Monday, June 13, 2011

"Do you bite your thumb at me?" Swearing in Fantasy Cultures

Dear readers,

I apologize for the missing post from last Friday. I came down with some sort of plague this weekend and despite wanting to do nothing but lay on my couch eating pho and sipping tea, I was obligated to further aggravate said plague by attending my sister's various graduation ceremonies. I wanted to attend... I did not want to attend while sick.

As I have convalesced, my addled wits have turned to entirely sordid thoughts. Today, I would like to talk about naughty words. If you do not like naughty words, please do not read further, because I write them out in their full, titillating glory:

Slang, epithets and colloquialisms can be a tough thing to do well in fictional universes, whether novels movies or RPGs. If properly executed, they can add a sense of depth to the cultures found in the world. They show that these fictional characters have a soul beneath their surface. They are not merely one-dimensional archetypes pursuing a singular idiom. If done poorly, the slang of fictional cultures can feel forced, grating on the reader/viewer/players' nerves. As I see it, there are several broad techniques commonly used for dealing with colorful language in fantasy settings.

Don't change anything
Some authors choose to just stick with what they and their audience know, peppering their fantasy speech with the usual suspects that make the censors cringe. This is often most effective when it relies most heavily on words not actually banned from TV like "prick", "whore", "arse", "bloody hell" "twat face" etc. While this can be a fairly safe approach, and is used to good effect by the likes of George R.R. Martin, if poorly done, it runs the risk of making your fantastic heroes sound like a bunch of frat boys quoting from Jorge's book of Dick and Fart jokes.

The Mushmouth approach
Two of my favorite TV series, Firefly and BSG take the approach of starting with common curse words and then modifying the spelling/pronunciation slightly. I have to admit that, while I love the aforementioned shows, the choice to use "gorram" and "frak" as replacements for "god damn" and "fuck" feels like a blatant ploy to get around the censors while keeping the show edgy and totally XTreme! "Frak" is particularly annoying in this fashion because BSG's characters use it in all the nonsensical ways we use it's real-world counterpart -get frakked, motherfrakker, frak me hard etc. It is nothing but a stand in. They might as well have just let the censors bleep the actual word, because it is pain to my ears. I feel like this approach does little to deepen the fantasy world in which it is used. The only other reason I can think for taking this approach is that the audience can specifically infer the meaning from the dirty-word replacements because they basically sound like the real thing.

Make up the Words and Phrases
Robert Jordan uses this technique extensively in the Wheel of Time series with varying degrees of skill. I'm currently reading through The Gathering Storm, the first of the WoT books finished after Jordan's death, and was struck by the colloquialisms peppered throughout the book. Jordan clearly intends the slang and epithets of his characters to reinforce the characteristics of the various cultures in the story. Take Siuan Sanche, the Aes Sedai. She comes from a seafaring culture who relies on fishing for their trade. During chapters told from her POV, Jordan is guaranteed to throw in some fish-related sayings and curses. For example, in one three page section, Siuan has the following statements in her inner monologue:
"When you fished with squid as bait, you shouldn't be surprised to catch fangfish. If you wanted to catch eels, you used something else entirely."
"Light! some days, she felt like she was trying to juggle buttered live silverpike."
"Siuan checked the position of the sun behind that dockmaster's sky. It was late afternoon. 'Fish guts...'"
"Buttered silverpike! Buttered, flaming silverpike!"
"She'd become something else, a woman who traded in secrets rather than fish."
So, do you get it? She's from a fishing village. While I understand the prevalence of fish imagery is meant to ingrain Siuan's cultural background in the mind of the reader, sometimes it feels like being beaten over the head with... well, a fish. I actually find that some of Jordan's more general epithets work much better than the fishy phrases above. Statements like "burn me!" or "The Dark One's Luck" strike a good balance between being different from real world examples, while conveying obvious curse-word imagery.

So what makes a good curse word?
All of this pondering of curses got me thinking about common elements found in real world curses, and I realized that most epithets use elements drawn from the following sources.

  • body parts or functions, particularly those related to sex or digestion such as cock, fart, barf shit.
  • religious imagery, god, hell, heaven's to betsy, jumping Jesus on a pogostick!
  • animals, and particularly those considered dirty or undesirable, such as pig, dog, rat, jackass, cow, bull
  • familial relations, motherfucker, son of a bitch etc.
If we extrapolate these general categories, we can use them to potentially come up with more believable curse words for fantasy cultures. One could even work in some of the fantasy creatures or religious imagery into the urban dictionary of the world.

  • Goblin shit!
  • Pelor's sunburned butthole!
  • Garl's nuggets <- the gnomes in my D&D world use this a lot. It's a reference to the nether regions of their god, Garl Glittergold.
  • Trollspawn
  • Seven Hells
  • Pixie dick!
Of course, you could always take the classy way out and avoid cursing altogether.


  1. I hate "frak" too, but I hate Farscape's "frell" more. "Frell" doesn't even sound like a bad word, it sounds like some kind of decorative fringe (with little bells, maybe). I feel like these substitute words aren't only childish, but they're unnecessary--"Prison Break" and "Veronica Mars" got some extremely vulgar things around the censors by using slang and being clever. (T-Bag, "If you found my earring, I probably lost it in some girl's shag carpet.") That to me is a lot more entertaining than just peppering in "frak" or "frell" everywhere.

    One thing I thought was clever in Firefly was the use of "rutting" as a word that at that point in time is clearly shocking and obscene. The word sounds dirty (especially when Jayne says it), it references sex, and it has animalistic connotations, so it seemed plausible to me that it might come to be considered far more vulgar than it is today.

  2. Thank you! I think you hit the nail on the head. frak, frell and gorram are taking the easy way out. I totally agree that rutting makes for a far superior substitute. Not only is it a word with a real world meaning that could easily develop to be dirty, it gets around the censors and also elicits images of wild spaces (deer rutting etc.) that Firefly tries to blend into science fiction.


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