Fantastic Profanity

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.

33 thoughts on “Fantastic Profanity”

  1. Great analysis!

    As a side note to the introduction; I have heard, though have no first hand experience to corroborate, that Russian swear words are almost entirely sexual. For whatever reason, defecation doesn’t really have a place in their cultural lexicon as something to be associated with a “curse” word. Would love to hear a native speaker weigh in.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately! I’ve been working on a story without deity-based religion, and I’ve had a bit of a problem with this myself.

    “Shit” is currently the go-to for actual cusswords and, since sex is fairly sacred still (to get those good mage blood lines) the more vulgar sexual terms, are still “bad”. The problem I’ve coming to is something to replace the small, not-quite cussing words, like darn, or even “god”. I feel like more of those come out of cultural contexts than actual swearwords.

    I had tried using Magic as the replacement for some of the more religious-based exclamations (since it sort of fulfills what diety-religion is in this world), (ex. “For magic’s sake, stop doing that!” ) but it sounded silly to the people who read it.

    It’s also an alternate history-esque world, so certain words might sound more out of place than others.

    I’ll try what you did in your most recent work, and see what I can come up with.

  3. Attorney at Awwww SNAP

    Speaking of “damn,” one weird thing I’ve found since I graduated from law school is how often pseudoreligious language shows up. We often pray to the court for a judgment. “Go add a prayer for relief” they’ll tell me. And once it was “this needs an ad damnum clause.” Sounded harsh, but it just means “to the harm.” I haven’t done the full research, but damn/damage seem to be related, and the root is along the lines of harm.

    So “damn you” might be coherent without an afterlife. But I think it’s still really robbed of all its context: we don’t shout “I wish you harm!” or “Go hurt yourself” or anything like that.

  4. Now I’m wishing the novel I’m working on was set in a fantasy world just so that I could start inventing interesting swear words that would fit with its worldview! But no, I had to go and set in the here and now (albeit with added magic and gods showing up), so I’m stuck with “fuck” and the like… Well, maybe after I finish this one.

    I do find profanity in other languages fascinating. There’s a really interesting site here: that’s got listings of swear words and epithets in a huge variety of languages, including some languages I’ve never even heard of. My partner and I spent an entertaining couple of hours one night going through the lists during a Skype conversation and just about killed ourselves laughing. Some of them are just so insanely creative… In Chilean Spanish, apparently one way of calling someone stupid is to call them Mermelada de huevas, which literally means “testicle jelly”. And in Hindi (which I think pretty much tops all languages for bizarrely creative epithets), you have to expression like Jhaat ka bhaaji – “public hair fried with vegetables!” Be warned, though, that that site can be a bigger timesink than TV Tropes!

  5. I’d never thought about this a lot, though it’s quite interesting actually, worth looking into.

    Dutch swearing, by the way, seems to focus largely on various diseases. Now you made me curious as to why this is. ^^

  6. This is interesting. I’ve been thinking about it as a translation problem. When translating, you can translate the literal meaning or the closest social meaning – so a curse word is a curse word. What is written in English as ‘fuck’ would not necessarily be translated into the word for sex in another language, because as you say, not every language has the same literal meanings for cursewords. So I suppose the question of cursing in fantasy partially comes down to whether in your head the people are speaking English, albeit an English which evolved in a different world with different values, or whether they’re speaking their own language which you, the author, are translating into English, in which case English curse words would be appropriate but would lack flavour.

    I like how much you’re thinking about this. The Magic Seismology Project sounds awesome.

  7. It’s also worth thinking about the fact that these epithets will change over time. For example, I’ve got a work in progress which is set in contemporary Israel. Of course the Israeli main character would really be speaking Hebrew, but I’m writing in English, so it I’m wrestling with what to use for expletives. I keep catching myself starting to use religious-based expletives in dialogue (e.g. “Jesus Christ! What were you thinking?”) which are just not appropriate.

    I asked a couple of Israeli resources about what they used for expletives in Israel, and got back a list of words related to bombs and explosions. When I consider the realities of life there, it makes perfect sense. But on the other hand, that would be totally inappropriate to a story set a hundred or a hundred-fifty years ago.

  8. French has lot of ways to swear! It’s usually either blasphemy or about sex (putain, which means whore, is very popular, and it’s used regularly in casual conversation). Now that I’m thinking of it, though, we don’t have an equivalent to the word ‘damn’.

    I am getting very excited about the Magic Seismology Project…

  9. Not just cultural hangups, but other linguistic factors might influence the choice/use/variety of profanity, too. While I was learning Japanese, one of the features of the language that I struck me was the relative lack of (and relatively infrequent use of) curse words, compared to English. When I inquired about the reason to my instructors, their theory was the many different levels of politeness in the language made coming up with profanity superfluous – i.e. it was simpler to insult someone just by using a lower level of polite speech than someone of listener’s status was owed. Lacking these honorifics, English speakers have to resort to cussing.

  10. One thing I’ve noted is that most cuss words tend to be short and to the point. ‘Fuck’ is not just vulgar, it’s short, sharp, has a hard ‘K’ sound, and is overall kinda satisfying to say when you’re upset. Probably why ‘frak’ caught on as an alternative.

    Also interesting to me is how words used as cursing kind of become detached from their meaning. What, exactly, do we mean by ‘Fuck you’? ‘Have sex with you’? Wait, are we offering, or saying someone SHOULD, or…? And phrases like ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding’ don’t really imply any sexual activity at all. Likewise, things like ‘Are you shitting me?’ don’t make so much sense if taken literally.

    Which kinda suggests we could have fantasy swearing which has lost the original meaning. They know the word is bad, they just don’t know why anymore…

  11. Fun bit of history: Back when there was Christendom instead of Europe, “damn”, “God’s wounds” and so forth were considered much worse swear words than “shit” or “fuck”. There’s a Commandment against blasphemy but not against scatology.

    I kinda have a plausibility problem with the metal thing. Early civilizations didn’t use it for building much anyway – it was scarce and valuable. But metal needles and axes – even bad metal – last a lot longer than the stone or bone equivalent. As some anthropologist said, you can chop down a tree with a stone axe but it is no fun at all.

    I can see where they might prefer mortise-and-tenon to nails, though.

  12. I think Jonathon Side is dead on when he says it’s the sound of the word itself that makes “fuck” so satisfying as a curse word. “Frell” always seemed wholly inadequate by comparison, far too gentle on the ear to carry any weight of fury or exasperation or threat or despair.

  13. Great timing on this post. I’ve been working on this exact same issue in the world of my work in progress. They have gods, but don’t worship them so much as give a nod to their existence as an excuse to party. ;) The land-inheritance system is a lot like that you described for Egypt, so sex-based swear words don’t make sense. It’s been fun and frustrating making the cursing fit the culture.

  14. It seems like there’s two sources of profanity here: various bodily functions and/or things that might be intrinsically dirty or negative, but also sacred things being profaned. (Totally not any kind of linguist so I could be way off on this). English used to have a lot more of the latter (ie, Shakespeare), but seems to have gone away from that in modern times. Just the fact that there are trends and shifts in profanity within a given language, though, suggests that there is a lot of profanity that is not determined by the history of a culture, or at least not completely determined.

  15. This is an interesting subject, and well covered here! So much culture and backstory can be alluded to with a few words spat in anger.

    I hadn’t considered it this directly before, but my Stories of Aligare series uses mildly profane phrases like “burn it” and “strike it”. The society is three species living in peaceful symbiosis, so acts of violence really would be a more taboo subject than sex. “Damn” is used as a synonym for “banish”, both of which are profane — because being sent somewhere to survive alone is the worst imaginable fate.

  16. I can only recommend Maledicta, the journal of verbal aggression, created and edited by Dr. Reinhold Aman.

  17. This is something I also come across in my writing, and like you, frequently needs extra TLC to ensure that a stray ‘God dammit’ doesn’t slip in unnoticed.

    That being said, I was a little flummoxed by the example swears you provided for/from Untitled Magic Seismology Project. Unless it takes place on our very own cosmic blue marble, why would the peoples’ curses include the word ‘Earth’? Though the word certainly can mean nothing more than ‘ground’, it still stems from the name we’ve given our planet. If the setting takes place elsewhere, then wouldn’t anything with ‘earth’ in it be changed to reflect that locale’s name?

  18. Sabine,

    Great question. :) The locale’s name is Earth. Just as the name of our planet means “the dirt under our feet/the stuff we’re walking on”, so too does the name of their world. Naming a planet something other than “the dirt” is a science fictional conceit IMO; it reflects an awareness that there are other planets out there. These people don’t have that awareness; they’ve been wholly preoccupied with the ground (which is trying to kill them) and their sky-based sciences/mythology are pretty minimal.

    The names of the worlds of the Inheritance Trilogy and the Dreaming Moon were “Earth”, too, BTW. :)

  19. I’ve always wondered about swear words and the meanings they take on. Obviously fuck originated a slur for sex but I think now hows entirely different meaning attached to it outside of sexual references. A kind of hopelessness situation, ‘well fuck it’ or ‘you have to be fucking kidding me’. Honestly I think ‘fuck’ might be a favourite word in the English language if only in can be used in so many different situations (even as an infix) outside of it’s original use.

    Also I would like just to add, even though I have not read any of your books yet I have bought them just because of your blog. Seriously I wish all my favourite authors did blogs like yours. Cheers!

  20. The other commenters have written a great many insightful things about the bulk of this blog, which I found to be thought-provoking, and I daresay I can’t add much more to that conversation than has already been said.

    I would, however, like to grind my axe a little on the clichéd attack on my faith – that, of course, being Christianity. Saying that Christians don’t like sex because we place it within a specific context would be similar to saying that Americans don’t like alcohol, or tobacco, because they place age limits on it. I have had a great deal of sex, thank you.

    I’m also not quite sure how a religion from the East was built to “enshrine” some Western patriarchy.

    Don’t worry, this isn’t some “I’ll never read your books again because you have X opinion” thing. You’re a terrific writer and I plan on following your career for as long as you plan on having one. (Besides, Christians and conservatives make up a tiny minority of the SFF community… if political alignment was a prerequisite of mine, I can’t say I’d have very much to read).

  21. Master Cortana,

    I was raised Christian too. And if you don’t think Christianity enshrines any number of culture-specific values that are by no means universal to the human experience, then I have some lovely beachfront property to show you in Nevada. Christianity, particularly Catholicism, has been one of the foremost forces of colonialism throughout Western history; it’s the cultural fist of the one-two punch of conquest and control. And I could point you to any number of examples of how Christianity’s discomfort with sexuality shows itself, particularly when it interacts with cultures that don’t have the same taboos initially. Missionaries’ discomfort with women of ancient African and American cultures who went about bare-breasted. American pastors and priests’ refusal to recognize the marriages of Indians or enslaved people as valid, so they wouldn’t have to condemn their own parishoners for mass rape and adultery. Even today, other countries are having to deal with homophobia outsourced from American clergy.

    I take your point that Christianity has no problem with sex within sanctioned relationships. The problem is that what Christianity is willing to sanction is a moving target; always has been. More often than not, what the religion is willing to sanction inevitably aligns with the interests not of everyone, but of the people who control it — which have mostly been men, down the ages. Especially in Europe and North America, but also in every place touched by European/American colonialism.

  22. By that same logic, Catholicism would approve of child molestation because of the actions of the various priests, or Islam would approve of terrorism because of the actions of Islamic terrorists.

    In other words, I think you confuse the cultural baggage that various groups and Christians have brought into conflict with what Christianity is and actually teaches.

    The West, for example, was colonial long, LONG before Constantine.

  23. I’m not sure how pointing out Christianity’s influence on culture is an attack. If anything, it’s the POINT of Christianity. And while sex itself isn’t demonized in the Bible, it most certainly comes with restrictions that influence all manner of social norms and the rules, written or otherwise, necessary to enforce them. Things such as dress, acceptable behavior in areas seemingly unrelated to sex (unmarried women requiring an escort, for example, as proof that they’ve come to marriage “pure” and more are not just influenced by the accepted religion of that society, they’re determined by it. Some of that can be explained by inheritance rules, etc. but that patriarchal structure is also enforced by a society modeled on the standards set forth in the Bible.

    The point of the post is that society and its values determine what we consider “unacceptable” language: that which goes counter to what is acceptable. When sex is enshrined as an act of purity and even worship within the proper context, any language that debases it is a natural target for words meant to shock and insult.

    That’s not a judgment of Christianity, it’s a comment on history, human nature, and society.

  24. Leah, the way you phrase it in your second paragraph is spot-on. Like I pointed out initially, I definitely think that the bulk of the discussion is very true.

    As an aside, though, I pointed out that I took issue with the way Ms. Jemisin phrased it. Because while your second paragraph spoke of Christianity objectively, I found her comments to be dismissive. “Those backwards Christians”…, etc.

  25. To take this whole thing back to its original topic, look at the word “profanity” itself. You’re making the sacred profane, so whatever a culture finds sacred, or sometimes private (like defecating), will be found rude if made more profane, or more common.

  26. Master Cortana,

    Granted, I was using Christianity as an example, but I actually think all of the “People of the Book” religions (and the cultures that predominantly follow those faiths) have issues with sexuality. I don’t think there’s anything backward about that; I think it just is. I think you were reading dismissiveness where I was attempting to convey frankness, which means I did a bad job of it. Sorry about that.

  27. I actually think it was a case of being sensitive on an issue making you see things that aren’t there. We’ve all done it.

    I went back and re-read and didn’t see the section on Christianity being particularly dismissive, just matter of fact, and not in any different tone than the rest of the post.

  28. The current WIP has a character from a cave-dwelling race, partially inspired by the Morlocks and Bat Boy and the like. He uses “glowing” and “shiny” as his go-to obscenities.

  29. This is something I’ve tried to put a great deal of thought into for my own work, not only for profanity but for slang terms as well. Your article gives me a little more to consider. For that, I thank you!! And thank you to Lynna Landstreet for that web address. I look forward to loosing many hours there. :)

  30. This was really well written, and gave me a lot to think about while it kept me smiling. I didn’t know how… free(?) the Egyptians were. I’ve honestly never seen this much research and thought put into profanity.

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