Fantasy with Cusswords

Here is a post by Jo Walton at, which caught my eye because BLACK DOG is my first contemporary-ish fantasy, and so the first book I’ve written where it’s reasonable for characters to use cusswords or swear. The observation Walton makes about the difference between DOWNBELOW STATION and HELLBURNER is really interesting, though the language that impressed me in HELLBURNER was the integration of French-ish phrases, a lot like the Chinese integrated into “Firefly.”

There is just one character in BLACK DOG who uses profanity — I mean in English, I think sometimes there may be one or two off-color words in Spanish. Anyway, this character is a blue-color kind of guy, and under a lot of stress at the time.

Wow, did my mother have an opinion about cusswords in YA fantasy. Having someone say “Hell!” or “Damn!” doesn’t bother her nearly as much as a character dropping the f-bomb. She is semi-reconciled now, I think, but she never voluntarily reads anything at all where characters swear, which gives you some idea just how fiercely she hates the modern, shall we say direct use of language.

It makes me wonder: what do you all think about using actual modern cusswords? Here’s what I think:

In secondary world high fantasy, never.

In light, humorous fantasy, probably not.

In epic fantasy, no.

In grimdark, well, naturally. It’s part of the there-are-no-heroes trope.

In contemporary world urban fantasy or paranormal, sure, but swearing will (as in real life) have more impact if reserved for situations that are actually more stressful than usual.

In military SF, sure, even casual profanity seems okay. What do you think of military SF like Tanya Huff’s VALOR series, where the characters swear all the time, but with made-up futuristic cusswords?

In other SF, I was SO impressed by the way Jos Whedon used Chinese in “Firefly.” I would enjoy working that kind of thing into an SF novel sometime.

English profanity in SF — for me, it simply depends on the book. Remember how Lois McMaster Bujold had Miles switch from “Damnation!” as Miles Vorkosigan to “Shit!” as Admiral Naismith, during the burning-liquer-store incident? That right there is a clever, appropriate, and to my mind inoffensive use of profanity.

Thoughts? I’d like input, because at the moment I have someone say “Fuck!” one time in the BLACK DOG sequel. Thumbs up or thumbs down on that?

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18 thoughts on “Fantasy with Cusswords”

  1. My 4p worth would be that, probably for a majority of people, swearing is such a natural response to stressful situations or surprises – one that I think has been demonstrated to help regulate pain and shock responses as well – that it would be odd not to see it appear in dialogue.

    There’s a phenomenon I’ve started to notice in some US-originated TV series where characters from naturally very swear-y backgrounds or professions never seem to swear. The example that springs to mind is season one of The Following – to the best of my recall, in a series about hardened FBI agents chasing down a lunatic cult-manipulating serial killer, not one of them used the word “fuck”, not once.

    Maybe it’s a desire not to be seen to be copying HBO too closely, but once you’ve noticed the absence of swearing, the dialogue just starts to sound really wrong

  2. The creation of “polite” vs. “impolite” language is a class and cultural issue. Depending where you’re from, profanity can just be a descriptive sort of emphasis. (There are 7yo kids among some of my neighbours who run around yelling “I’m going to fucking tell on you, shithead!” and the like… it depends on what’s normal. Different people use language in different ways, and it reflects their different normal acculturations.)

    But cursing expresses – or violates – a taboo. There’s little-to-no shock value any more in swearing by “God’s wounds!” or “Christ’s blood!” – most of us are no longer shocked by invoking god’s name in any way other than prayerfully. But equally, there’s no logic in using fuck or bugger as an expletive in a universe where sexual intercourse has not been in some way taboo, anymore than you can insult someone by calling them a jerk if masturbation wasn’t historically seen as shocking, or whore if selling sex for money was never socially pathologised. Or call something a cock-up if the male sexual organ wasn’t seen in a certain light. Or find bastard insulting if legitimacy wasn’t an issue – “bastard” as an insult is really something of an odd linguistic survival at this point. Does “base-born common fool” have any force in today’s world? Not really, but at other points in history it would’ve been a insult worth shedding blood over. “Damn you” and “Devil take you” “Go to hell” have lost a great deal of transgressive force in societies that don’t really believe in the power of words to harm, or devils to carry off, or hell and fiery damnation.

    “May you be dead and damned to hell,” is qualitatively different from Catullus’ pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo – but both originally violate some social taboo.

    (I’m nearly certain shit is almost as universal as rubbish, though, and bloody might well be.)

    Shorter me: language and use of language ties in with social and cultural contexts, and can’t be divorced from them.

  3. It probably takes extra skill to prevent your reader/viewer from noticing. It’s startling to me how natural dialogue can sound in books written sixty years ago. Granted, there is just no way to say “He cursed viciously” in a TV episode. That’s one place a book would have an advantage.

  4. Pressed the button too soon. The thing that annoys me about a lot of YA is that the characters almost never use bog-standard profanity. It’s not true to my life experience as a teenager, nor, really, to anyone from my generation I’ve talked to about it. Fifteen-year-olds aren’t mealy-mouthed among themselves, in general. It’s a bit ridiculous that YA publishing standards tend to pretend otherwise.

    Anyway. Not that I have strong opinions or anything.

  5. This cultural aspect of profanity would be (is) a huge issue if you’re writing a contemporary. For fantasy, I think it could definitely be important to think about the taboo aspect of profanity — Sherwood Smith made this point in a Goodreads comment, pointing out that in a fantasy society where women are truly equal to men, all kinds of gender-based profanity should vanish from the language. Your comments about “whore” and “bastard” and so forth get at the same point. I definitely couldn’t have anyone call a woman anything even vaguely similar to “whore” in the HOUSE OF SHADOWS world, for example — at least, not in the city of Lonne — because the cultural roles associated with the keiso, and even the aika, carry more respectful connotations than that.

    I had totally forgotten the roots of “jerk.” I’m going to feel weird the next time I want to call someone a jerk, now.

    I really like the way “May you be dead and damned to hell” rolls off the tongue. I need more curses like that in my secondary world fantasy.

  6. Hah, yes, certainly, when your name comes up in conversation, it’s always, “That Liz Bourke, the problem with her is she is just too timid about expressing her opinions.”

    I can see why it would be tricky for YA, particularly because it’s often the parents buying the books, not the kids. But also, the fact is, where I grew up? There was not a lot of cussing even when kids were not supervised by adults. Some, yes, sure, but not nearly what you see in some YA books that are going for gritty and realistic. So that does actually vary. I grew up in a solidly middle-class suburban area, btw, definitely neither wealthy nor poor. And I’m pretty sure I’m a good bit older than you, which probably makes a difference.

    What about MG? I think those of us who got into this on Twitter basically agreed that MG did not need to have a lot (any) cuss words in it. I have to add, it’s nice to be able to (largely) step around this issue by writing secondary world fantasy rather than contemporary fiction.

  7. Yeah, things are geographically and culturally specific. And change over time and from region to region alters the definition of “normal.”

    I don’t really read books aimed at the agegroup younger than twelve, so my sense of what is or would be appropriate there is nonexistent. It depends on the book, the scene, the intent. But isn’t that true for everything?

  8. Yes.

    I never read MG … except some of Diana Wynne Jones is MG and I read those. And Sarah Prineas. And Frances Hardinge… so it turns out I do read some MG after all. Kind of took me by surprise when I realized that.

  9. I notice cursing sometimes. I remember one series where for the first 4(+) books everyone cursed with ‘the cursed x’ sort of thing – seemed a bit flat and definitely was repetitive. Later books in the series had more variety in cursing.

    I am often bothered by what probably seems as the generic “damn’ in high fantasy because as far as I know it comes out of Christianity’s particular view of ultimate destinations. If you don’t have that – and the mileiu usually doesn’t – it doesn’t fit. Writers, please find something else. If you’ve got a multi deity pantheon sort of like ancient Greece or Rome, go find out how they swore in speech, and adapt accordingly. Some grad students have undoubtedly studied it. Maybe they didn’t invoke gods at all. Maybe they impugned personal habits.

    And then there is the way of cursing that doesn’t use shock words, but highly insulting descriptive language “the fleas of 1000 camels infest your body parts’ take on cursing. Which I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

  10. Swear words don’t bother me. What DOES bother me are the swear word substitutes used in some YA novels. These stick out like BLEEP does in John Stewart video clips. Just use the swears, already. The pseudo-swears just scream INSERT SHIT/FUCK HERE!

  11. Speaking of grad students, I’m thinking Liz Bourke would be a good resource. I bet she could hand me a list of 20 classical phrases off the top of her head, to be adapted to whatever secondary world I was writing. Gillian Bradshaw uses great curses in her historicals — “Holy God, holy Immortal One, what were you thinking?” kinds of things.

    I think the “Fleas of 1000 camels” sort of thing sounds seriously weird unless you are writing in a world that echoes the Ottoman Empire or whatever culture it was where that was actually used.

  12. One advantage to having Mexican protagonists that I did not think of ahead of time is the way they can swear in Spanish. Except Natividad, who really does not cuss at all because that’s how it was in her family — boys yes, girls no.

  13. The fleas of a thousand camels is culture specific, but the idea can be adapted, like this guy did:

    Now THIS is a curse: “Had I been a bunion or a fiend’s hang nail, a louse on a viper or an eel gone stale,…
    the crawling corruption, murderously smelly as the oldest member of an ancient eggery, Ranker than Judas, Ganelon, or Gregory – That thing called Chilbert, fish-scaled and verminous, his face the spit and image of his terminus, his sum a belch fathered by thin, sour wine, a participle dangling on a vile bard’s line, a tick and a leech and the sweat of a craven… [it goes on for a while longer winding up with ]… May you marry a ferret and have children just like you!”

    Just a bad word in a sentence, which these days is almost as invisible as punctuation (depending, of course, on context) hasn’t nearly the force of a rant like that. When the writer mentions someone who swears creatively without using a foul word, this is the sort of thing I mentally fill in. And I wish more writers would at least try to think a little outside the standard American box of 3 or 4 swear words, to convey things, especially when they aren’t writing about the modern day and culture.

  14. The rough equivalent of “Damn you” in ancient Greek is “Go to the crows.” (I’m assuming this has something to do with being eaten by carrion birds, since not having proper funeral rites is a terrible thing.)

    Mind you, from my not-very-proficient reading of Greek, they tend to use religious interjections for emphasis: “Yes indeed by Zeus!” “By Poseidon, no!” “By the twins, what a terrible thing!” (Swearing by the twins is used in the Athenian comedy to indicate someone from Sparta: apparently it was an oath particularly associated with Lakonia.) Of course, there are plenty of salty biological puns in the comedy, and as for proper magical cursing, there is plenty of academic work on stuff like the Roman defixiones, the curse tablets. (“My his hands be bound and his tongue be bound,” and stuff like that.)

    (Sorry. I have a tendency to go on about interesting fragments.)

  15. Ah, yes, research! Always a good excuse to read fascinating stuff. Some of which, hey, you might really use later.

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