Frak It All: The 5 Types of Swears You Find in Speculative Fiction

While we at the Riot are taking this lovely summer week off to rest (translation: read by the pool/ocean/on our couches), we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Wednesday, July 8th.

This post originally ran June 19, 2015.
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Swearing can get weird in speculative fiction. In any other genre, it’s no big deal. Characters either curse or they don’t. But in science fiction and fantasy, where authors have to build whole universes, cultures and languages, cursing can get …creative.

Profanity in speculative fiction runs the gamut, from nonsense words (“Tanj you!”) to phrases that hint at the world-building work an author has done. (“Blackened body of god!”) These invented curses can either trip up a reader by making them check a glossary at the back of a book, or act as Chekov’s Gun by giving readers important clues about a story’s mythology.

Some are silly, some are shockers, but generally, I find that swearing in speculative fiction tends to fall into five dirty, dirty categories.

1) The PG curse.

These are the hecks and goshdarnits of speculative fiction. They are completely made up, but clearly not very vulgar in their own fictional universe. Think “Merlin’s beard, “ from the Harry Potter books, and its slightly-nastier cousin “Merlin’s Pants.” Or, even saltier, “Merlin’s most baggy Y-fronts.” Then there’s “Fewmets!” from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door. (Fewmets are described in the book as dragon poop.) All of these are said pretty lightly; no one clutches their wizard pearls when Merlin’s name is taken in vain.

2) The F-bomb stand-in

Sometimes an author decides to make up a swear. It makes sense: the author had to make up a whole society, why not include swears? What you end up with, sometimes, are nonsense words that are supposed to sound like languages.

Jo Walton wrote a great piece about made up swears in fantasy and science fiction for Tor. Back in the ‘80s, and before, she says, swears were invented or avoided. Now, not so much. Were the made-up curses an attempt to get past publishers that wanted cleaner books? Did they reflect the times? Was it just the way people built world? No idea, but here’s some food for thought: you know where you see creative swearing now? YA books. The Maze Runner by James Dashner has “shuck,” “klunk,” and “shank.” (Guess what “shuck” replaces.)

The weird thing about made up swears is that they seem to work on television (how many of us know people who say “frak” or “smeg”? How many Boomer nerds say “Shazbot?” But for some reason, similar words in written sci-fi don’t seem to catch on the same way.

3) The actual, real F-bomb

Because in a gritty universe, made up of grimdark characters, some swears are the same. Here’s the logic: fucking and shit are real things that happen in this universe, so why shouldn’t they also be used as curses? This is something you see in recent fantasy epics with darker elements, where the taverns are dirty and the people there would just as soon stab you and rob your corpse as look at you.

There are tons of authors who let their characters swear, but my favorite offender here is the obvious one: George R.R. Martin. (In Jo Walton’s Tor essay she mentions a fan artist who made new covers for popular books. A Game of Thrones new title was Knights Who Say Fuck.)

4) The expletive deleted

Why make up a swear when you can just bleep it out? For years, authors have experimented with swearing by just omitting it. Because sometimes you can’t ____ing curse even if you really #$%ing want to because it’s a <expletive deleted> necessary part of your character’s BLEEPing development.

Case in point: In Piers Anthony’s Xanth books, symbol swearing is part of the plot since curse words actually cause curses. All curses said in the presence of minors, for example, are represented by punctuation or blanks in the text. Kiersten White takes bleeping to a whole new level in Paranormalcy. It starts as an in-joke, but the main character doesn’t swear, she bleeps.

An even more subtle way of deleting expletives? No swears at all. This isn’t unique to speculative fiction, but recently I was looking through Imaro by Charles R. Saunders. Although the reader is told that plenty of people curse in the book, the actual swears in the dialogue are pretty mild. Imaro was published in 1981, which goes back to Walton’s point about language being cleaner in the genre books of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I can think of one last way to bleep out a swear: the character that curses in another language. We’ve all seen it: Something bad happens and the protagonist’s alien/elven/werewolf friend breathes a curse in their own language.

For example, from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles

“Kraemet brevetan Aerin!” I fought down the sudden urge to laugh. My Siaru wasn’t perfect, but I was fairly certain Kilvin had said “Shit in God’s beard.”

And that brings me to my next category.

5) The religious curse

You might be an alien, you might be a wizard or you might be a demon, but no matter who you are, I think we can all agree that there’s nothing so cathartic as taking your own personal deity’s name in vain. I love religious swears in speculative fiction. There’s just enough blasphemy for me to accept that the curse holds weight, but just enough of a difference to remind me that this is not in my world. Sometimes the curse is mild. In N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, the characters use “gods” as a swear, despite the fact that gods are actual characters in these books and even they use “gods” as a swear.

My favorite at the moment is probably “Bilford Bogin!” from Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch’s Rat Queens. I’ve caught myself saying it aloud. I’m still not sure what I’m taking in vain (the comic hasn’t gotten to it yet) but it’s satisfying to say.

Religious curses are so interesting because they reflect world-building more accurately that the other types of swears do.

So when Patrick Rothfuss’s character says “Shit in God’s beard,” you know beards are important to the culture of the guy who is swearing, and when N.K. Jemisin has one of her characters, a god, say “gods,” in a moment of frustration, a reader learns something about this world: there is more than one god, for example, and this particular god probably prays to a god higher than herself.

Swearing is about taking the name of something important in vain. You can learn a lot about a culture’s values by looking at the things it considers to be obscene.

That’s the best kind of (expletive deleted) world-building there is.

What are your favorite #$#ing fictional swears? Let us know in the comments.

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