Here’s a great post by Sherwood Smith at Book View Café: Worldbuilding: Curses and Cusses .
How many Sf or fantasy novels have you read, or shows have you watched, that toss you right out when the characters started cussing and the made-up words, or euphemisms, sound totally fake?
Some writers solve the problem by ignoring it. American writers use American slang, metaphors, and cusswords, even in invented worlds full of dragons and magic…
SOME American writers certainly do, and wow can that seem jarring, speaking of tossing the reader out of the story. It depends. American modern idiom sounds really strange in some fantasy worlds. Fake words that sound fake, not great; but there are (I’m sure) examples of fake words that don’t sound fake. Feel free to mention examples. The examples I personally can think of right offhand are in SF stories, not fantasy.
Anyway, this is an issue that I have had to deal with every. single. time. I write a book set in a brand-new world. You may well not have noticed, but there is zero cursing in House of Shadows. Nada.
If you look, you will see that there is no cursing or cussing of any kind in the Griffin Mage trilogy either. Yes, I did find that a little confining.
Remember the cursing in The City in the Lake? “Cracking ice!” and like that. I don’t remember, but things like that. There are no references to gods or God in that world, so I had to come up with something else.
In many fantasy worlds, including one of mine — the Floating Islands — people swear by “the gods,” right? I don’t do a lot with religion in that world — nothing much at all, in fact — but people do say “We thank the Gods!” and “Gods preserve us!” and stuff like that.
In The Mountain of Kept Memory, of course the gods are all dead. So curse are things like “Gods dead and forgotten!” That worked well for that world.
There’s just one God in The White Road of the Moon, and there religion is important. But did you notice the God is genderless? If the copy editor and I caught everything, you should never, ever see a gender reference in relation to the God. In that world, the God is not really personified at all.
So, let’s see what Sherwood Smith has to say about this topic. … Ah, as one might expect, we get a good deal of historical context in this post. Thus:
Another worldbuilding curiosity to keep in mind is how words can alter in meaning and effect over time. … “Plaguey” is merely a quaint adjective, … no one anymore says, “Plague take you!” which was an extremely serious imprecation indeed after the mid 1300s, when half the population of Europe died within about a year. “Zounds!” was “God’s wounds!”–one of those expressions one swore by, incomprehensible now.
In some cultures, people swear by something, usually deities or leaders, either their own or someone else’s. In our history, for example, a hundred years ago it was okay to swear by the Greek or Roman gods: “By Jupiter!” was all right for gentlemen to say (though not for ladies) but “By God!” was considered blasphemous by either sex. …
Lots more in the post. Well, it’s an interesting topic, and yes indeed it is an fundamental part of worldbuilding. Are there gods or aren’t there, and is it safe to swear by them or isn’t it? Fundamental, indeed. And that’s before we get to cussing based on excretion or sex — which is, I would argue, more important for tone (gritty or not?) than for worldbuilding per se.
I will add, yes, Winter of Ice and Iron treats gods in a completely different way again: real, but removed from human society, potentially dangerous, not entities to pray to or curse by… well, you’ll see this fall!
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