Of Lummoxes and Dickheads: Cursing in Fantasy

As of yet my son hasn’t begun to speak, which might be a blessing, since my wife and I are both a little worried about the unwholesome linguistic atmosphere in which he is being raised. It’s possible that his first words might be something that will get him kicked out of preschool. We wonder how we’ll hold our heads up in the community when he starts swearing a blue streak at the playground. Periodically we contemplate washing out our own dirty mouths, then realize the impossibility of that task. “Fuck it,” we say.

There were long decades during which a character in a fantasy novel, even a very bad character, could not have come to the same conclusion. Zedd, in Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule is forced to resort to “bags,” as in, “Bags, and Double Bags!” Or Robert Jordan’s characters. They can’t say “fuck” either. They can say “blood and bloody ashes!” In a pinch they can call someone a “bull-goose fool” or a “hairy lummox.” But a “fucking dickhead?” Nope. What about the Dark One? Surely he’s a fucking dickhead? Maybe, but the characters won’t tell you that. As far as they’re concerned, he’s “light-forsaken.”

Of course there are other writers who don’t shy away from a good prick, asshole, or goat-fucker. Still, enough fantasy novelists do tidy up their language that we can reasonably ask what’s going on when they steer clear of this “stronger language.” Seems to me that there are three issues at work here. First, some fantasy writers are aiming for YA appeal (even if the novels aren’t truly YA). Pussies and assholes are, I believe, frowned upon in YA.

Second, fantasy writers seem to be operating under the illusion that the really dirty words are too contemporary, that “fuck” and “shit” somehow belong to the same lexicon as “television” and “toaster.” There’s a tiny sliver of truth to this, in that public discourse has become, over the last twenty years, far more accepting of profanity. I doubt that men and women in their private lives swear any more these days than they did a century ago (at least, the kind of men and women I like to hang out with), but they tended not to do it in print, or on the air, or in church, or whatever. So, while an English blacksmith could tell a friend to “go fuck himself” back in 1871 (or 1571), we don’t have a record of this sort of language in, say, Paradise Lost or Middlemarch, or even the newspapers of the time. For those writers aiming to recreate a bygone idiom, the written record is misleading; it suggests an absence of profanity in those centuries preceding our own when no such absence existed.

The final reason that I suspect fantasy writers sometimes eschew profanity is the most interesting: our swears reflect our beliefs about the world, sometimes even our beliefs about the universe. Ok, probably not “fuck.” Or “shit.” Everyone fucks and shits. At least, everyone hopes to.
But think about the following:
“Damn it.”
“Go to hell.”
“Jesus Christ.”
“You fucking bastard.”

The last is the most straightforward. “Bastard” only exists as a curse in a society where illegitimate birth is frowned upon. If a writer plans to have characters call other characters bastards, she needs to carefully consider the societal mores she’s creating.

“Damn,” was a particular thorn in my side when I started writing fantasy. It’s such a useful, all-purpose, low-level swear – the sort of thing you can say when you’re not really ready to drop the F-bomb: “The god-damned UPS guy left my package out in the rain again.” Sort of a reasonable-sounding swear. But what if your fantasy universe does not involve, as mine does not, a hell? Damnation is predicated on the possibility of a torturous afterlife. Without one, the word literally has no meaning. Same thing with “hell.” And then, of course, you’ve got God, Christ, Jesus, Jesus Christ, etc. These are self-evidently tied to the theology of a Christian society, and if the characters in your book aren’t Christian, what are they supposed to say?

A writer can, of course, have his characters invoke their own gods, but this risks sounding stupid: “By the teeth of Azamfalon!” It sort of sucks, right? (Which reminds me – “sucks” is another word you don’t see Aragorn busting out all that often. Although imagine the possibilities: “The Mines of Moria fucking suck, Gimli. You dickhead.”) Maybe you could trim it down to “Azamfalon!” but that still doesn’t roll off the tongue.

And then all of a sudden you have to start thinking about changing the names of your major deities (if there even are deities) to accommodate the cursing of your more foul-mouthed characters. Hence, I think, Robert Jordan’s monumental list of sort-of curses. It’s a sticky problem with no clear solution: every writer has to tackle it for herself. Me, I like to allow my characters a good f-bomb now and again, although my soldiers swear a lot more than my monks. Curious to hear what other people think on this matter. What kind of cursing yanks you out of a fantasy world, and what sort pulls you even deeper into it?

39 thoughts on “Of Lummoxes and Dickheads: Cursing in Fantasy

      • Well, could I bring up Harry Potter? There is a kind of wit in the curse words used in the Wizarding World. There were some really authentic ones, like when Rita Skeeter called Dumbledore an “obsolete dingbat”, or when Malfoy called Filch a “squib”. They’re words you can find only in their world. I’m always amazed at how much unusual words Rowling can make.

        (But of course Rowling can’t use the f-word or the s-word in PG literature.)

        • Dingbat is a common term actually, at least in the South of England where I reside. It predates J.K Rowling by some time. An alternative to ‘idiot’.

          • That’s a good ‘un. I did a little googling about dingbat. Seems to be some controversy over the origin:

            “ORIGIN mid 19th cent. (in early use applied to various vaguely specified objects): origin uncertain; perhaps based on obsolete ding [to beat, deal heavy blows.]”

            or…

            “Dingbat is a typographical device other than a letter or numeral (such as an asterisk), used to signal divisions in text or to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word.”

            or…

            “A dingbat is “an ornamental piece of type for borders, separators, decorations, etc.” as well as a silly person. The fonts are called dingbat fonts because they contain such characters.”

            All interesting possibilities…

      • Brandon Sanderson! He never includes real world curse words in his books (I don’t know if it is personal/religious preference or a stylistic choice) and the inclusion of the curse words he invents really lend a new level of depth to his novels. i.e. In the Stormlight Archives which takes place in a world were violent, hurricane-like storms are frequent, the characters will often exclaim: Storm it!

        • Good addition to the list! Thanks. I’d love to put together a compendium of invented curses in fantasy together with their etymology and sources. Of course, there are just a few projects ahead of it on the list… like editing this second book and fixing the front steps. Actually, I wonder if something like this already exists?

  1. I have to agree with Jackie about contemporary profanity–for me it breaks the spell in fantasy and even in some kinds of science fiction. NOT because I am anti-profanity in ordinary life. Even though the f and s bombs derive from universal human/animal experience, they seem to have evolved past their original meanings to a particular late-twentieth/early twenty-first century language function specific to current culture that goes beyond cursing. They yank me into the legal and business worlds and other types of tough and not necessarily even angry discussions firmly rooted in the present. For a woman, they are practically an essential tool for being taken seriously in some professional and personal situations. In truth, the great old bombs have lost a lot of their original curse meaning and practically become fillers, more for creating affect and even serving as a demonstration of group solidarity. (I just read Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, and the very real dialogue he gives his contemporary characters in Oakland California perfectly demonstrates this.)

    In fantasy, I love the profanity created from the belief systems of the imagined world. To go beyond quasi-religious profanity I think I might prefer synonyms for the modern word bombs derived from the horror of sexual violation or the disgust of excrement. I’m sure every culture on earth has their own particular variants–just not exactly those we have in English. Further, it seems to me that any culture involving humanoid intelligent lifeforms with sexual reproduction and the excretion of byproducts of digestion and metabolism would evolve them too. And it just adds to the interest of a created world–either in fantasy or in science fiction- to see new terms.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Suzanne. I agree completely that there’s fertile cursing territory to be explored around bodily function and sex. Curious to hear what you think about George RR Martin’s use of profanity (including ‘fuck’) in A Song of Ice and Fire. Successful? Or no?

      • The modern bombs slightly break the suspension of disbelief for me even in the best of fantasy, including Martin. The exception for me would be a fantasy world that re-imagined earth history. Successful profanity? I love what you fashioned from the cult worship of Ananshael, as an example. I also have to admit that I liked the use of “frack” in Battlestar Galactica even though it was slightly illogical. Logically, the remnant of earth peoples in that series more properly would actually have been saying “fuck”, but the use of frack by the characters in uniform suggested that some old-school military protocol still in place forbade the blunter Anglo-Saxon word. It set them apart from the present. Of course, the sole reason for the use of “frack” may have been TV censorship. But it worked for me–

  2. “Fuck” dates back to before 1500 and “Shit” is derived from Old English and before (according to Wikipedia). However, I agree they do seem like modern words and seem out of place, to me, in medieval fantasy.
    “Fuck” originally meant to hit something, which is generally how I use it. “Fuck this mosquito!” means I want to hit it, or “Fuck this computer!” means I’d like to smash it.
    Our society’s censorship of certain words allows people to SAY something when they are upset, rather than DO something, like break something or hurt someone. The prohibition has also lead to a lot of funny jokes, such as in Austen Powers where the Japanese subtitle says, “Please eat some shit(take mushrooms).”
    It’s ironic, though, that we hear, read, and talk about murder, rape, torture, war etc every day, but carefully avoid dropping the F-bomb on TV or near children, etc.
    Thats my two cents. I agree with what you said, Brian, and it was well stated.

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  4. I think you’re right that people have always shitted and fucked, and in fact these words are quite old. I don’t think they were necessarily stand-alone “bad” words back then the way they are now. More terms of everyday use for these things, like feces and sex are today. But the possibility exists for using these terms as part of more complex insults. Calling someone a goat fucker or a shit eater would still be insulting, even if the words themselves were not seen as expletives in isolation. I get the impression that these kinds of uses of copulatory and excretory words have been around forever and exist in a lot of different cultures.

    As for the gods thing, yeah, it makes no sense to have someone say “Jesus H. Christ!” if your world has no deity named Jesus, and polytheistic people would not say “God!” I do substitute god names and sometimes toss in blasphemous references to body parts. Gaoth’s balls, or Domhara’s tits, or even “gods!” I figure it’s a bit of world building. Ways of sneaking things about their beliefs into everyday life (by Gaoth’s frost-rimed codpiece). No one’s told me it seems out of place so far.

    Bastard is a tough one. It’s such a go-to mild to moderate insult in our modern time, and it is almost never used to refer to someone who is actually illegitimate anymore. Being illegitimate really isn’t terribly stigmatized in our modern society, and even when people think it’s “better” for parents to be married, no one really blames the kid for his heritage or assumes he’ll have poor character just because of it. Yet the word persists as a an insult for someone who is sneaky, unpleasant, uncouth or otherwise disliked. I use bastard sometimes as a generic insult, and have a heck of a time coming up with a substitute word with the same feel when the deep narrative needs to say something like “What was the sneaky bastard up to now?”

    Swear words do outlive their original context and morph into new meanings (how many people really even think of female dogs when they accuse someone of bitching)? And I don’t believe in damnation, yet I still say “damn” sometimes.

    But if a culture has never had a concept of damnation, it gets stickier. in my world, I steer clear of whether or not damnation really “exists” but think in terms of the actual beliefs of the culture in question. Regardless of whether or not damnation really exists in our universe, some religions believe in it and some don’t. The most common religion in one of my countries does not have damnation, but instead a concept of reincarnation. So damn would not be a go-to word for them. Yet there are different religions that do have hells. So I get the fun of thinking of how much “cross contamination” occurs between people of these differing core beliefs with regards to swearing. One of my characters starts saying “damn” occasionally (instead of blighted or plagued) because she spends a lot of time hanging around with someone who says “damn” a lot. And he picks up some of her swear words too.

    Thanks for the thought provoking blog entry, and i hope I didn’t discover it too late for my thoughts on this to be at all interesting.

    • Never too late! Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Of all the words you discuss here, “damn” is the one that still trips me up. It’s such a versatile and inconspicuous curse (at least in my experience) that I find myself really missing it. Of course, as you point out, it doesn’t really work in invented religions with no concept of the afterlife. On a similar note, a funny little bit of serendipity I’ve run into in my books comes from naming one of the gods “Hull.” He has nothing to do with the afterlife, but I get an echo of a familiar idiom whenever a character says, “To Hull with that!” Didn’t intend it when I named the god, but have found myself liking the effect.

      Thanks again for weighing in!

    • I really, really lament not being able to use damn. It’s probably my favorite curse — acceptable in almost all settings, extremely versatile, somewhat circumspect… I like a good f-bomb, but it tends to overshadow whatever else you’re saying (“These fucking tomatoes aren’t germinating!”, or whatever…) For me, though, damn is just too tied to a certain view of the afterlife that doesn’t apply in my books…

  5. As a reader, the use of curses used now makes me think at least about this world (and often, this time too). “Fuck” and “Shit” are English words, and despite the characters speaking English, it is not called that way (there’s no England) or it’s just assumed it’s a common tongue. Hence, the use of substitute sear words makes it more “otherwordly” to me. Martin uses “fuck” sometimes, but he also uses “bugger” and other variations (I think). Jordan created a long list of PG curses, and Sanderson (following/expanding what Jordan did) creates curses based on the world his characters live. I think Asimov did that too (“Space!” and “Galaxy!” are commonly used by some characters in Foundation, I think)…

    In general, I think swear words ought to be consistent with the world you craft, not only in your eyes, but also in those of the reader. Swear words that are commonly used today (however old their use actually is) might remind your readers of today’s world.

    • It’s a very tough call. One thing that’s really clear is that the choice that works for one reader is awful for another. Invented swears enrich the world for some, and they sound forced and ridiculous to others. Our own four-letter words pull some readers (like you, it sounds) out of the story, but they strike others as legitimate and honest. This is, by the way, a subset of a much larger issue (as you suggest at the start of your comment). I’d recommend Django Wexler’s essay on the “Fantasy Language Problem”: http://fantasy-faction.com/2014/the-fantasy-language-problem

  6. I love the juxtaposition of modern American curse words in the “Caine” series by Matthew Woodring Stover. It’s not giving too much away to say that the contemporary/future US people who travel to a pre-gunpowder world in Heroes Die do a hilarious job of expressing themselves and confusing the locals.

  7. I really enjoyed your curses, both existing and newly created, in The Emperor’s Blades. In fact, after my husband read it, we had a conversation on just this topic.

    To me, it was realistic that there would be curses relating to the various deities and cultural aspects of the world (which you did a great job creating)– but also, that there would be curses that relate to basic human functions. Because, let’s face it– human bodily functions make great curses and are funny as hell. I’d be shocked if there were any language/culture/society on earth that did not have these types of curses.

    Also, I wanted to comment, since apparently I’m in the minority, that I didn’t find the use of “fuck” and “shit” in your book jarring or modern. Those words were used by Chaucer and his contemporaries, and to me they are timeless. As you mentioned, as long as we have existed, we have fucked and shat. After reading “The Canterbury Tales,” it’s impossible for me to think of profanity, and our favorite curse words, as modern.

    That being said, there is one thing I find very jarring… When authors use local accents, especially if they are used incorrectly. I love Brandon Sanderson, but he has a character in Steelheart that uses “y’all” as a singular pronoun and it drove me nuts every time I came across it. Steelheart is based on a future Earth, and it wouldn’t have been so bad if he had used it correctly. But, in any fantasy novel not based on Earth, I don’t like the use of Earth based accents, even if the author is using it to try to convey, for instance, that a character is royalty, or from the countryside.

    • I agree with you entirely about local, recognizable accents. For one thing, they’re really very hard to do well if you don’t have a long history in the relevant region. (I seem to remember Twain saying, maybe in the intro to Huck Finn, that he intentionally included something like a dozen varieties of regional dialect — just blows my mind). And for another, even if you DO manage the dialect convincingly, these dialects are so freighted with culture and history that you’re almost certain to invoke expectations and stereotypes of your character that yo may not want. There’s a character in the Providence of Fire who speaks in a very odd idiom, and it drove me crazy…

      • I can’t wait to read it! I wasn’t expecting to like the first one so much, and afterwards, I was pretty pissed about it. If it hadn’t been so good, it would have been easier to wait for book 2. My husband’s pissed at me, too. He’s mad I made him read it now, rather than waiting til later in the year. Any chance you’ll be at San Diego Comic Con with ARCs?🙂

        • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Looks unlikely that I’ll make it out to SDCC, but Tor will definitely be there, and they may well have ARCs. Sorry for the wait — I know that frustration all too well!

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  9. Thanks for opening up this can of worms and the ensuing conversation. This is something I have thought a lot about, both as a reader and writer. I will say that I don’t care for swearing much in general as a person. I don’t use much of it and I find being around people that use a lot of it can become very off-putting to me (though it can have it’s place when used sparingly.)
    I actually talked with Brandon Sanderson at a book signing about it, since I have recognized his particular use of language and I really appreciate it. He simply said it was something he preferred to not put into his books/stories. I think there is much to be said for not swearing too. I mean look at all the weight and emotion that Tolkien was able to convey without any modern strong language.
    I also side with the people that feel strongly jarred when I see modern swearing in a fantasy tale. I can accept it pretty easily in most sci-fi, but when a disgruntled wizard drops an f-bomb, it seems so dissonant to my mind. I appreciate the fact that, even though Terry Goodkind’s world is very heavy and dark, there aren’t any swears in it. Robert Jordan has some fun ‘in-world’ swears too.
    The paradox I think is that the reason swears have such weight is because of how society views them; the society they’re in imbues them with their weight. So by definition, their power comes from a specific ‘world’. So writers reach for the weight of that word, but bring with it the ‘home setting’. But then, to use a swear from the fantasy world, it can be derived from their gods or whatever, but since the readers don’t live in that world, the swears can only carry so much weight without a person growing up with the knowledge that that word carries some sort of taboo.
    An interesting dilemma to be sure. That said, I’d love to see that list of writers and their in-world swearing mechanisms/words!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Joshua. I think you hit the nail on the head with the observation that the power of a curse comes from its world-specific context. That can make it tough for an invented word to have much weight, although it’s my ongoing hope that over the course of a novel you can create that context for the reader, and imbue new words, even totally invented words, with emotional significance.

      • I too hope that authors will be able to create words with weight that transcend ‘worlds’ into our own understanding. I have seen it done a few times (can’t think of where now unfortunately) where a word is used as a swear and at first it seems borderline silly but as the world opens up and gives the word context, it suddenly has that weight. Especially when those words sometimes have actual, even physical, repercussions (like invoking a god’s name which incurs that god’s wrath).
        I think a lot of why the swearing in Wheel of Time works is that, even if we don’t necessarily view the words ‘blood’ and ‘ashes’ as cursing, those words have weight and meaning in any culture. Imagine how much more powerful that swear could have been if blood magic was a strong, forbidden element of the world.

  10. I must admit that I am not bothered about the use of swearing in fantasy though I do like the fact that Brandon Sanderson hardly swears and Michael J Sullivan never does as it means that I can share some of the books I love with my oldest son who loves fantasy. That said, if the swearing is in context and not just for the sake of it I don’t see the issue with it. Even then generally clean Mr Sanderson drops the old B word a couple of times in his Mistborn series. What about “crap” (that’s crap), “twat” (you are a twat),”cock” (you cock) and my favourite “fud” (you complete and utter fud) where do these fit on the swear-o-meter?

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