Maybe it was Jennifer M. Eaton’s recent post on annoying language and trendy words that got my brain gears going on doing a post about this, or maybe it was just I didn’t have anything else to write about, or maybe it was a combination of the two of them, but today, I d ecided I wanted to talk about curses. Not as in hexes and witches and things like that, but swear words, cuss words, naughty language and the like, and how that transfers over to fantasy and science fiction writing.

Naturally, fantasy and science fiction is about world-building, creating a fictional world or future that’s believable and palpable, as well as fantastical, and the devil is in the details. Often, the details can include anything from clothing, government, economy, and language. Especially language. I’ve found in some critiques, people find authors who create their own systems of curse words for their worlds to be distracting; others find it fun and intriguing. I’m typically of the latter set, though I’m interested to hear thoughts from all sects. I think it’s important to be able to cultivate details about a fantasy world that make it clear that it’s a different place than the one we’re use to, without completely alienating the reader by making it unrelateable.

Science fiction, sometimes, has it easy, as the curse words are versions of the ones we use now, altered slightly with time. Frell from Farscape, frak from Battlestar, the litany of Chinese littering the language in Firefly. Fantasy and far-other-worldly sci fi can usually come up with anything, though made-up words are likely not going to cut it. For Aryneth, my own fantasy/sci-fi playground, I tend to call up religion and the gods, much in the spirit of the Greek epitaphs or the medieval tendancy to curse God’s eyes, word, etc, etc. For the fantasy, the curses are more elaborate, though, in a pinch, will be shortened, and the shortened version show up in the later sci fi years, the word much changed, just like some of the words in our own language. Body parts of the gods are favored (which reminds me of a great passage from Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, where she tries to find her own curse and settles on God’s Thumbs! because thumbs are so useful): Hadesari’s Mask, Pryston’s Ear, Aerella’s wing, Firae’s mane, tail, or hoof, and (my personal favorite), DiraSkyria’s bleeding tit, which eventually gets shorted to either just dira! or tit! Many fantasy authors will use other, less specific and over-reaching curses (Light! is a popular one that I use as well, but now it has me thinking that if Light can be used, so should Darkness), and there’s always the blazes to curse to, as well. I also play around with my own version of frell/frak, frex, which seems to be fairly interchangeable for a great many thing, much like our own great curse, fuck.

In general, do you find made-up curses in fantasy or science fiction distracting, or do you feel that it can be used very smartly and effectively? What are some of your own favorite made-up curses? Do you work much with your own languages in your work? I’d love any thoughts on the topic, especially if you’ve got some great curses to share!


  1. I think that they’re neat, provided that they don’t get too distracting. There’s a big difference between using made-up curses tastefully and using them just to use them, much in the same way that cursing in general enhances some books but ruins others. Right now I’ve been reading Asimov’s “Foundation,” and I’ve found it intriguing that a main character from early in the book has already been immortalized into a curse (By Seldon!) by the time the book concludes.

    • Now that is cool, having something so sweeping that, by the end of it, one of the characters is being lifted up enough to be a curse.

      I agree that curses used just to use them can spoil things. I’m intending for it to make sense that my characters would use them a lot since they’re rough and tumble mercenaries who speak like that often; it makes less sense, meanwhile, if they were raised nobles to be spouting curses all the time…Whether or not I pull that off is a different story, but we shall see.

      • Exactly… one thing curses are good for is showing differing social class in a novel, and differentiating the mannerisms between the nobles and those who aren’t. šŸ˜€

  2. I agree with Grace. As a history teacher I have been dismissive of historical fiction but appreciate much of it now as the authors research the background for the plot so thoroughly. I have learned that the Romans used whoreson for bastard and Mary was a curse word in Shakespeare’s time as perhaps Zounds was too. In sci-fi the made-up words for cursing is entertaining as are fictional words for objects of everyday living whether contemporary or futuristic and I use context clues to figure them out. Even more entertaining I think are corny sayings for the old south and Great West which are not really cursing but used emphatically such as Land Sakes, Land o Goshen, sake alive, I’ll be John Brown, shucks, heck, darn, drat, fiddlesticks, etc. And of course the pun “That cursed(spoken as 2 syllables) mosquito”

    • Zounds! That’s the one I was thinking of, from S’wounds, short for “God’s Wounds,” which I think is based on the wounds Jesus suffered in crucifixion? I can’t quite recall if I’m making that up or not; it’s been a few years since school, but, yes. This. And I love “quaint” little local colloquial cursing, too.

      Language is just too much fun. I don’t care if I sound nerdy saying so.

  3. I remember an f-word in Across the Universe, and I didn’t find it distracting at all. I also recall reading M.T. Anderson’s Feed and coming across made-up words and terms, whether they were good or bad, and for me it meant great world building.

    • I tend to see it that way, too< Medeia, but I know I've had some people say it's just weird. Sometimes I wonder if they just don't have enough imagination to appreciate it. I love coming across thoughtfully designed curses and phrases that show that the author’s put some thought into the language of their world…

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