Content note: by dint of the subject matter, this post is going to contain a number of offensive words.
Like last week’s essay on insults, there are a lot of foul words in this post. But I find it interesting that, at least in the modern United States, many of us would consider them far less offensive than some of the slurs from last week — because the words traditionally considered “profanity” have spread through mainstream discourse, losing much of their power to shock along the way, while pejorative terms for groups marked by ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender difference have become increasingly unacceptable in polite conversation.
And you know what? I’m okay with that.
I’m still going to put the rest of this behind a cut tag, though, because people’s mileage on four-letter words varies.
Here again there are patterns in what’s considered to be profane (in the “offensive” rather than “not sacred” sense). In English, the two main sources of vulgar language are religion, and matters of the body.
On the religious side, we have “hell” and “damn.” Profanity is also sometimes referred to as curse words, and that sense is very clear here; if you damn someone to hell, you are literally attempting to curse them. Some people also consider “Jesus Christ” and “God” to be off-limits, because of the prohibition against taking the Lord’s name in vain. That mentality has been fading over time, though, and most of our other religious swearing has become so obsolete as to sound quaint: “Zounds!” is a shortening of “God’s wounds,” i.e. the wounds suffered by Christ, but few people can take that seriously these days. Ditto “gadzooks,” which used to be “God’s hooks,” the nails used in the crucifixion, and “’sblood,” “God’s blood.” The very British-sounding intensifier “bloody” may have a connection to that last one; how offensive it is today depends on who you ask.
Blood leads us to the body and our other source of swearing, mostly via excrement and sex. A lot of the charge around obscene words come from the violation of taboos: you aren’t supposed to talk about bodily waste, so “shit” and “piss” and “ass/arse” are shocking. (And if you don’t want to be shocking, you retreat to euphemisms like “water” or much more academic terminology like “feces” and “urine” — which, because of how English developed, are Latinate instead of earthy Anglo-Saxon.) You also aren’t supposed to talk about sex, so “fuck” is similarly charged. “Sodding,” another word associated with British English more than American, is shortened from “sodomize,” which puts it alongside “bugger” in the categorization of our curses.
But this varies from language to language. Last week I mentioned the Japanese chikushou or “beast,” which is used as an expletive much like we might say “shit!” or “damn!” when something goes wrong. In English you might say something is beastly, but it isn’t quite the same thing. Dennis Tedlock’s book of Zuni narrative poetry, Finding the Center, leaves the archaic words tísshomahhá and hanáhha untranslated, saying “they have no meanings other than the emotions they are supposed to express,” explicitly contrasting them with the religious and bodily references of English interjections. I’d love to get examples from other languages, especially from outside the sphere of long-term Christian influence — are there clusters of swear words that arise from different conceptual sources?
Speculative fiction has a long history of trying to come up with invented substitutes for standard English profanity. Some of these are obvious swaps, often done to get around TV restrictions on language: Farscape’s “frell” or Battlestar Galactica’s “frak” are pretty transparent. I have to admit I find “frell” unconvincing, simply because it sounds so pretty. In English most of our swearing comes from Germanic roots, which gives it a certain sound; “frell” is too light and liquid to pass. “Frak,” on the other hand, has that hard stop at the end, which makes it sound more like profanity to me. C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy subs in “vulk,” which is more than just a random set of phonemes: the planet the series takes place on is extremely seismically active, so that earthquakes and volcanic activity are a constant threat. Since the planet was settled by colonists from Earth, it makes sense that the volcano/vulcanology root would give rise to “vulking” as a curse word.
On the religious end of things, sometimes I think you can’t throw a rock at epic fantasy without hitting an oath built on the structure of “[god]’s [noun]” — where the noun is usually either a body part or an iconic object. As the examples above show, that’s not unrealistic, but it does get predictable and tedious after a while. The Wheel of Time associates good with lightness and evil with darkness, which has problematic connotations I’ll get into in a later post, but it also gives rise to some setting-specific forms of swearing: light = fire, so while “Light!” is a socially acceptable interjection, “burn me” and “ashes” are considered much more vulgar. In a world where floods are a frequent problem, maybe water-based terminology would become a source of oaths. Decay has mild usage in English, via “rot,” but you could build more on that principle; ditto the closely-related issue of disease.
But in the end, the challenge here isn’t to come up with a new swear word; it’s to convince the reader of the weight that word carries. In Mary Gentle’s Book of Ash series, she has her present-day historian translate medieval profanity into modern idiom, because he knows the originals just won’t have the right impact on his readers. To really convey the sense of transgression, you need everything around it in the story to reflect that. If your pov character doesn’t normally use such language, have them flinch from it. If the speaker is normally much better-mannered, acknowledge how much of a breach this is. Think of whatever you consider to be a truly offensive word, think of how you would write about that word coming up in your own daily life — and then make it that real in the story, too.