Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Swearing: A worldbuilding hangout report

For our discussion of swearing, I hosted Brian Dolton, Dale Emery, David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Janet Harriett, Leigh Dragoon, Jaleh Dragich, and Glenda Pfeiffer. This one was really fun, and funny. How could any discussion of swearing in worldbuilding not be? Be aware that swear words will appear below!

We started by introducing some of the general bases of swearing, which include religion and oath-taking, and taboo topics like sex and excrement. Different cultures can take various of these as underpinnings for swearing. Because religion is something that we typically build for our worlds to distinguish them from the real world, they can take on a much more world-grounded feel than swearing expressions based on sex and excrement, because the latter will resemble our own swear words more closely.

Jaleh mentioned that she read a story where people use "carp" in place of "crap." This led us into a discussion of how real-world swears will be altered. David observed that when you're not allowed to use the real swears of our own world, people will tend to vary them a lot. This leads to usages like "pr0n" and "f**k", snap as a substitute for shit, or Oh Mylanta as a substitute for Oh my God. Dale mentioned "Gorram" and "Frak" and Janet mentioned "piece of gosse." Brian said he's heard "Godfrey Daniel" as a substitution for God - and of course there's always "goodness gracious me" which has served a similar purpose.

Some lovely examples:
Gosh darn, heck, jeepers, son of a biscuit eater, son of a mutated sea monkey, misbegotten son of a camel-seller, colder than a witch's uncle...

There is a certain extent to which you can take an existing swearing phrase and play fill-in-the-blank. "Son of a ____" is one good example of this, and Jaleh suggested "In ____'s name". However, one should be careful with "Holy ____," because it is so common that it can appear to be overly simplistic, especially if it is overused or used to the exclusion of other swearing forms. One of my guests said it had a Batman feel (watch out)!

When you're coming up with a swearing system, use your creativity! Do a bit of thinking about the grounding that exists in your world and its culture. If you're going to use "by my honor," then one would imagine that the construct of honor would be culturally important.

We also had a link recommended as a source for Victorian lower-class slang, here.

David told us about an interesting phenomenon in Austronesia, "taboo replacement." In the society he mentioned, people were often named after natural objects. This led to some interesting results for example when a chief died, because it was taboo to mention the name of the dead person at all, which meant they had to replace the name of the natural object itself to keep anyone from having to pronounce it.

David also mentioned that when you're creating a language, one thing that can make it look more real is to follow the natural-language pattern of having pejorative meaning associated with female terms. He compared Mr. vs. Madam (which also means a brothel-keeper). Apparently the rather vile Spanish word "puta" originally meant a scullery-maid or cleaning lady rather than what it has come to mean since. Obviously this is something to watch out for, because it's not a choice that you'll necessarily want to make, for reasons of principle. In fact, Glenda said it would be fun to turn this on its head and see what one could do to make male terms turn pejorative. That would be another option - it's good to think about whether there are any major categories like this (gender categories or racial categories spring to mind) that cause words to gain bad extra meanings and thus be euphemized as time goes on.

Swearing itself doesn't have to have the same cultural meaning. I gave the example of swearing in American and Australian culture (as exemplified by my own view vs. my husband's view). In the American view it's a way of posturing so that other people will be shocked, and feel what I'd call "ugly power" coming from the person swearing. In my husband's view, it's more like pepper on a pizza - it just gives the language more flavor. In most cases, the literal meaning of the words bears little connection to their function in swearing - it's all about the emotional impact.

In Varin, my people are expected to swear, and it's more indicative of sincere feeling and emotional involvement than it is of ugliness or shock. I've mentioned this in past hangouts, but each of the Varin gods is patron of a set of activities, and when you're swearing about one of those activities, you're expected to swear by the activity's patron god in some manner.

Historical settings can pose challenges in the swearing department. Sometimes, using the actual swear words of the era can appear comical to a modern listener's ears. It's a delicate balance, therefore, between accuracy and the desire to evoke the appropriate listener response.

Some more examples we discussed: kek replacing "crap," used in the Northern UK, but Jaleh has also heard the word in gypsy contexts (Jaleh, can you be more specific here?). Brian Dolton says he's heard keks as a word for trousers, and he thinks it's related to "kack" as a word for excrement. David mentioned that he's seen "kek" in World of Warcraft, where it becomes a translation of another faction's swear words. Then there was "chuff" in England. Brian's example was "chuffing chuff the chuffing chuffer," which had us all eminently amused! "Chuffed" also means "proud" in England and Australia. There was also "smurf" as a substitute for everything in the smurfs animated world, and "smeg" from Red Dwarf.

If you're designing a swearing system for your world, it's good to decide whether you're going to use a substitution strategy, where you take all the basic swears we have and substitute new things in for them, or whether you are going to design your swearing from the bottom up with a new religion and a new linguistic approach. Who swears how can also depend on class and vocation. Jaleh suggested that biologists might prefer excrement-related swearing. David mentioned that there are certain phrases in academic language that are considered terrible insults, such as "your reasoning is reductive" or "that won't lead to a formalized theory." Politeness is intertwined with swearing, and it's fully possible to say things that sound polite, and have their meaning be insulting.

A few final examples: "Mother"/"mamma" is constantly used in swearing and insults, while "padre" in Spanish means "cool." Opposites can be used, as when "bad" means "good." The more recent developments in this area have seen the word "sick" or "wicked" used to mean "good." In Australia I've heard the same meaning carried by the word "feral."

In Shakespeare, "get thee to a nunnery" implied "go to a whorehouse." Erin Peterson suggested the link came from the fact that brothels and convents were the only place you could find a society of all women. Dale observed that "nobody has topped Shakespeare for subtlety of swearing." "Country matters" were sexual matters.

Jaleh said that swearing can reveal world setting. In a science fictional setting you might have people swear by "black holes and supernovas" to evoke images of destruction. Brian mentioned "vack" as a swear word, short for "vacuum" (the vacuum of space).

In short, it's worth giving some time to the idea of how people swear in your world, because it will both reflect and reveal the world you are using, and its history. Thanks to everyone for coming and making this such a serious - and seriously amusing - discussion!


  1. I can't remember the book I found 'kek' in. It was while I was in college. My roommate and I were looking up stuff about gypsies in order to further develop our gypsy clan in NERO, a live-action role-playing group. We wanted to make ours not quite as fantasy stereotyped and more realistic. Along the way, we stumbled onto this book about gypsy language. It wasn't a full primer or anything, but it had an extensive list of vocabulary. Kek was one of our favorite words, and it just stuck, especially since I graduated with a degree in biology and worked at the Columbus Zoo for awhile, including one summer in the kids zoo/barn area. I worked with lots of excrement then. ;) I'll tell ya, I'd rather deal with bullshit than chicken shit. Though the words have different connotations that that phrase would indicate. Lol!

    Carp wasn't actually mine though. I'd just read it in one of Hilari Bell's books: Trickster's Girl, an interesting cross between fantasy, myth, and SF. It was neat how the author had the MC using it without thinking, but then Raven questioned why she swore by a fish. He'd lost touch with current lingo, so the MC had to explain how carp came from crap and why (language moderators blocking certain words, so letter switching became popular to get around that). But the idea of swearing by a fish still lingered as a subcontext to me.

  2. Thanks a lot for the clarifications, Jaleh. I remembered that "carp" was a reference, but I didn't have the name of the book written down.

  3. Interesting discussion.
    What could I possibly add, but #@%`*&!!!!!

    Seriously though, long ago I read a pop-psychology book called "Four Letter Words Games." Informative, as I recall, but the author's predictions failed to pan out.
    (He thought that 'regular' swear words would soon lose their impact, and be replaced, probably by words centered around our fear of death.)

    On a more lively note, I heard that the modern Hebrew language was created/revived by devout rabbis and scholars, who omitted any swear words. But of course Israelis are human, and they generally swear in Arabic.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Paul! There are a lot of great books and articles about swearing from a linguistic perspective, too. Swearing definitely has an important function in culture and language. :)

  5. Great post/discussion - lots of good stuff to think about when writing new worlds. I like Lewis Black's take on swearing: There's no such thing as bad language. We are adults and these are the words we use to express frustration, rage, anger, in order that we don't pick up a tire iron and beat the sh*t out of someone. :-)

    1. Terri, swear words certainly have their uses. Apparently they even help us not to feel pain! Thanks for the comment.