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Fantasy Swearing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by DragonOfTheAerie, Sep 17, 2018.

  1. So, this is something that's not an immediate problem right now but is something i've been thinking about: how do you have characters swear in a fantasy novel? Assuming you want to include that.

    generally, I really hate it when authors make up swearwords or have characters swear by an imaginary deity. I don't know why, but it doesn't have remotely the same effect and is annoying.

    But, would the swears popular in our world (i mean basic stuff like f*ck, sh*t, not necessarily religion related oaths to do with god or hell etc) be too out of place in a fantasy novel with no connection to our world (that is not a portal fantasy)

    But, would your world's culture find the same things vulgar or obscene? For example, if you wrote a culture with more relaxed customs about sex, would sex related words be considered as "dirty" as they are in our world? If you would like to explore different cultural norms, how do you work out swearing without it being annoying? How do you avoid awkward stuff like "By the great god Azbghffgssthn's toenail!" or something?
  2. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Auror

    For me it depends on a lot of things, though I am prone to using modern swears (some that aren't as modern as we think anyways). Can thank aSoIaF for that one. Usually easier to use them with the 'evil' races. Or at least the ones without sticks shoved up their arses. I am as also prone to varying and have spent many an hour looking up old and archaic swears or ones in different languages (merde!). I am also partial to having characters swear on deities body parts,"Lolth's tits!" being a common saying among my drow characters, when not going to the nether regions of the goddess. Kind of borrowed that from Dragon Age too.

    As for the popular modern swears, as my world is a sort of reflection of the world anyways, they show up and don't bother me overmuch. But some of my cultures I do have to work a little harder at it. Course, still end up with things like "Griffon shit" and other such. Swearing usually isn't overly imaginative at times, so it seems likely to go for the culture's lowest common denominator and the crassest it can be. Good points to explore it: Sailors, Pirates, Law Enforcement, Military, Farming Communities and the like. The highfalutin places might be a bit more complex.
  3. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    It depends of context but I'm somewhere between not minding and actually liking made up swear words.
    I use several I learned from TV in every day use [Smeg, Naff, Frack] because sometimes you want the emphasis of a swear word but want to actually swear.
    In my writing I try to use generic cuss words or phrases [by the gods!, Torak's teeth! ] but I'll use real swear words if the context merits it.
    I find that any phrases used too often just get in in the way of the story. Having a character use a swear or curse all the time just slows down the dialogue. Unless that is in itself part of the story... the swearing sailor with a group of nuns type of thing....
  4. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    Yes my characters swear. I try to use period correct (ish) terms. Dung, piss, balls, shite etc. (Not sure if this forum will allow me to post them so you may have to guess at what was written.) I also use some odd terms like piss pot and muck spout. But I am writing near steam punk so the words fit.

    Cheers, Greg.
  5. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    I was born and raised in a predominately working class neighbourhood where the use of the word fuck (and variations thereof) was sprinkled liberally through their everyday speech. In that context the word fuck is not a swear word. However, outside of that context, it is a swear word and in many places you can end up being arrested if you use it in public.

    For something to be considered as swearing it needs to have shock value. The use of the word "Frack!" is effective in Battlestar Galatica because we all know it's a substitute for "Fuck!". Frack was used to get around U.S Federal Communications Commission regulations that forbade the use of the f-word on TV shows back in 1978. Another example is the word "Shite!". We know what the word means and it's that which gives the word its power to shock.

    Unless the fantasy swearing has a clear link to similar swearing in our world then there's really no point in using swearing in fantasy in my opinion.

    In my work in progress I use pretty much the same swear words as used in the real world. Even in countries that are noted for being sexually promiscuous (of which New Zealand is always ranked amongst the top three) sexually based swear words are still considered offensive and are generally avoided in polite company. Ditto for my more sexually liberated world.
  6. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

    "Hell's Fire, Mother Night, and may the Darkness be Merciful"

    Anne Bishop in her Black Jewel trilogy, invented her own cuss phrases. The magic in her books came from Darkness, so cuss words are based on it.

    The English use bodily functions for their cuss words and the French use religious words. What is considered a cuss word is heavily depended on the culture. The words your character use would also depend on their culture. You should make them up as you are developing the culture and not add them as an after thought.
    Miles Lacey likes this.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    As the answers here indicate, there's every sort of response to every sort of fantasy swearing. Your best bet is to work out what sounds best to your own ears. Regardless of the words chosen, you can give some thought to the context of cursing.

    There's the I-hit-my-thumb-with-a-hammer cursing. That's going to short and to the point, probably monosyllabic. At another extreme, there's swearing an oath, which will usually involve invoking names of gods.

    There's angry swearing, which can become colorful and elaborate. There's blurt cursing, as an expression of surprise or dismay. There's a distinction to be made between swearing and obscenity, especially when the cursing is directed at someone.

    Different characters will swear differently. Some will swear constantly and repetitively. Some will swear only rarely, the kind of cursing that brings the whole room to a stop. A character might have his own peculiar cursing vocabulary, good for out-of-towners.

    IOW, swearing isn't just a thing, it's many things. Plenty of room in there to be mundane as well as inventive.
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    There are plenty of fantasy novels that use the typical real-world swear words (damn, f***, sh**, etc). That works just fine in a fantasy setting, in my opinion. I don't mind invented swear words, even those based on an imaginary deity (Crom!), so long as they flow well in the narrative and don't seem hackneyed or like the author is trying too hard.

    I also don't mind swear words that tie into the history or backstory of the fantasy world, because it stands to reason that such things might be drawn upon for cursing.
  9. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I'm not particular either way. I always found things like motherf'r stupid (despite the fact I use it... huh)... I once looked at a friend who was pissed off at me, after he said this, and pointed out: yes, and so have you, so long as you don't mean "our" mothers. Ended his being pissed anyhow. I made the choice not to use F in my fantasy, just the same as I don't use "okay". And if I did use F, I'd use it sparingly (unlike in real life) because it becomes meaningless. In fact, most swearing is meaningless dialogue anyhow. I doubt anybody ever really considered a novel bad because it didn't use the F-bomb enough.

    Shit, on the other hand, is universally useful, but I replaced bull with horse, because cattle are rare to nonexistent on the island... and to be blunt, if you want real vile, you want pig shit. That stuff is flat nasty, heh heh. Is there a culture that doesn't use excrement and urine for expletives in some manner?

    I will take good made up profanity and sayings over modern any day... but, whatever fits the world.

    And of course at this point I must insert Monty Python--

    Fornicate the Penguin!
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    This reminds me of a Carlin bit.

    There are various broad types of swear.

    As other have said, those relating to bodily functions, body parts or sex probably won't cause a ripple in a fantasy setting—at least if your characters are humanoid. For some reason, I have difficulty imagining a dragon character saying those things. Same with a sprite, although I think it'd be funny coming from a sprite, and I might like it. But the main point is this: human types of characters (at least) will likely have many of the same drives, body parts and bodily functions as we, and there's no great stretch believing they'd have the words for those as well.

    Then there are cultural types of swear, like those based on some religious figure or concept. These are trickier. I think d*mn would probably get an easy pass in a fantasy world. H-E-double hockey sticks might not work so well if the world has no concept of hockey, but the word it spells is likely to be fine in most cases. These two are broad concepts. Here's also where you tend to find more fantasy phrases like By Minerva's ****! or Xpltl's b****! This makes some sense, given that a fantasy world's myths, lore, and religion will have important figures we don't have on Earth. (Well, we have a Minerva.) If some figure is normally revered, then using that figure's name in a less-than-respectful manner might be a type of swear, and this isn't altogether different from what we do on Earth.

    There are pejoratives, epithets, we use on Earth that might work okay in a fantasy setting. Those based on comparisons with animals are likely to be fine if those animals also exist in the fantasy world. An ass is an ass is an ass. A dog is a dog is a dog. However, some other words used to denigrate fellow humans have a very cultural, historical origin on Earth and wouldn't work well in a secondary world fantasy. I won't spell out those, but you probably can imagine the words I mean.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  11. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Kind of following FV... being called a witch in most cultures would be far worse than a female dog. In a world where the gods are real and so is damnation? Damn you to X is about as bad as it gets. Where does F-you compare to that? It doesn't.

    So then I quote a Johnny cash song...

    Damn your eyes.

    Think I actually used that at one point in Eve of Snows, LOL.
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    As for this...well, it's just a matter of knowing your culture. Right? One I didn't mention before, bastard, is probably quite fine to use in most human cultures, but I can imagine a fantasy culture in which marriage doesn't exist and all the people engage in free love. No one knows one's father. In such a case, the word wouldn't have the same sort of pointy end that it would have in a different culture.
    Rkcapps, goldhawk and Demesnedenoir like this.
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    There's another class I had forgotten; but since my mind is turning toward these colorful things....

    There are those examples which focus on social class, profession, region, and this sort is the kind that can add a lot of flavor to your world.

    For some reason, I have an easier time conceiving of derogatory epithets the higher class might have for the lower class: sh*t-shoveller, lice-mate, etc. What sorts of similar things might a denizen of the lower quarter use for the wealthy elites?

    I can imagine a military sort: boot scrubber. Maybe the worst, dumbest sort of soldier would be relegated to this kind of duty, and the term has been adopted as a common insult.

    Regional denigrations will be as varied as fantasy world maps. What do the southerners call the northerners in your fantasy nation? What would your nation's inhabitants call the citizens of another nation? These questions open up so much delving into cultural differences and the history of your world. We have plenty of examples in our own.

    Edit: Maybe sometimes these can be used more generally even when not specifically targeted at the group or class that inspired them in the first place. For instance, an arrogant general might use boot-scrubber for all the poor, not just fellow soldiers. A character might use the regional put-down for anyone, not only those from that region.

    [Edit#2: not sure if these qualify as swears, but still...]
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2018
  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I like when writer's make up their own swear words in fantasy. It has to suit the world, IMO.

    Genitalia is fun to play with (when inventing words.... omg.)

    I have read words like balls, bags, or other more common words for female organs that for some reason don't feel out of place in a fantasy setting.

    Sh*t is not my favourite in a fantasy.... it feels out of place to me. But my all time favourite is "Holy witch piss!" (which wasn't from a fantasy, but from my Czech father in law).

    You can also find hilarious swears in old books or Shakespeare plays which I think would do nicely in a fantasy setting:

    “Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!”

    “Away, you three-inch fool! “

    “Villain, I have done thy mother” -Titus Andronicus

    goldhawk and FifthView like this.
  15. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    This reminds me of the Viking and Scottish flyting from days of yore.

    Or this: From The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy | InTranslation

    Yep. Ye old timey rap battle.
  16. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Yes! This is what I was thinking. An old time rap battle. I love how even rappers are just doing something that has already been around for possibly a thousand years (I can totally see Socrates and Plato doing the same thing over some wine.....)
  17. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Swearing is a question of tone, not content. For example, plenty of stories have been told about slavery and the south which don't use racial slurs, but then you see a book like Huck Finn and realize that at least for many people that kind of language would have been everywhere. Plenty of people curse all the time, and plenty don't - the question is ten percent about who you're writing about and ninety percent about the kind of readers you're looking for.

    I'm not usually a fan of swearing in writing, which just means my quality threshold is higher for it. Unless you're approaching Game of Thrones quality, I will probably find it a little jarring. Then again, I don't really count words like damn and hell as cursing, but I know that's just me.

    I don't like words like friggin' and frack in a fantasy (modern-day, okay). I'm really put off by the fake blasphemy expressions.

    I'd rather see a bit more creativity and immersion put into the way characters talk all around, and that includes the way people insult one another.
  18. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Auror

    Friggin' and Frack seem more sci-fi to me, as they did kind of have their start there. Frag too, which tends to come after the invention of grenades. I do kind of consider blasphemy a decent angle to go at. In a world where one can at least get good communication from the deities it's got a certain feel of brass about it. Sometimes a little foolish unless they've got their own deity covering for 'em, though chances are they do. And if not, even better for them. Especially if they survive the thunderbolt.

    I do at least try to make some effort between some of the races. Dragons tend to invoke elemental sort of stuff and scales and tails and the teeth of their Elder. Griffons insult everyone, mostly by calling them prey. Then trying to eat them. A compliment from them amounts to 'You'd be a good hunt'. The humanoids tend to have the usual run, including the modern stuff.
  19. bdcharles

    bdcharles Minstrel

    My characters do use the occasional contemporary swear words (your F-bombs, your S words) even though the setting is alternate world / historical~ish, because I wanted to make it a bit more accessible. That being said, I follow @HaggardHawks on Twitter, and from there learned of the delightful "by the mousefoot!" which I totally need to steal. I think how your chars swear will feed alot into the sense of "when" it all takes place.

    As others said, you could use curse words to reveal your world, a bit like how you name your currency. My guys sometimes invoke something called the Wrath - go jump in the Wrath! I don't know what in the Wrath it is, etc - and then we later get to find out more about this Wrath.
    goldhawk likes this.
  20. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    What curses my characters use depends on the feeling l want to convey. There's a different feel between using an f-bomb and a made up curse.

    If memory serves, Scott Lynch's Gentilmen Bastards series makes good use of f-bombs and more contemporary curse words quite well, and their use conveyed a certain tone to the story that made up curses just can't.

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