O is for Obscenity
“I take it summers are shorter on…Jota, right?” she said, with a false lightness he nevertheless appreciated.
“Much,” he replied sourly. “Ninety days. Chok.”
“Well, actually, you know, we’re in the middle of the season, so there’s only about forty or fifty days to go—”
“Chok-se y vok!” he amended, closing his eyes. —Heat
* * *
“Beni mshusho!” Tonka bellowed. “How dare you! In my kraal! To my kinswoman!” —The Wizard in the Woods
* * *
“Serpent of the tree!” spat Kazuul, and slapped her again when she tried to speak. “Obscene stain! Unclean thing!” —The Scholomance
* * *
When I agreed to write this month-long lecture on world-building for NaNoWriMo, I had to promise to keep it PG-rated for the benefit of all those people who don’t like to be surprised by the unexpected appearance of a blue word or naked boob.
Well, if you happen to be one of those people, I strongly suggest you go watch My Little Pony for a few hours because today’s post is all about swearing and this shit’s about to get real.
Is swearing a valid form of worldbuilding? I think so. Certainly you don’t have to swear in order to write a successful book and you should never swear just because you’ve run out of ways to get your point across (at least your hero shouldn’t; more on that later). But it’s my opinion that if a colorful metaphor is called for and not employed, it can detract somewhat from the tension of the scene. So let’s talk about swearing in a mature and serious manner.
First off, there are essentially two kinds of swear words: profanity, which are words that have a religious base; and perversity, which are words that associate the receiver of the swear with filth. Surprisingly, we all tend to use the same general concepts to swear by, regardless of where or when we were born—parentage, bodily waste, sex, and social slurs—and we’ve done it for thousands of years. Seriously, there’s graffiti on the wall of an Egyptian temple that shows a guy with an erect phallus sprouting out of his shoulders…perhaps the oldest known representation of a dickhead.
The power and offensiveness of a particular word may come and go over the years, even though the word itself never falls entirely out of fashion. At one time, it was popular to cuss by God’s body parts—God’s wounds, God’s hooks, even God’s bodkin. (Scholars insist bodkin in this context is simply a diminutive of the word ‘body’, and that God’s bodkin means literally ‘God’s dear body!’ and is a very mild oath. To this, I say only that a bodkin was a small dagger or awl and that when the same people referred to Tom’s bodkin instead of God’s, they meant Tom’s tiny dick.) The church responded to all this blasphemy by announcing that, just as the eucharist physically transmuted bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood, calling upon His name in a foul oath physically tore it apart. In other words if Cartwright the carpenter smacked his thumb with a hammer and let a “God’s wounds!” slip, the wounds of the crucifixion opened up and bled on the ascended Christ. No one wants that, so cussing by divine body parts swiftly blurred into more acceptable forms—Swounds! Gadzooks! Odd’s bodkins!—before fading away entirely, supplanted by words that were merely filthy instead of sacrilegious. Lest you smirk too broadly at the quaint euphemisms of the Middle Ages, the practice of using “almost but not quite” swears as stand-ins for the real ones is still around today. Have a look at this short list and see how filthy your mouth really is when you’re not swearing: shoot, sugar, darn, dang, dagnamit, Jiminy Cricket, Judas Priest, Jeepers Creepers, Crikey, cripes, for crying out, for Pete’s sake, shite, feck, blimey, by golly/gosh/gum, tarnation, land sakes, what in the heck/hey/Sam Hill, flipping/freaking, shart, frak…smurf. (That show is filthy. Can you believe some parents let their kids watch it?!)
You’ll notice most of those are the profane sort of minced oath. There’s only a few perverse ones and they’re also more modern. Some—frak, shark, smurf—were invented just to get by the FCC censors so they could cuss on TV shows and audiences would know they were all edgy and stuff. And that’s too bad. In my opinion, the idea that swearing = adult ranks pretty high on the list of all-time worst Bad Ideas, particularly because it ruins what could have been some really good books and movies with relentless vulgarity, and yes, that did just come from someone who dropped the F-bomb 365 times in her last book. And that’s after I took out easily 50 or 60 more.
Here’s the thing. Swearing, like sex, can be absolutely necessary to the book. It can also be painfully gratuitous. The fine line between the two can move quite a bit depending on who’s reading the book (or who’s writing it) and what may seem overboard to one person can be completely justified to someone else. Having said that, if you’re using swear words just to make it clear that your story is for mature eyes only, you’re using it wrong.
Profanity should have an impact. It gets less and less shocking the more you hear/read it. If your book reads like a transcript of a Dennis Leary routine, those words lose all their power to shock and your book loses its tension. No one knows better than I that swear words add a nice ‘flow’ in certain sentences, but sentences add up and pretty soon you’ve got a page and a half of pejoratives, which never has a nice flow and I don’t care how well each individual sentence reads.
One of the biggest arguments I personally hear from writers who have been criticized for excessive swearing is that their books reflect reality and in the real world, people swear, damn it! This is true, of course. My extremely casual research came up with the statistic that swearing makes up 0.7% of the average person’s speech on any given day. Sounds about right. On the other hand, if I wrote verbatim some of the things I myself say, it would read like a bad 90s teen movie: “I was like, Dude, what the actual fuck? And he was all, what’d I do? And I was, Man, you know what you did, you cheese-eating bafflenut! And he was all whatever so I just came home.” I have to admit I talk like that, but I don’t write like that, at least not in large doses, because it makes me sound like an idiot. That’s what reality sounds like. And when you replace 0.7% of your book with swear words, you sound like a lazy, angry idiot. So use an editing eye.
It’s important also to remember when writing in a fantasy or sci-fi setting that swear words are representing your fantasy or alien race. I said earlier that, here on Earth, we all swear by the same general concepts and it’s reasonable to assume non-humans would as well, but even within those basic precepts, there exists a wondrous variety. For example, throwing doubt on someone’s parentage is a time-honored tradition in swearing, from the all-purpose “You bastard!” to the singular “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!” But different cultures have their own ideas of what an offensive parentage entails; in some parts of the world, “Son of a turtle” is more insulting than “Son of a whore” even though they’re both ways of saying the son in question never knew his father. Unique little twists like that give a fictional world depth and interest while remaining relatable to the reader.
What makes a word dirty? After all, everybody poops and yet we all recognize “Shit” is something we can’t say on TV, at a fancy restaurant or around the neighbor’s kids. Heck, even apes taught to sign swear by shit and they fling it around like they were pooping Frisbees (and no one taught them that either. Teach an ape to sign and it will start to swear all on its own; the first swear is almost always ‘dirty,’ ie ‘shitty’).
Ironically, “shit” isn’t a swear word, or at least it wasn’t always. It’s an old Saxon word that meant poop and was about as offensive, which, in the days before private toilets, was not at all offensive. After the Normans conquered the Saxons, they started using the losing side’s words in especially derogatory situations—Farmer Francis taking a stool after some bad stew evoked only casual sympathy; Farmer Francis taking a shit brought on howls of scornful laughter. I know, I know. Medieval humor. You kind of had to be there.
My point is, swear words get their sting from being derived from something dirty or shameful, but what’s considered dirty or shameful varies from place to place. For you, the writer, this means being especially conscious of what would be an insult and what wouldn’t in the context of your specific world/race, remembering as you do so that shame is at the root of every perverse swear word. In ancient Rome, for example, there was no fully developed concept of being hetero- or homosexual, but there was a tremendous stigma attached to being thought the passive rather than the active partner. So despite what you may see on shows like Spartacus, saying something like, “Justicus used Brutus like a woman,” was no insult at all to Justicus (and may even be a compliment, depending on how big or scary Brutus was), but you could be killed if word got back to Brutus. Likewise, attacking a man’s virility or bravery was a far better way of getting your ass kicked than questioning his parentage. After all, a man had no control over who his father may have been, but reputation was practically the coin of the realm.
Finally, keep swearing appropriate to the place, time and, above all, person. In my relatively short time writing, I have already learned that readers have certain expectations when it comes to heroes and heroines and when a writer fails to develop those characters along those expectations, sales will reflect their disapproval. One of the biggest ways you can make your hero or heroine unlikeable is by making them an unrelenting pottymouth. A well-timed and well-deserved “Fuck you and the crippled baboon that gave you birth,” is one thing, but cussing every other word demonstrates an inability to cope with unpleasantness and a lack of self-control. And these are qualities that your hero simply cannot have.
This doesn’t mean your hero can never swear. It just means that your hero’s reaction to every bit of bad news can’t be a four-letter word, nor should he swear casually, as in, “This fucking turkey is delicious, hon. Best god-damn stuffing I’ve ever had in my fucking mouth.” (You want to hear something hilarious, though? You can give the exact same habits to a side-character whom you meant to be unlikeable and watch him turn into a fan favorite.) I was once told that every word you write should fight for its right to appear in your book; it’s true, it’s doubly true for expletives and it’s ten times true for expletives coming out of your hero’s mouth.
If you’re interested in the origins of your favorite foul words or want to learn some new ones, read Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Wicked Words by Hugh Rawson, and How To Swear Around the World by Jason Sacher. Online, check out insults.net or youswear.com to improve your international vocabulary. And if anyone tries to tell you fuck originated as an acronym, you tell them for me they’re full of shite.