Worldbuilding: Curses and Cusses

 

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.”

swearing an oath

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?

Gillrayera

‘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–.Gillray02

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!”)

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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!”

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49 Responses to Worldbuilding: Curses and Cusses

  1. Foxessa says:

    [ ” …. Rappers trading rhymed, poetic insults are (probably without knowing it) carrying on a tradition that some say dates clear back to the fifth century. ….”

    The tradition of trading insults in the African American communities — or any African community — does not go back to Beowulf and the 5th century of Europe. It is a continuation of their own traditions of doing so going back perhaps to human saps’ acquisition of language and prior to out of Africa. Among other of these well-known African American insult trading forms is perhaps the most famous, Playing the Dozens. This is a huge part of African American culture, and African Americans are very self-aware of this, thank you. Many people working in music and other cultural forms have written histories of this, including African American scholars, historians and other professionals.

    • I’ll fix the sentence, as I didn’t mean to imply that rapping comes from flyting, merely that there is human precedent going way back.

    • Zena says:

      Gates may disagree with me somewhat on this point, but I think the issue of the white voice speaking through the black text is very problematic, given the unresolved issues of racism in our society. It’s a travesty that the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe is still widely available while that of Harriet Jacobs (and her contemporaries) is relegated to the dusty and obscure bookshelves of university libraries. Jacobs doesn’t need anyone to speak for her—she just needs to be given equal billing.

      That said, while signifyin’ and flyting are culturally distinct activities, they still stem from the same human bahavioural inclinations.

      • Very true on both counts.

      • Leigh Kimmel says:

        Are there digital versions of Harriet Jacobs and her contemporaries available? If not, what would it take to get them digitized and made available?

        They should be in the public domain by now, so there should not be copyright obstacles to getting them back out there so people can read these authors’ own words. That just leaves the problem of getting the logistics sorted out of producing digital editions and getting them publicized.

        • Foxessa says:

          Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl is hardly obscure at this point — but we all should read it, more than once, particularly early in exploring the horrors of what antebellum USA slavery was, particularly for women, and then re-read with each new level of research and comprehension.

          All the slave narratives are available digitally from various sources. Just google [ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Harriet Jacobs full text ]. Gutenberg’s 2004 version is right at the top. There are many others.

          The primary documents about African American slavery available free online are enormous.

          Nor will I join in the sneering at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was an authentic achievement that reflects historically the outrage in the north caused by the Fugitive Slave Act. This outrage turned more white people actively anti-slavery than any one single event in the history of antebellum slavery ever managed to do, including the shooting war already going on in Kansas-Nebraska financed by southern planters against free soil settlers.

          • Debra Doyle says:

            As Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, upon meeting Ms. Stowe, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

            To be fair, both sides were supplying their people in Kansas with financial aid and more — Sharps carbines were known colloquially as “Beecher’s Bibles,” because Harriet’s brother Henry Ward Beecher and the New England Emigrant Aid Society supplied them to free-soil settlers.

            It was like Bosnia on the Great Plains out there, before the war.

          • Zena says:

            Yes, within the social and historical contexts in which she was writing, it was indeed an important achievement. But I think the irony of my original point has been missed.

            It wasn’t my intent to hijack this thread, so I will leave it at that.

  2. Foxessa says:

    BTW, there are many dance forms that are also competition – conflict – insult trading — and thus resolution.

    As per usual, for instance I witnessed many of them these last two weeks in Cuba, from the guaguaco of rumba, to the dancer ‘fighting’ with the drum in the Tumba Francesa groups (saw three of them, three different renditions, in three different spots in eastern Cuba).

  3. Mary says:

    Cussing’s a problem. You use modern words, which jar in other settings (even if they are in fact accurate, sometime), archaic ones, which sound quaint, or made-up ones, which sound made-up.

  4. Debra Doyle says:

    Even if someone is writing a story set in contemporary consensus reality, cussing can be problematical. Profanity and obscenity have their own grammar and vocabulary, and if the writer in their own person isn’t familiar with the vulgar tongue, it’s going to show.

    (In which case, I suppose the writer should either eschew cussing altogether, or search out a “bad language beta” with proficiency in the field.)

  5. Asakiyume says:

    I’ve been pondering whether there’s a difference between cuss words (or exclamations) that we use for surprise, for frustration, and for actual anger. These days in some circles it seems like the same words go for all moods.

    I *like* made-up epithets in made-up societies, but clearly people’s mileage varies.

  6. Katharine Kerr says:

    Varying cultures have varying views on sexual matters, but there’s not a culture that I’ve ever heard of that doesn’t dislike excrement. It’s one universal that can be a good source of fantasy curses.

  7. Frell and frack (TV use on Farscape and Babylon 5) sound OK because they are short, percussive and begin with F. Similarly ‘feck’ (used all the time in Ireland) works reasonably well. I must admit that since my future science fictional characters are written in modern day English (even though I presume that 500 years in the future language will have shifted yet again) I continue to use ‘fuck’ for those (few) times when a short sharp expletive is required. However, I have to be a lot more careful when writing historical fantasy because what was considered bad language then wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at a polite tea party now. I can thoroughly recommend ‘Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811’, downloadable free from Project Gutenberg. There are pre-Victorian rude terms for things you didn’t even know you needed rude words for (such as a term for a turd wrapped in newspaper and thrown over your neighbour’s wall). ‘Damn’ was a class-A cuss-word. And even earlier, religious cuss words were the strongest of all. (I think you mentioned ‘zounds’.) My pirates have come up with ‘God’s ballocks!’ and ‘Christ on a pig!’ as something all encompassing to offend universally.

    • Frack does have that snap, though to my ears frell doesn’t. In our space opera, Dave T and I used Chatz, though the word comes from the German word from treasure. But it sounds snappy.

      • In The Weave I tried to mix in cuss words from various cultures (particularly Japanese and Spanish, as I recall) to help get across the idea that the humans came from all different parts of Earth.

        Norman Mailer used “fug” for “fuck” in The Naked and the Dead, I assume because his publisher made him. If I thought I could still read Mailer, it might be interesting to see if the book is better with the real word in it.

        And I believe that the band “The Fugs” got their name from this absurdity.

        • Seems to me I read a book around Mailer’s time (and it was the same sort of book) in which the author used the word flog. It worked as an adjective, but not as an expletive.

          • Debra Doyle says:

            Reminds me of a censored-for-network-tv version of Fargo I saw once years ago, where “fuck” was replaced by, of all things, “fruit” — presumably as a sort of “fruit you” by the filmmakers toward the censors, since it made the change both obvious and ridiculous.

      • MC Planck says:

        But hasn’t frack been completely ruined by natural gas production?

        I like your final point: the language has to relate to the world at hand.

        • I think frack can throw some people off, but on the other hand, it’s such an environmentally destructive practice that I suspect it takes on extra nasty meaning for others.

          • Foxessa says:

            That’s why I use frack almost always now, not the other f-word, to express anger combined with disgust.

            • Me, I use frack exclusively to refer to the practice of exploding natural gas and oil out of shale by using copious amounts of water. The fact that it sounds like a dirty word but is the shorthand term (for hydraulic fracturing) used in the industry is just the icing on the cake.
              Rather than substitute other words for fuck, I try, when I’m in circumstances where good people would be offended, to avoid cursing at all. But it’s very hard to read the news these days without saying, “Goddamned motherfuckers.”

              • Yes, the news of late has inspired some truly admirable attempts at avoiding the usual cusswords, but expressing the disgust and horror at the perpetrators of Post-truth politics and pre-autocracy piracy.

  8. Jane says:

    Even though I know cussing dates back millennia, cuss words in current use always sound so modern in historical fiction or in other-wordly sci-fi/fantasy. An f-bomb will ALWAYS pull me out of a story to nerd out on linguistics for a while, and I’m positive that’s not what the author wants. It’s worse when it’s in an audiobook — so jarring, especially when it is kind of out of no where.

    Personal preference, obviously, but I’m much happier if a fantasy work includes made up cusses, or cuss words based on older forms.

  9. Janice Smith says:

    Thanks for this post. This is something I have trouble with.

  10. Morgan says:

    Very interesting!

    In ukrainian a harsh insult is ” may a little duck kick you” – completely meaningless in English. I find it funny when people try to literally translate idioms – likewise when authors go to great lengths to world build and then slap in some english cuss words.

  11. Hanneke says:

    I recently read some reactions of English-language foreigners to Dutch cussing, which shocked them for a few reasons.
    As it might be a useful addition to this discussion I’m summing them up below.

    1) Dutch people like to cuss in English, but because words like shit, damn and fuck have no intrinsic Dutch meaning they have less impact on Dutch listeners, and are used much more freely and prolifically than they (apparently) would be in England or America, e.g. they are easily used on prime-time tv or radio. If your newly-invented world has multiple cultures, especially a dominant culture taken up by surrounding languages, this effect might kick in.

    2) The weight of sexual cusswords is probably lower in societies where sexuality is less of a taboo. The word cunt is apparently a very strong swearword in English, but not used by the Dutch despite point 1, because its Dutch equivalent ‘kut’ is already much used as a relatively mild swearword, much more widely used than the male equivalent ‘lul’ (‘dick’) (which is only used as a noun for an unpleasant male person, or as a fairly mild but more masculine street-lingo verb for chatting!). As the use of dick is fairly common in English (at least the phrase ‘don’t be a dick’ is), while cunt isn’t, that implies to me that it’s female sexuality which is the taboo in English, more than sex in general.

    3) Original native Dutch swearing is very often by diseases, wishing someone cancer, tuberculosis or typhoid or some such historically devastating disease, or saying that the object of the cussing is suffering from a disease like that. Maybe our marshy little country was extra disease-ridden in the past, and extra susceptible to plagues, making illness-suffering a big bad thing to cuss by? Or maybe that mindset hung on longer here – after all, malaria was only finally eradicated here in 1960.
    Though older English curses used the old feared diseases (like pox) as well, the more recent addition of cancer (now the most common disease to swear by in Dutch) apparently broke a pretty strong taboo for English-speakers. So you see that closely-related languages starting from a similar point (e.g. a “pox-ridden whore”) can quickly grow completely separate idiom if a taboo kicks in on one side but not the other (Dutch just modernised the disease to “kankerhoer”, while I’ve never read of “cancerwhore” being a swearword used against a woman you really dislike in English). For the Amsterdam street toughs calling the annoying tourist lady that word it was a normal part of their vocabulary, while for the tourist in question it was extremely shocking, and proof the Dutch have no morals or manners…

    • That is fascinating. I happen to love watching Indian films, and it’s interesting to see them break into English here and there, sometimes for a couple of words in a sentence. Especially cussing.

      Using cussing in other languages can be handy. After my year studying in Austria, I came back with a raft of Austrian country cusswords, learned from my blue collar boyfriend. I used them so I wouldn’t get in trouble at home. (In 1973. it was okay for boys and men to cuss but a big no no for women.) So I used the German cusswords. Worked like a charm until the day in grad school when I was carrying a load of heavy textbooks into a classroom as I’d just come from the library, and someone rammed into me and I dropped all the books on my sandaled feet. I swore a blue streak in German–looked up, and the professor was staring at me like I’d barfed all over his tie. Then I remembered that he was German. oooops!

    • Miriam says:

      I’ve been told that people are much more likely to swear in a second (third, whatever) language than they are in their first language, because the first-language swearwords are taught at the same time as the accompanying cultural taboos, whereas in languages learned later, one knows that the word has force, but doesn’t have the same gut-level reaction too it. Sort of like waving around heavy objects on a planet with lighter gravity (but the inhabitants of said planet feel them at full force).

      Clearly it also varies by person and baseline level of profanity, but I do find that I have many fewer inhibitions about swearing in Spanish.

  12. Zena says:

    “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.”

    Unless you are the Prime Minister of a certain country who, during a sitting of Parliament in the 1970s, mouthed “something” in frustration at your opposition colleagues. And spent the rest of your political career having to field questions on what you had really said. To which you unabashedly replied:

    “What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say ‘fuddle duddle’ or something like that?”

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