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Fantasy Swearing

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

  1. Evaine

    Evaine New Member

    The writers of Elfquest had a problem with their characters in that they didn't really have a religion to blaspheme against, and they liked sex just fine, so they said things like "Owl pellets!" when they needed to swear.
    And Katherine Kurtz started off her Deryni books with characters (especially her hero Morgan) using the word "Khadasa!" when they needed to swear - and then gradually phasing the use of the word out over later books. I think she said it had too many syllables to make a good swear word, and it didn't quite fit with the Deryni backstory as she developed it, either.
    FifthView likes this.
  2. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    The problem with swearing in the real world is that the words that might cause great offence in some countries may cause none in another. Even within a particular society a word can be offensive or harmless depending on context. A case in point is the word coconut.

    Coconut is used to describe a certain food item that grows on trees but it is also a derogatory term for Pacific Islanders here in New Zealand. Thus swearing doesn't necessarily have to involve the words we in the English speaking world would associate with swearing. It just needs to be understood as offensive in the context in which it is used.

    I think that being too clever by inventing an entirely new word for fantasy swearing tends to backfire as people have no idea what it means.

    My approach is to use derogatory references that are linked to a person's smell, looks, status (or perceived status) or parentage. I also find that sexual and bodily function references work well.

    Think of what would be taboo or likely to get people upset in both the real world AND the fantasy world and use it as the basis of a swear word or derogatory reference. For example I my work in progress ..

    Eunuch's Penis - to describe something or someone that is useless.
    Robed Whore - To describe a mage
    Mammoth Turd
    Conjurer - a term of abuse when used about a mage. It's like calling them incompetent or not up to the job.
  3. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    Personally, I find real-world swear words super distracting and annoying in fantasy, but I'm not sure if I hate them because they feel un-historical or if the reaction is just because I don't like swear words and want another reason to be annoyed. In either case, they really mess with the tone of the book for me, so I vastly prefer when the author takes the effort to think of something that fits the milieu of their story.
    There are definitely some bad examples, so I can understand why someone would be wary of coming up with their own terms, but when done well they blend right into the story and feel like a natural part of the world. (Scott Westerfield is really good at this. Every time I read one of his books the character's speech patterns get stuck in my head.)
    I also wouldn't say it's impossible to come up with things that the same bite as actual l swear words. It can be done, but the words used need to have meaning. You can't just come up with a random syllable that fits into the same grammatical place as the S-word and expect it to have the same power.
    Not that you necessarily want it to. Sometimes You want the emphasis without making things sound incredibly vulgar or taboo, and that can be achieved pretty easily by using milder words. Some that I've seen recently are rot, storm/storming, and blighted.
  4. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    My merfolk use terms like "muck-sucking bottom-feeder" as insults.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  5. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Auror

    Heh, might as well call 'em carp.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Now, now, we'll have no carping around here.
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Rather, carpe diem.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Fish of the day?
  9. rktho

    rktho Troubadour

    I use made-up ones, but I can only come up with a good fantasy swear once in a blue moon. The best I have are shnat (basically, sh*t) and barschut (dammit) which are from separate languages, so only my bilingual characters use both regularly. On a side note, I have a character named Javuk who screws up so often people just call him Barschut-Javuk because that's what they yell whenever he messes something up. I really want to be able to create swears for a few specific insults. Like when someone insinuates that someone's laying mother and sitting mother aren't the same dragon. Or an insulting way to refer to one's cloaca and another to refer to their tail (basically, splitting a** into two separate words.)
  10. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

    That's exactly my problem with fantasy cuss words. I've got an MC in a fantasy world who very readily drops cuss words, and a character who's mostly clean spoken but will, when seriously ticked off, let loose with the foulest language they've got. Not only would f-bombs be a bit out of place in the world building, I feel they're not strong enough. This is, to my mind, a culture that would have even more colorful language available, and more levels of cussing, than the English language can provide. Saying "fuck" or "shit" or anything with equivalent shock value would be mid level cussing. The highest levels would be many times fouler. There's no way to approximate it in English. But that's the language I've got to work with.

    In a scene where a character goes on a really foul mouthed tirade, I settled for having her scream, "Dammit!" and "fuck that!" followed by, "she let out a string of the foulest words she knew." The foulest words she knows, and is saying, are the really, really bad ones.

    But, pursuant to what posters in this thread have pointed out, those cuss words don't exactly fit the culture. It's a fairly sex positive culture, although I'm not sure that eliminates "fuck" as a strong cuss word. That word has existed in English, in its current form and range of meanings, at least since the late Middle Ages, through periods of English history that were not particularly prudish. "Dammit" is even more out of place, because they don't have a concept of hell as we understand it. What I'm trying to get at is that the character is using words that have an equivalent shock value to "fuck" or "damn." Translating the intent if not the specific language.
    skip.knox and Demesnedenoir like this.
  11. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    One thing to remember about language is that our oldest words tend to have something to do with bodily functions. "Merde" dates back to ancient Rome, as do words for genitals and intercourse and blasphemy. They exist for eons in much the same form, and we take delight in using them. So I say, if you're going to use them, then go for the gold.

    Last edited: May 29, 2021
    Rosemary Tea likes this.
  12. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    I use various swear words, generally when characters are pushed to a certain point; I feel that a well-placed "what the fuck" can be very evocative, as sometimes you're just in a situation where your mind can't really comprehend what's going on, there's too many complicated feelings, and all that you can really think, truly, is "what the fuck." A beta reader did comment, though "do birds even fuck? Would they use another word?" Which made me laugh for a really long time because I never considered it, and, yeah, in a society that is (culturally) predominantly magic talking birds, they probably would have different words since the mechanics are so different...but already I have footnotes explaining unique words/concepts in this culture, which would mean I would need one for the bird f word. There would have to be a reason the (in-universe) author chose to use it instead of the regular fuck word, and I would also need a reason to have her make that choice. Also all the POV characters are humans, so it wouldn't make a lot of sense for them to use a bird-exclusive word. If anything, they probably wouldn't be able to pronounce it and it ended up bastardized into "fuck." But that's just so granular I really don't have the space to get into that, so I'm not.

    Stuff like "oh my god" and "what the hell", which aren't swears per see but are along those lines, would probably have to change depending on your setting. A culture without a concept of hell would use something else, or an atheist culture, but they also probably wouldn't say "oh my darwin!" either. But usually it's pretty easy to figure out what those short phrases mean in context. But they do need to be short, because if you're mad/hurt yourself you're going to say something short and quick, not "by the grace of odin's beard!"

    But I also write for adults. If I was writing YA or for kids, I'd be more likely to come up with my own words, or just say "and they swore under their breath" or something. Or if I was writing for tv/a movie where the rating limits the #/types of words I can use. That would be an interesting challenge, but then you also have the actor being able to get across what they're thinking/feeling with their actions in really subtle ways you can't with a book, so you do have more tools there.
    Rosemary Tea likes this.
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I don't find many moments in my stories where I use a swear word. I'm not prissy about it, I just want words to carry their fair share of the load, and a single word doesn't do much.

    It's not going to shock most readers. It's not particularly evocative. Many are merely exclamatory, while many others (especially in more modern settings) seem to be used rather as a form of punctuation. If there's something to exclaim about, there are other ways to communicate that would provide more description for the reader. As an intensifier, most cursing is right up there with "very" as being little more than noise.

    So yeah, plenty of people swear, in plenty of ways. People also say "uh" and "ah" and various other verbal tics. Just because people say things doesn't mean my characters need to say them. Also, there are forms of swearing that are peculiarly modern. My quasi-medieval characters might say "hell" but they certainly wouldn't say "what the hell." Cursing in general is not just culture-specific, it's also time-specific. Fortunately for us writers, most readers won't know or care to give a ....
    Rosemary Tea likes this.
  14. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

    For that reason, I've decided that the world I'm building probably does have some concept that bears enough similarity to hell to get away with calling it hell... because there are places in the story where the only descriptive that seems to work is "that hurt like hell" or "this [grueling training regimen] is going to feel like hell." But they don't have any belief in eternal torture as punishment for sins. There is a concept of afterlife, and some vague sense that evildoers who never reaped any consequences on this side of the veil could face them on the other side, but there's no "if you're good you go to heaven, if you're bad you go to hell, for all eternity" in their cosmology. At least, not as a religious teaching. There could be folklore that includes something closer to our idea of hell, but there's no prevailing belief that anyone is literally headed there.

    "Oh my god" isn't in the picture, because they have multiple gods. Something like, "for chrissake" could be, but would have to be altered because there's no Christ, no Christianity, none of the world religions that we know. Religion that bears some similarity to religions, living and dead, found in our world, yes, but it isn't a perfect match for any of them.
  15. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

    Rat's ass?
    Seriously, I agree. But I find that whether and when characters cuss says a lot about what's going on, and about who they are. Some cuss regularly, because they're people who would, and not showing that would be a dishonest depiction of them. Others only cuss under the most extreme provocation, so the moments when they cuss show what really provokes them. Just a sentence or two about that can say a lot about the character.
    A. E. Lowan and skip.knox like this.
  16. Eztlirald Clarinda

    Eztlirald Clarinda Dreamer

    So in my story, pixies, elves, sprites, and fairies are all different. Although similar, they each have their own characteristics making them their own race. ( This mainly applies to the pixies, fairies, and sprites). But as in our modern reality there are some insulting slang for specific races/color, fae is an insulting term for the above mentioned. So often, people will say “Mother of fae”.

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