How many Sf or fantasy novels have you read, or shows have you watched, that toss you right out when the characters started cussing and the made-up words, or euphemisms, sound totally fake?
Some writers solve the problem by ignoring it. American writers use American slang, metaphors, and cusswords, even in invented worlds full of dragons and magic.
I remember a TV show my daughter watched years ago, in which the main characters constantly exclaimed “Pitafajita!” It even grated on my ten year old’s ears, and though she liked the show, she did not adopt its carefully constructed g-rated epithet.
Many readers feel that a world is more convincing if the characters relieve anger or pain with exclamations that 1) reflect their culture and 2) sound like words that people would actually say.
Do we really need cussing and cursing in our genre fiction?
Not long ago, scientists demonstrated proof that cussing when hurt actually relieves pain. Not surprising was the discovery that recovered black boxes from crashed planes most frequently end with blue language. It’s not always sailors and gangstas who let fly what teachers call “language.” Even very civilized folks can find themselves in situations where the wrong word escapes: if you’ve ever attended a childbirth, you might hear an otherwise mild-mannered woman blistering the wallpaper, or if you are a martial artist, you could hear that laid-back, super cool black belt who’s just accidentally jammed a finger backwards yelp a word with the same vim they usually reserve for their Chiai.
When approaching worldbuilding, many authors come up against the fact that cursing is not always cussing.
Cursing, or swearing, used to mean swearing oaths–an important part of many cultures. If you look at Beowulf you discover that oaths are not cussing at all–the insults are flyting, which is a totally different matter, often ritualistic. And this is true all over the world. Rappers trading rhymed, poetic insults are (maybe without knowing it) carrying on an African tradition that also goes back many centuries.
Oaths were meant to be kept–a person’s oath was their honor. Often these included oaths before a deity. God is mentioned many times in Beowulf but you won’t find a single one of those tough warriors using ‘God’ in their cussing.
In early novels, ‘oath’ was often used in fiction as a politeness for cuss words (“The villain uttered a coarse oath as he tied the maiden to the railroad tracks”) unless it’s specified (“She raised her right hand and swore her oath of office.”). The word “Vow” gradually replaced “oath” in that context: “Marriage vows.” “Vow of vengeance.” “Vow of silence.”
I think oaths are pretty much gone, and current post-truth politics make it crystal clear that also gone is the notion that one is as good as one’s word.
In rougher times, tight bonds of kinship and community often were the difference between survival and non. They also made life worth surviving for. Are your characters living in desperate straits where being as good as your word means something? Or are your characters able to move away if they don’t like or trust the people they are around?
‘Cursing’ is even older, the idea of making a formal curse so that harm would come to another. There was certainly magical thinking here, but cursing could also be a social signal to go after the cursed one. And his or her family, friends, and possessions.
‘Cussing’ is usually exclamation, expletive, expressing sharp emotion. The crazy thing about human cussing–and it probably reflects the extraordinary inconsistency of human behavior and thought–is that foul language isn’t the same in every culture, except in a very narrow range, usually having to do with excreta.
Styles and modes seem to vary not only from culture to culture but from region to region as well as in time. Cussing that relates to sex can vary wildly, but some of the most opaque cussing is that relating to class. Like ‘toff’ and ‘cit.’ Worldbuilding that reflects your world’s history might venture into legal attempts to curtail certain expressions or words. (Which usually just drives it underground, human behavior being in some senses a constant.)
Another worldbuilding curiosity to keep in mind is how words can alter in meaning and effect over time. Take “Drat!”, which is considered fairly innocuous, once meant “God rot your bones!” which wasn’t innocuous at all during the middle ages.
“Plaguey” is merely a quaint adjective, usually put into the mouths of cliche pirates, along with “Arrr!”–no one anymore says, “Plague take you!” which was an extremely serious imprecation indeed after the mid 1300s, when half the population of Europe died within about a year. “Zounds!” was “God’s wounds!”–one of those expressions one swore by, incomprehensible now.
In some cultures, people swear by something, usually deities or leaders, either their own or someone else’s. In our history, for example, a hundred years ago it was okay to swear by the Greek or Roman gods: “By Jupiter!” was all right for gentlemen to say (though not for ladies) but “By God!” was considered blasphemous by either sex. If you read books printed two hundred years ago, you will see “By G–!” in the mouths of villains, or “d— you!” So you are actually thinking the word, and yet not seeing it in print.
Religious imprecations still resound all around us, secular though most of contemporary society is. When someone asks God to damn us, we no longer make the sign of the cross to ward it, much less drop flat in order to avoid a direct hit from a heavenly lightning bolt. The anger behind the words triggers anger just the same, even if we don’t fear we will be instantly blasted to the eternal rotisserie on this person’s word. Still, religions invented for worlds are far more convincing if the characters actually believe in them, and use language that conveys that belief.
Another curiosity that the worldbuilding author ought to consider is how cussing inspires its own euphemisms, like “effing” or “f***”–we know what it means, but we’re not saying the word. A sort of magical thinking without much magic, hearkening back to those days of printed d– and G–.
Do genders have their own forms of cursing or cussing? 150 years ago, British and American women who aspired to be considered ladies could exclaim “Fiddledeedee!” Men didn’t say it lest they be considered unmanly.
Inventing cussing and cursing can be problematical. I remember a discussion back in the seventies, when women in consciousness raising groups were concerned about the fact that so much cussing had to do with violence against women, and of course there were the many, many socially acceptable bigoted terms meant to keep racial or social minorities outside the mainstream. I remember one woman tried to get a movement going in which epithets were to be heinous acts, such as “Rape!” It didn’t catch on, any more than some seventies science fiction in which characters would exclaim “You anti-egalitarianist!” or “Classist!” (Which I thought would have been better for the use of the good old-fashioned “Snob!”)
Anyway, the writer who wants to invent cultures does have to consider this aspect of behavior. But it’s tough to make their blue language convincing.
If the people in your culture think that the deadliest insult of all is “Thunder-chicken,” the world-building details have got to convince me that there is dreadful or ominous meaning in those words, or else I’m going to snicker. In spite of the fact that here on earth, there are cultures where calling someone a pig-dog is a terrible insult, as is “May your father’s teeth rot!”