New Worlds: Profanity

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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21 Responses to New Worlds: Profanity

  1. In my Glass Dragon books, I had an ancient legend of a red-tipped dragon, Simurgh, who developed a taste for human blood (forbidden in dragon lore). Humans would curse a person to Simurgh much like we use “damn it all to hell.” Shortened it to S’murghit over the centuries of the series.

    When I blurted out S’murghit when I dropped a favorite mug and it broke I knew I’d been writing in the world a bit too long.

  2. Katharine Kerr says:

    “Bloody” as a swear word is a corruption of “by Our Lady”, ie, religious and not really related to blood.

    • Hmmmm. Digging in the OED, it turns out the etymology is really unclear, and the connection to “by Our Lady” is no more certain than the one to things like “Christ’s blood.” They feel the most plausible explanation is apparently that it arose from implications of literal bloodshed, and from there became a more all-purpose pejorative.

      • B’luddy > by our luddy > by our lady is the pedigree generally cited.

        Hell, btw, descends from Hoelle, a northern European goddess.

        Lots of old gods become demons and then cusswords. Or possibly cusswords and then demons.

        • Hel is also the name of the underworld in Norse mythology (as well as the name of the goddess that rules it). So it’s unsurprising that pagan afterlives –> where pagans and other sinners go in Christian cosmology; cf “Hades” being used in the same way.

  3. I did a similar post a while back, going into oaths and ritual insults as well as profanity. It’s a fascinating subject.

  4. Yoon Ha Lee says:

    I just said heck with it and went with f*** and variants in the hexarchate, with a side of bestiality to make it stand out more–semi-cultural worldbuilding in that most of the servitors (the hexarchate’s real slave class) are zooforms. Also “snakef***ing” or “snailf***ing” just sounded more interesting.

    Side note, I always have difficulty translating the Korean words ddong (feces) and ojum (urine) into English. They’re not swear words; there’s no connotation of swear-iness to them. You could use them at the dinner table with kids (or your grandmother). But they also lack the stiff academic connotation of “feces” or “urine.” They’re just ordinary words.

    Also, I spent the longest time thinking my parents didn’t swear. Then much later I realized they didn’t swear *in English* and all the swearing was happening in Korean. (I grew up in a bilingual household, although I’m not actually fluent in Korean myself. My dad’s fluent in English and Korean, my mom’s fluent in Korean and understands a little English, and my sister and I are fluent in English and understand a little Korean.)

    • You also have “hawkfucker,” which carries added weight because of the taboo against Kel/Kel relations. But I hadn’t made the connection to the zooform servitors — that’s a nice touch!

      As for swearing in Korean, my husband once caught his (German-ancestry) grandmother calling him a “little shit” in German. When he commented on this, she got terribly embarrassed and said, “I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t think you would know what I was saying.” 🙂

    • sedeer says:

      What about “poo” and “pee”? Those aren’t academic or (to me) offensive. Maybe they’re too childish for ddong and ojum?

  5. Mary says:

    Read a book in which the main character’s swearwords were all historical English ones, and all related to disease of some kind. Poxy, scurvey, etc.

  6. sedeer says:

    In The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson used plenty of explanations patterned on “[god]’s [noun]”, but he also took the exceptional (and, to me, wonderful!) step of explaining them in a conversation between two characters:

    **
    ‘Togg’s teats, Redmask, that’s a long speech coming from you.’
    ‘I hold words in contempt, Anaster Toc. What do you mean when you say “Togg’s teats”?’
    ‘Togg’s a god.’
    ‘Not a goddess?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Then its teats are—’
    ‘Useless. Precisely.’
    ‘What of the others? “Hood’s Breath”?’
    ‘Hood is the Lord of Death.’
    ‘Thus…no breath.’
    ‘Correct.’
    ‘Beru’s mercy?’
    ‘She has no mercy.’
    ‘Mowri fend?’
    ‘The Lady of the Poor fends off nothing.’
    Redmask regarded the foreigner. ‘Your people have a strange relationship with your gods.’
    **

    The exclamations were all very familiar by that point in the story, but the explanation enriched the world (and my reading experience).

  7. Jaws says:

    And then there’s the slightly indeterminate, especially when played for laughs (and rightly so): “By Grapthar’s Hammer…”