Writers on Writing: X#$!%^&!!

Not long ago, scientists demonstrated proof that cussing when hurt actually relieves pain. Anyone who has heard about the fact that recovered black boxes from crashed planes most frequently end with blue language–has been a coach at a birth, and heard an otherwise mild-mannered woman blistering the wallpaper–practiced at a dojo and heard someone who has just taken a hefty hit yell a word in the same tone that they usually yell their Chiai–wouldn’t be surprised. At least, my reaction was kind of, “So you’ve finally caught up with the obvious, eh, just like ‘Dogs have emotions.’ Rah science!”

When I was first thinking about this subject, I realized that many of the terms used are not exactly interchangeable. Swearing is not cursing, which is not cussing. 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 different matter, often ritualistic. Oaths are 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 recent decades ‘oath’ has been 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.”). “Vow” tends to be used for those types of oaths now–“Marriage vows.” “Vow of vengeance.” “Vow of silence.”

I think oaths are pretty much gone, as is is the notion that one is as good as one’s word. Many say that is because we have become such a secular society. My tentative theory is that that is not quite right. One only has to look at the mind-boggling duplicity and ethical and moral swamp of the later Roman republic to see that religious cultural trappings in no way held back those determined to do what they were going to do. Caesar and Pompei and Cato and Augustus used religion to serve them, like they used gold and power and clothes and rhetoric. So did many of the more colorful Renaissance popes . . . among others.

My feeling is that moral and ethical breakdown is related to enormous cities full of plenty. Those in the cities do not have to worry about survival in quite the sense of rougher days, so they don’t have to worry about tight bonds of kinship and community that not only can be the difference between survival and non, but make life worth surviving for. Now, if we don’t like the people we’re around, it’s easy enough to move, and find a fresh bunch of people. And if there are people with a lot of wealth and power, they are going to attract those who will do or say anything to get a piece of the action. “As good as your word?” Tchah! What’s your word, spin? The notion of personal honor seems lamentably out of fashion.

Ideally religious conviction includes moral and ethical conviction. We’ve seen enough hate spewed in the name of religion to know that religious language is not an automatic ticket to goodness–but neither is an officially non-religious state. Outlawing religion did not, from any evidence I saw, make people behave one iota better toward their fellow human in the Soviet Union. From what I see, both religious and non-religious people can be raised with moral and ethical awareness, or with moral and ethical torquing to justify “us against them.”

‘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’ I think of as using impolite language. The crazy thing about human cussing–and it probably reflects the extraordinary inconsistency of human behavior and thought–is that cussing isn’t constant 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 and in time. Cussing that relates to sex can vary wildly, but some of the most opaque cussing is that relating to class. Like ‘toff’– which comes from ‘toffee nose.’ Then there are periods of history where cussing can get you into serious trouble . . . which means it dives underground when laws are passed to curtail it. It doesn’t go away any more than hierarchical behavior goes away.

Sometimes it loses its zing. Like “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.

I don’t think there’s much swearing ‘by’ any more. A hundred years ago it was okay to swear by something that didn’t cross serious religious boundaries–so in early nineteenth century novels, men say, “By Jupiter!” but “By G–!” is written for the real blasphemer. Religious imprecations still resound all around us, secular though the society is. But 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. It makes us angry just the same, even if we don’t fear we will be instantly blasted to the eternal rotisserie on this person’s word.

As always, cursing 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.

Much more fun to contemplate are the origins of phrases like the holies–“Holy Toledo! Holy Smoke!” that seem to be obscure. Then there is “Holy cow!” which is funny in the West, if you are ignorant of its origins, which is a slam at the Hindus and their cherishing of all life forms, including cows. In fandom, there’s  “Holy crom!”  150 years ago, ladies could exclaim “Fiddledeedee!”  The tone of voice had to give it the necessary oomph, which Vivien Leigh understood quite well when she tossed her hair and stamped her foot in Gone With the Wind.

Back in the seventies, when many friends were trying hard to divest themselves of the phony trappings of the past and create a totally gender-equal, classless society, I remember a few earnest conversations about the matter of cussing.  “Holy crom!” was popular. Some women felt that so much male 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 groups outside the main group. I remember one woman declared that from now on, cussing had to be expletives of heinous acts, and it didn’t work to have long phrases, so she proposed exclaiming “Rape!” As I recall, when I saw this in practice, hearers either laughed or seemed uncomfortable, but it did not catch on. Nor did some earnest phrases that I saw put forth in forgettable allegorical stories as well as in real life–“You anti-egalitarianist!” or “Classist!” (which I thought would have been better for the use of the good old-fashioned “Snob!”)

Sometimes terms do catch on, such as Yankees, and gay (which apparently goes clear back to Chaucer, but narrowed in meaning all during the 20th c). Some of these terms not only catch on, but get co-opted by the group being slammed, so that the epithet becomes a badge of pride.

Anyway, the writer who wants to posit cultures does have to consider this aspect of behavior, even if only to dismiss it.  Speaking as a reader, I like it when the details of a culture feel real. I also enjoy it when writers make up their own cuss words. But it’s tough to make them convincing. If the people in your culture think that the deadliest insult of all is “Horse-feathered chicken-beak,” the world-building details have got to convince me that there is 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!”



Writers on Writing: X#$!%^&!! — 39 Comments

  1. People get into bad verbal habits–the main one is Not Being Conscious of What One is Saying. Some words are sounds devoid of meaning to too many folks.
    I get bent when people who do not share my faith adopt the name of my Saviour as an expletive.
    So back on topic–Oaths? Don’t think they have power any more in our culture. Like you I like this kind of cultural detail as long as it does not come across as contrived as part of world building or even historicals when I can stand to read them.

  2. Sherwood, your essay is knowledgeable, interesting and witty. Which makes this sentence stand out like a sore thumb even more:

    At least, my reaction was kind of, “So you’ve finally caught up with the obvious, eh, just like ‘Dogs have emotions.’ Rah science!”

    Quite often when scientists test “the obvious” they discover that either it’s false altogether or has interesting unexpected nuances. Many such “obvious” tests help us figure out how things work.

  3. Pilgrimsoul,

    In some cases it’s not just bad verbal habits. I believe it’s Steven Pinker who has written about finding that when people curse at a sudden pain or shock, the utterance isn’t originating in the same part of the brain as the rest of speech. It’s not just that people aren’t conscious of what they’re saying in such instances, but that the epithet is actually an involuntary reaction in the form of speech. (disclaimer: IIRC)

  4. @Mastadge

    Something to that, I believe, if stories of folks under anesthesia are to be credited, and Steven Pinker is a profound thinker on speech, but I still think people are not usually mindful of what they say

  5. Athena: very good point. I had to sit and think about that for a couple of minutes, because most of the time I am a science cheerleader. I guess that quip is not as funny as I thought when I wrote it, because underneath is a constant yet unresolved anger and frustration with how much dogs are caused to suffer in experiments.

    Yes, I know this seems pretty whackoid, but hey, we are a jumble of contradictions, we humans.

  6. I think rigorous oath law tends to come out of societies on the edge, in one way or another, places where single broken promises could lead to deaths. In old Scandinavia, denying someone guest-right in winter meant their likely death. In desert nomad cultures, with little property and all of it both necessary and carried along, theft could easily lead to death of the victim.

    Similar law obtains in areas of our culture where decisions made by a single person can have life and death consequences: doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers are all subject to strong obligations to keep their promises and act responsibly. This works surprisingly well–I wish that bankers were similarly obligated.

    From which, I suppose, it follows that isolated space-borne culture would have rigorous laws about keeping promises. When a single mistake can kill, keeping promises is important.

  7. I found a lot of this incredibly insightful, but I have to say, I think the use of modern curse words in a fantasy text can actually involve a great deal of thoughtful world-building. In my half done novel (yeah, every unpublished writer has an opinion) I deliberately gave my secondary world characters modern cuss words, because it was one of the things I liked best about reading Urban fantasy. Okay, my family cusses a lot. But in this world, there isn’t really a concept of heaven and hell in the religion of most of the main characters, so there isn’t any damning. Calling on the divine figures is blasphemy, and only done by certain characters. Bastardry isn’t even a concept in the culture of one of the main characters, so she’s utterly baffled by why it’s a cuss and doesn’t use it. The same main character is a native speaker of another language, and was only allowed to cuss around her family if speaking in the language she was studying. Yet all of the cusses are modern.

    pilgrimsoul: About thoughtless speech: Admittedly, I’m a foul mouthed Jew, but let’s face it. I grew up in a Christian dominated culture. Jesus Christ was the fellow with all the good curses around his name. You don’t get to complain now that we’ve been so heavily assimilated into your culture that we swear by your savior. The Christian persecution complex is getting old.

  8. @ Attackfish
    Yes, I do get to complain. I am in a society where Christians are a minority. I don’t think we are persecuted. Everyone should be shown respect.

  9. Sherwood, there are several braids to our exchange, all important.

    First, the issue with using animals in experiments is not whether they feel emotion, but whether they feel pain. Animals were indeed treated far more cavalierly in the past, but if you’ve ever looked at an Animal Use Protocol (let alone fill one out and have it approved) you may know that things have changed radically.

    Second, animals used for food are treated far more cruelly than they are treated in today’s (emphasis on today’s) scientific laboratories. Even so, it’s true that animals in cages are not only unhappy, but also a poor substitute to watching them in their own context — among other things, confinement skews the results. At the same time, you cannot control variables otherwise.

    Third, the question of animals’ emotions is treated very seriously by today’s bioscientists, in part because they shed light to the workings of both typical and atypical human minds — and, in the case of speculative fiction, the ability to create alien minds. Further ahead along this trajectory we have questions of post-humanism, human speciation, and SETI contacts.

    Fourth, the sole alternative to animal experimentation is to use humans. Unlike humans, animals cannot give informed consent. But only people at some kind of edge volunteer for such work. This does create problems, incidentally: drugs and treatments that work beautifully on mice fail miserably when transposed to humans. In biology, more so than in any other science, the devil’s in the details.

    More on these issues from different angles:

    Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

    Eldorado Desperadoes I: Of Mice and Men

    SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

  10. Attackfish: Everybody gets to complain–the first amendment guarantees that. Whether or not others heed those complaints, well, that’s where we decide on how we are going to get along with our fellow human. (Or not.)

    I too like certain modern cusswords in the fantasy paradigm–I think that a number of them are going to be universal, if you are writing about humans. But there should also be some that are distinctive to that culture.

  11. When I had kids I suddenly had to come up with expletives that were not actually expletives (after an evening when I dropped a can of beans on my bare toes and said “Oh shit!” with force–only to see my two year old go around for the next couple of days dropping her toys and saying “O sit!”). The ones I found worked best were the ones that were just a little startling in their weirdness: “Rat salad!” or “Snails!” A friend of my father’s, a brilliant painter with an eccentric and fitfully profane mouth, came up with a whole series of expletives based on God’s body parts–none of them particularly obscene but all of them very satisfying to the much tried soul.

    When I’m writing, I try to use the language that’s appropriate to the time and place. Which means that I may use profanity–but not every character using the same profanity (I’m the foul-mouthed one in my family. My husband can get serious mileage out of the word “darn,” said with real sincerity).

    As always, Sherwood: nice thoughtful piece!

  12. Yes, so much.

    One of the very few things my parents’ respective cultures have in common is, in fact, the scurrilousness of calling someone a pig-dog. 😛

  13. pilgrimsoul: Where do you live? (In a general way, for example, country, or, if important, region.)

    sherwood: Very true. They do get to complain. I get to say how ridiculous I find their complaints. It’s a lovely balance.

    I guess I’m on the side of the not liking made up curse words, through part of it comes from the fact that I speak four and a half languages and I know how to curse in several others. The curse words I tend to see made up in fiction don’t sound like the ones I see in most languages. I love the way the fouler a word, the shorter it tends to be.

  14. Martha: yes! I remember those!

    Athena: again, very true. (This is why my daughter is a vegetarian, and I will eat free range chicken and fish, but no mammal meats.) However, I will drop that subject before it develops into a rant.

    Attackfish: one of the interesting aspects of cuss words and fictionalizing them is whether or not it’s convincing as an expletive. There is an explosive component to expletives that is integral . . . which may be why exclaiming “Schweinhund!” in German feels richly satisfying, but snapping “Pigdog!” just sounds silly.

    One explosive but non X rated expression is “Rats!”

  15. Most swear words are linked to taboo issues that are culture-specific. When people learn a new language past childhood, they use that tongue’s swear words far more freely than they would do in their primary one. There’s a reason for this beyond different cultural sensitivities: a new language acquired after the window of major brain plasticity closes is processed a bit differently; this includes the emotional resonance of all its words.

  16. Athena Andreadis: It works in reverse too, at least in my experience. The people I know who curse like sailors in their native tongues tend to use curse words less often when speaking other languages.

    Shirwood: The other thing I’ve noticed at least about Indo-European cuss words is that they tend to have hard aspirated consonants and sibilants, like “Schweinhund!” or “rats”. “Pig-dog” has one soft aspiration and no sibilants.

  17. Attackfish: agreed generally about phonetic impact, but in English it seems to have worked all right to address someone insultingly as “cur” or “[you] dog”…. The former has a hard stop, but “dog” is relatively squishy.

  18. Earl Hamner, the writer who created “The Waltons,” was the original John-Boy. He was as sweet and gentlemanly and drawling as you’d expect (his back yard faced onto our back yard, and his kids and my brother and I played together, which is how I know) but when he was really angry, you knew it. He called someone a “slimy little reptile” once–imagine the slowness of the drawl and the absolute loathing in the tone. I would not have wanted to be called that by Earl, even though the words themselves were not particularly actionable.

  19. Madeleine: I heard him unlimber his guns during a couple of the fights over more money on the part of two actors in the show, when I worked at Lorimar. Hoo-ee!

    I was just thinking about how personality can infuse words (cuss or otherwise) with power, just through their delivery, underscored by personality. I knew a professor once who could exclaim “Great balls of fire!” and it sounded like God on Mt. Sinai.

  20. skg: this might be why “dog” fell out of favor, but “bitch” didn’t. How long was “dog” used as a particularly strong insult? My knowledge of the history of English isn’t as hot as it is for other languages.

  21. Thanks for pointing out the etymology of the word “drat.” It’s useful to know what words in my vocabulary actually mean.

    On the subject of what vaguely-religious expressions are acceptable and what aren’t, I will point out that Peter Pevensie says “By Jove” at one point in the Narnia books, and he’s certainly a Lad Who Was Raised Properly.

  22. Miriam: “By Jove” shows up commonly through fiction from the late 1800s through the 1950s, as far as I can recall. It was completely socially acceptable as an exclamation.

  23. There’s a part of me that’s convinced that most of the swearing* in fiction: television, movies, books, et al. is pure laziness on the author’s part; cheap pseudo-realism. Cheap, because the challenge is to write the words that are not recognizably-off-color-nowadays (see below) while still conveying the mood or the content. You just did the trick very nicely now, and it’s why circumlocutions and our grandaddy’s imprecations can work so well.

    Lazy because those self same authors that insist on the reality of using language-as-we-speak-it would never, ever refer to towel-heads or n—-rs or f-gs. Lazy because in extremis their characters never make bargains with God. They cherry pick their reality. Which is, in my opinion, exactly what writers should do. They aren’t holding a mirror up to the world, they’re making a cartoon, or a painting of it. But that means that they need a better reason to put in the de-civilizing things, the “hey, let’s all lower our standards for this, now” antinomian factors than just, “but I’m being realistic…”

    *for values of swearing = h–, d–, f–, sh– and their equivalents.

  24. @Attackfish – completely irrelevant to the thread, but one of my perennial peeves is SF blithely unpopulated by Jews. Christianity (frex) I don’t mind having dropped off the end of the world unnoticed (simply start with the assumption that their God & saviour are bogus) but the Jews? The only ancient world tribe that remained culurally intact for multiple millenia? Puh-lease.

  25. Fascinating, Sherwood. I’ll use your defintions for simplicity, and because I agree with them and with what you say. This is my opinion of how things developed.
    Cursing is indeed calling bad things on others, and has existed since ancient times, as far back as the Bible, where Balak hires Balaam to curse Israel for him.
    Swearing, as you said, was affirming your word, or calling God to witness. So originated ‘By God!’. Later it became widespread as an exclamation of wonder or anger, as if calling God to witness what this person does. I blame the Angevins and their propensity for saying ‘God’s Bones/Legs/Arms/Various Body Parts’ for this. And so it became a cussword, forever changing vowing to cussing.
    I personally try to avoid cursing, seeing it as a bad habit – the fact that I’m a religious Jew and the Jewish belief in the power of words probably contributed to this. When I do cuss, I try to do so in an unrecgonizable language, like Latin. Sometimes Spanis or Arabic – in some languages, cusses simply sound better. When something truly wrong happens, I curse – and then it’s full Biblical glory, often quoting whole lines of curses from the Bible (‘May th Lord smite you…’, etc.). But usually, my cuss/swear when shocked or offended is ‘Elef A’zazel’ (‘Thousand Hells’). The glottal sound of it in Hebrew is so calming.

  26. Oh, forget to add: I also quite enjoy when authors create their own cusswords. Aside from making thier world more real, it sounds good, and helps me. When I’m mad, instead of saying ‘eff you’, I can say ‘tluin you’. It has the same calming effect on me, giving vent to my anger, because I know that in a fantasy world, it means the same, but no one gets offended or hurt, because they don’t know it has any meaning. I am probably eternally in debt to Ed Greenwood for creating quite a few cusswords for the Relams, such as ‘Tluin’, ‘Stlaern’, ‘Naed’, ‘Sabruin’, etc.

  27. Kirsten (and Attackfish) — Anglophone SF is actually very parochial across several vectors. In terms of cultural embedding, it automatically assumes the default mindset of a middle-class twenty-something white man. As for tribes that have remained culturally intact for millenia, the Jews are not the only ones.

    Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

    Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages

    Koby (and others) — I agree that excess swearing in fiction is an unmistakable sign of laziness. At the same time, “tluin” packs zero emotional/visceral punch.

  28. I agree about excessive swearing as laziness on the author’s part. When i wrote my chapter for ATLANTA NIGHTS I made a specific effort to wedge in as much mundane profanity as I possibly could, to really signal that this was Supposed To Be Terrible. It is astonishingly hard to do this.

  29. I’m not sure about that, Athena. In certain worlds, it does. Since Ed Greenwood used those words for Forgotten Realms, and Forgotten Realms is a D&D spin-off which can be played as well as read, hard-core fan/players/DM’s like myself have emotional investment in it, and feel like we are cursing when we say so, which is why it’s a suitable outlet for venting.

  30. Koby: if it works for you, then indeed, it works. Though the sound of ‘tluin’ for me doesn’t have that explosive punch. But I love the sound of the ‘thousand hells’ one. I’ll ask one of my friends who speaks Hebrew to help me get the sound right.

  31. Thanks, Sherwood. It’s probably an acquired taste. And here’s a little gem I found somewhere: ‘Heck is for people who don’t believe in Gosh.’

  32. Oddly apropos. A friend of mine just wrote this two-line comment (On a family boat she used to own):

    “And then some fu**er stole the engine one night, may he smell of rotting garbage and have an onion fall upon his head.”

    (The asterisks were not present.)

    I thought this was an oddly appropriate demonstration of one thing; the active cuss expletive had barely any impact to me, but the first part of the cursing made me aware just how very angry she was and how much she disliked this unknown person.

    And the second half took me out of the moment; the immediate reaction was more like an “eyeball kick” than a curse. I had to stop and think about what that meant, (or didn’t). An onion? Not an anvil? Is it because it’s also smelly? (though i like onions) Because the word sounded right? Because it’s much more possible than having an anvil come out of the sky?

    On the other hand, if she were to write a character who said things like that, I’d probably like the character.

  33. Lenora Rose: me too! (But then I’ve been writing for a long time about a set of characters who have developed the fine art of insulting villains.)

  34. Kirsten and Athena Andreadis: I’ve ranted on the subject myself a couple of times. Admittedly, the first time I did so, was in the middle of the Great Cultural Appropriation debate of doom, but… It drives me nuts every time I pick up a medieval fantasy and there are no minority religious groups, no cultural analogues to the Jews, nothing. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I found a fantasy book that had a place for a Jewish cultural analogue (The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay, which is why that has a special place in my heart) It wasn’t until late middle school I realized that there should be a place for us, damn it. My personal method of revenge involves writing a book with a Jewish cultural analogue. It’s fun, feels way more comfortable.

  35. Koby: that is always the problem when writers attempt to write about people outside of their particular tradition. However, there are always beta readers!