Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cussin' and Color

Anyone who's tried it will tell you that writing is first and foremost an act of creation. Every story has it's characters and scenes that need to be formed from the actors imagination, but getting into Fantasy or Sci-Fi, there is so much more to conjure.

Profanity is something that really adds color to a story, but the words we use just wouldn't fit outside of our social context. I didn't put much thought into it until I wrote-in a farmer/veteran. Plainly, he wouldn't be speaking like the Aristocracy of my story, and not considering how he would speak differently would make my character's pretty 2-dimensional.

I remembered a conversation that I had with a friend at work. I had heard a customer use the phrase “Tabernac!” as a frustrated outburst. I asked him what it meant, and he didn't know, but he's heard a French-speaking friend use it on the golf course, so he knew it was pretty foul. My friend had been raised in Montreal, and only spoke French until he was 14.

He informed me that “Tabernac” was, as I suspected, derived from the location in a Catholic church that represents the presence of Christ. (In English, the word “Tabernacle” is used. It's from the Old Testament referring to the tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept). Before explaining it to me, he said “As you know, a lot of swearing comes from religious words...” Well, yes, but I hadn't really considered it. That's why I love talking with bi-lingual people, they have a wider perspective, since words frame our thoughts, and they can think in two dialects.

Anyhow, to create the profanity of the world, I had to start with the religion of the world, and more importantly, how that religion was presented to the illiterate masses.

How do you deal with this? If your world-building is ground-up, like in Fantasy or Sci-Fi, how do handle this? How have you seen it handled by other authors?


  1. Good discussion topic, Will!
    Since my book is science fiction (as in, a galaxy far, far away) I had to be creative. I decided I didn't want to make up words, like the show Battlestar Galactica did with 'frack.' But I didn't want to use a lot of our words, either. So I settled on one word - damn. Of course, I didn't want a lot of foul language in it either. Hopefully it works for people.

  2. Writing poetry is somewhat different to what you write so I guess I'm not going to be much help to you Will.
    Good Luck

    Have a peaceful Sunday.

  3. Hi Will .. in normal conversation .. I'd probably (if I knew) ask where it came from .. and then just say I thought it related to ... and then leave it - at some stage your friend might suddenly pick up the fact that it's used in the wrong context and shouldn't be used at all .. and perhaps lead him to think about other aspects of his speech and writing perhaps .. on the other hand for someone who only speaks one language - he should be better off linguistically than me ... difficult one .. especially now our communication is changing so much with text, FB and Twitter ..

    Good thought - Hilary

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  5. Interesting concept. I try to avoid using profanity in my writing, just as I do in my everyday speech. However, creating a new profane word that has no context to the reader is an interesting way to day with it, as is creating the word from the context of a religion.

    A profane word is primarity only effective from the standpoint of its ability to shock and offend. You make a good point about foreign profane words. Sometimes I'll read what is noted to me a profane word in Spanish and ask my wife about it. After her initial surprise or shock, she is sometimes unable to really translate it and when she does it frequently sounds so silly or meaningless one would wonder why it was so shocking. I guess it comes with the history of usage, the sound of the word, and the connotations involved.

    Good thoughts in this post.

    Tossing It Out

  6. One of my favorite form of cursing comes from Kim Harrison. You might like reading a book from her in her Rachel Morgan series. "The turn" is a curse and then her pixie "Jinks" curses using tinkerbell ex:"Tinks panties rachel!" it might be fun for you to explore choices from different fantasy authors.
    Or if you really want to try and be creative, use the word verifications to come up with some fun words to curse with. it might be fun to find the word you want to use, then create around it.

  7. I try to keep the profanity to a minimum, although some is present as I want to keep it real. My books are all reality based, so no need to make up words, either.

  8. I don't have a series where a language or words are made up, although some concepts of physics are best represented in the abstract. I don't use any any F-bombs nor any G-damns. Also, I heard the Hebrew language does not contain any swear words.

    Stephen Tremp

  9. I like the 'fictional profanity'. The Artemis Fowl 'fairy' swear word of 'D'Arvit!' comes to mind, as does the sword of truth wizards use of the exclaimed 'Bags!'-- I think you pick something a little 'sacred' from your created words and twist it a little. Then again the words for Poo always suffice. Poo is poo is poo and it is never good.

  10. This was a difficulty for me, because I wrote my fantasy world to specifically have no religion.