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?
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