite brittle — this is a society which values stone over metal. Most metal rusts, after all, and even wood was more reliable at certain points in our own world’s history. And since this is a world littered with the remains of past civilizations, it’s easy to see that certain kinds of building materials and techniques stand the test of time better than others. In this world no one spends a lot of time wondering why a past civilization died. They just note that it did, and they figure it’s best not to repeat past mistakes.
So they swear by stone and curse by metal. A kept promise is “stonebound”; an unreliable or unlikeable person is a “rusting [cockcrack/daughter of a moocher/son of a cannibal/etc]“. When Essun (the story’s main protagonist) is feeling especially creative or pissed off, she says “Rust it and burn it in the earth’s steaming hot ass crack”, and so forth.
…I’m having a lot of fun with this, if you’re wondering.
So that’s what I’ve been up to lately. You?
* If you know of a language that doesn’t have a vulgarity for shit, tell me.
** If you do like shit, don’t tell me.