Fantasy Swear Words – Guest Post by, Jaq D Hawkins…

With people finding more time to read in our current circumstances, I thought I would address the topic of swear words in fiction writing.

Many people have children at home while school is delayed and somehow, we all become more conscious of swearing when children are around, not that any of us can compete with what they say among themselves when they’re actually in school together! Gone are the days of “gosh,” “dang” and “drat!, not to mention “Jimminy Cricket!”

Personally, when I start to read a book and find a character dropping F-bombs left and right, I get bored quickly. I’m not a prude about swearing and in person can be rather potty-mouthed myself depending on the situation, but I find it doesn’t translate well in fiction, or worse, in non-fiction. I read a book within the last year that was non-fiction about dietary habits and the constant swearing just made the book sound unprofessional.

Sometimes it can be justified in fiction. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, but this is one situation where a character might be rough and some swearing in dialogue would feel natural for that person. However, in most cases, I find less is more. Dialogue peppered with swear words in every sentence gets quickly tedious. On the other hand, sometimes an exclamation is a natural reaction to a crisis situation in the plot.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, apart from giving us useful words like ‘Grok’, have been providing alternatives to common swear words for decades. Devoted readers even sometimes pick up these made-up words and use them in real life for greater clarity or acceptability.

Terry Pratchett provided us with the phrase, “Excuse my Klatchian” for situations where an expletive slips out in a situation where a profanity exclamation fits. He also gave us the phrase, ‘It’s just swank,’, which the English will recognise as closely resembling a common swear word, without actually swearing.

Battlestar Galactica gave us ‘frakking’ which is similar enough to a better known F-word put into context and all the more effective as it sounds the same as fracking, a heinous process of upsetting ecological balance to seek an energy source. In V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series we have ‘Sanct!’ to replace ‘Damn!’ and in Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo ‘Djel’ is used like invoking a god in frustrating situations.

One has to be cautious when making up expletives for an imaginary world and using a search engine (I use ecosia.com because they plant trees with their profits) to see if other meanings are already in use is highly advised. For example, I was reading a Fantasy novel that used ‘scrumming’ in context like “That scrumming rat stole my lunch” (not an actual line from the book). Out of curiosity, I did a search and found the word is not only commonly used in Rugby, but in Urban Dictionary equates roughly with ‘dogging’. It pays to check your terms!

Fantasy has kept giving over decades with new terms. In my own recent reading for pleasure, I came across “That sharding roster” in All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey and “Swivvin’ wolves” in The Black Prism by Brent Weeks.

Overall, as a reader of a wide spectrum of genres myself, I think it would make an interesting creative exercise to generate a few new exclamation words into genres besides Fantasy. English slang provides a few fun words and phrases like ‘fobbing’ and ‘dozy twonk’ that are considered acceptable for children. The English language provides plenty of scope for making up new words that might sound natural tripping off the tongues of those crime fiction toughs.

Also, local or in-group slang can account for many a new term, as is beautifully demonstrated in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

Personally, I think developing these original exclamations and terms makes for better reading than using established crudities. Do you agree? Disagree? Have some interesting examples in your own projects?

Jaq D Hawkins

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19 thoughts on “Fantasy Swear Words – Guest Post by, Jaq D Hawkins…

  1. It’s difficult to write about criminals or despicable characters knowing in real life swear words are common but I agree, too much swearing ruins the story. I dropped a few F-bombs in my first novel and after re-reading, I toned it down for following stories but the odd swear word has to fit in sometimes. I picked up a novel written by someone I know personally and their everyday language is laced with profanity and his book was the same. Otherwise, it was a good story but the swearing ruined the book.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent post Jaq and thanks for sharing Chris.. x The Irish have always been creative when it comes to swear words and I remember being shocked overhearing two elderly ladies describing the traffic when trying to cross the road in Dublin when I first lived here 23 years ago.. the F word has been adapted and slips into conversation frequently. However, I think in films, television and in fiction books it is used for shock value and I think is sloppy script writing.. I accept that people do swear.. as I do on occasion but it has to be appropriate and not littered through a story to add colour. I do think that in fantasy there is an expectation that characters will still be swearing in whatever world they are in and if it is in context I don’t have a problem…

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  3. In my fantasy/scifi world, there are two suns and the dominant sun is called Takh. It’s vitally important to the inhabitant’s lives so: ‘Takh be damned!’, ‘Takh only knows’, ‘Takh be willing’ etc. However the equivalent of the f-bomb is the word ‘you’ because they all think and speak in the third person. Thus ‘you’ equates to something unnatural and deeply ‘wrong’.

    In human based scifi though, some characters will swear, when appropriate, but most don’t. As writers we get to decide how realistic we want our characters to sound. I’m in the ‘not too much’ camp.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks. 🙂 The ‘you’ derives from the fact that the characters are all hermaphrodites. Because of their biology, the only pronoun used in polite conversation is ‘it’. As you’ve probably guessed they’re not human. lol

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I don’t like it at all. In my real life, I very, very seldom swear, so why would I want to read a story full of those kind of gutter words. And that is exactly what they are. Anyone with a small bit of education can express themselves very well without resorting to that kind of talk. As far as making up words, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense. All it does is distract the reader’s attention from the story, and I’m sure any of you authors will admit that is the last thing you want to happen. If I see some made-up word, I’m naturally going to stop and try to figure out what it means, perhaps even go back over the sentence or paragraph to see if I’ve missed something. By now the mood and smooth flow of the story has been lost, and I’m left with trying to gain it back. I’m not a prude by any means, but if I start to read something and come across a few ‘F…’ words, that book will soon be put down and forgotten. This has happened and I have no regrets about doing so.

    Just my two-cents worth for whatever it’s worth.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t like swearing in books unless it’s appropriate to the character/situation. Too much of it is simply boring.

    But my then editor really reacted badly to my invented swear words (asteroid miners swear, don’t you know) set in a several centuries future. They didn’t go with the idea that words would have evolved, and diversity would have got rid of a whole stream of swearwords. They accused me of being prudish, and should just use ‘f…’

    The recent editor is fine with future words. And so am I 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Jiminy Cricket goes back to the 1950s and would probably be unknown through most of the world. If I remember correctly (I’m old) it was mostly popularised through an American ‘wholesome family show’ called Leave it to Beaver, about a boy whose nickname was Beaver (before that too took on alternative meanings) and his older brother Wally. It was considered fine for children to say, considering it came from a Disney character.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with the point, that too much swearing is pointless. It doesn’t achieve the desired shock-effect anymore and thus is pretty useless. Unless you use it to characterize a person. But it shouldn’t be your main character. Then it gets really tedious, like the constant use of dialect does. If we look at it closely, it IS a kind of dialect. You don’t learn it at school (officially), only a certain sub-group of the country uses it (some expressions are wider spread, but since I’m German and look from outside onto the English language I can for sure exclaim that Jiminy Cricket took me some time to “translate”, but then Germans are far more potty mouthed and we are not as religiously hung up), it varies from region to region – so slang and dialect have a lot in common and swear words are just slang.

    Liked by 3 people

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