MisCon 28: Art of Swearing
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
SAB: What’s the difference between cursing and cussing?
BC: Cursing is hexing, making something happen. Cussing doesn’t have the same connotation.
AH: Cursing has an object.
DPF: It’s the difference between “goddammit” and “goddamn you.”
BC: In fantasy, curses do come true.
SAB: Where does the curse come from? Do you invent it?
DPF: In my Crosspointe books, the culture is sailing based. In this world where having an intact ship is important, people use the word “crack” instead of “fuck.” Cursing also comes from religion, but since they have no hell, they turn to the sea which is literally black water. So they tell people to go “to the black depths.” Work the system around the culture. Cursing comes from culture.
AH: You can swear and still be polite. As an editor, I think of the story as a river. It needs to be written within the banks. When you make something up without basis, then you’re out of the river. You need to stay on the river. You need to be in the basis of your society.
BC: Not only do you have to understand the basis of the society but you also have to understand the basis of the person. What if the character doesn’t swear? Then what do they do if they get hurt?
SAB: Some things are universal. Many curses are scatological. Shit, everyone’s got it. Someone has to shovel it. They’re also often related to reproductive anatomy, religion, and whatever they despise in society. In one of my books, they despise priests so calling someone a believer is an insult. There’s always someone low on the totem pole or with the short end of the stick.
BC: You can find many of them on the internet or on Wikipedia.
DPF: Or the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
BC: There are interesting terms like “fart catcher” or “bum basher.” They show a way of looking at the world. They seem original now, but they were once common terms.
DPF: Many terms are just twisted labels as raunchy terminology.
BC: We all have physical bodies. It’s why the physicality of these terms is intrinsic.
AH: But what if the characters are ghosts? How do you deal with that? You can’t use traditional cursing.
DPH: Cursing can be something that’s admired. It can become a contest for who can be the more creative. Cursing doesn’t have to be an insult. It can be a game like what it can be in Ireland and Scotland.
AH: Like the Shakespeare phrase, “Get thee to a nunnery.”
DPF: A nunnery at that time was a whorehouse.
SAB: When is cursing appropriate or too much?
BC: Sailors and farmers curse a lot. It’s appropriate if it feels right to the locale and the connotation of the situation or conflict.
DPF: The earthiness of language is used in certain situations. For instance, locker room talk. You don’t attempt to soften the language there. In my Crosspointe books, the male characters are more earthier to each other than when in a more formal setting or speaking with women. It depends on who you’re around. If others swear more, then everyone swears.
SAB: And if everyone’s genteel and someone suddenly swears, it can make a big impact.
DPF: Like Betty White in the film Lake Placid.
SAB: Or the horse race scene in My Fair Lady.
BC: Basically putting shit on muffins.
SAB: Someone can talk a blue streak to relieve tension because he is scared. You can use it as a moment to get into your character.
Q: In Firefly, Mandarin Chinese was used for cursing. Does this also work in written stories?
SAB: You can do it in film, but it’s hard in print. You need to put it in context.
DPF: It’s hard to use foreign cultures for that. It throws the reader because you’ve translated everything else except the indelicate words.
BC: “Frag” is close enough to “fuck.”
SAB: Where would you not go? What’s out of bounds?
DPF: I would say it’s character-centric. I can’t say there’s isn’t somewhere I won’t go, but I try to tread lightly if there’s something like denigrating women or gays. It needs to make sense in the culture, even if it’s a character the reader doesn’t like.
BC: Like violence, cursing can have a negative effect.
SAB: Be true to the historical setting. But you have to balance authenticity and offending the audience.
AH: Sometimes you need to make the audience uncomfortable. Do what you need to do or write something else.
SAB: Be true. You can’t censor.
DPF: There are slurs of all kinds that are meant to be offensive. What can I say that will most hurt you and expose vulnerability? Those are true insults. Let out the inner bully.
BC: It can be a type of aggression. Or it can be non aggressive if you’re mincing words.
Q: Curse words like “shit” and “fuck” start with abrupt sounds. But somehow it’s totally different if it was “Wednesday.”
DPF: I shift to “oh my gravy” since I have children. But if I’m by myself, it changes.
SAB: Cursing can also be admired. George Washington was known to have a hell of a temper. He could swear for five minutes and not repeat himself. Everyone else was in awe.
Q: Everyone has their own idiolect. Who is your favorite character who does it?
DPF: I like to see comedians because they can swear well. It’s also the delivery. It’s not about the words but the creative way they develop the insult. “Fucking her is like fucking an empty room.”
AH: Another example is Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the guy on the wall who says “fart in your general direction.” It’s fun even though it’s insulting.
BC: I like George Carlin.
Q: Is there any censorship anymore? Does cursing influence editors?
SAB: It depends on the editor and the audience.
DPF: For the French translation of my books, I didn’t know why my books suddenly started selling well when they switched translators. It turned out that the first translator took all the bad things out of my book.
Q: How about gender? Men can get away with it, but for women it’s not as acceptable.
DPF: I’ve haven’t seen it, especially in urban fantasy.
Q: How do you take into account the evolution of swear words? Some words that used to be acceptable are no longer acceptable now.
DPF: It’s context. Show why it has changed in this world. Do things to help the readers draw those conclusions.
SAB: My father called someone a rotten old heifer. It’s acceptable, but it’s still an insult.
AB: A bitch is a female dog, but “son of a bitch” is an insult.
BC: But some people use that as a greeting, “Hey bitch.”
Q: My grandfather insulted people by calling them “homogenized.” He was a milkman.
DPF: Certain words are associated with particular occupations. There are different words for sailors compared to farmers.
SAB: They can also be different for people in other cultures.
Q: What if you’re writing something PG but you come to a situation where the only possible outcome is swearing?
Q: In Harry Potter, Ron says some cuss words, but in the text it just says, “he swears.”
DPF: You can substitute it with “bite me” or “suck me” for similar emphasis. But we should swear more.
AH: Make it applicable for the character and the world. Don’t put the reader on the bank. Don’t put in something that can be cut out later.
SAB: Don’t put modern terms in fantasy.
DPF: Don’t make it anachronistic.
BC: Swearing can spice up writing. But swearing can also be therapeutic.