How Can We Swear Without Swearing?
By Pavel Peléšek
Many children worldwide have been told to “stop watching that filth!” by their parents after a dirty word has been uttered on screen. Many times a writer has received the draft of their new novel back from the publishers riddled with censorship notes whenever a character decided to speak their mind about a particularly nasty situation. There is, however a certain creative way to overcome this problem and that is to adapt.
When one hears the word “adaptation”, the first thing that comes to mind is a conversion of one art form into another. Books, for example have been adapted to stage plays for centuries, as movies for decades and as videogames for years. But there is another aspect of adaptation: we can adapt to overcome certain difficulties. And in the works mentioned above, one such difficulty can be censorship.
With humankind’s technological development also came the growing ease of producing literary and later audio-visual works. Thus arose the need to widely monitor and enforce a certain purity of language. Censorship institutions such as the Federal Communications Commission and the British Broadcasting Standards Commission were established to focus their efforts on the prevention of “malicious” content in all imaginable forms and types. Ideological, political, moral, and other types of offences are frequently found in works of authors that let their imagination loose and speak their minds freely, and one of the most common examples is so called “foul” language.
Foul language can be found in ancient texts as old as the Old Testament of the Bible.
Foul language, profanity, curse words, swear words – these are just some of the names of one of the oldest stains on the reputation of literature as seen by sensitive readers or viewers. They can be found in ancient texts as old as the Old Testament of the Bible (2 Kings 18:27) and have never quite left literature alone for long. One of the reasons is, of course, that profane language surrounds us everywhere and makes it easier and more effective to convey strong emotions. It makes the language feel more “alive”.
And it is for this reason that many authors have tried to reconcile two antagonistic principles: to make the language of their works more alive while doing their best not to incur the wrath of the all-seeing censors. Historically, one of the most creative ways to achieve this was to conceal the profanity of one’s profanities. The writers smuggled their foul language, disguised as harmless new words, thus creating their own ways to swear.
This process of creation of new swear words gained most of its popularity among authors of fantasy and science-fiction. The fantastic worlds they created needed to be supported by a host of plausible details that help readers or the audience feel that the world they are reading about or watching in a film or a game is real and vivid. Firstly, people are more inclined to relate to characters that have flaws similar to ours, therefore outbursts of negative emotion further amplified by a hefty swear word or two certainly help to drive the point home.
Secondly, this new phenomenon is also frequently used to convey the feeling of exotic lands, cultures and languages. A community isolated from our society and influences might have developed differently from ours. In future, the changes in political balance might usher in a new amalgamation of cultures and fantastic worlds completely distinct from the reality we live in. All of these will have different cultural and linguistic aspects that govern not only the language in general, but also swearing in particular.
Swearing is, in fact, very culturally dependent. Even in our own boring and non-fantastic world we can see large differences between how people swear. Take, for example, Finland and Italy. According to an article from Guardian published on July 12, 2006, Italians are very fond of their family and parents, thus their prevalent way of insulting one’s kin is to insult their mother. Finland is culturally very distinct and its foul language prefers to rely on mythology and religion, especially the Devil. This, however, does not mean Finns would abstain from insulting other Finn’s mother: one particularly popular and very Finnish foul phrase claims that one’s mother copulates with reindeer (Hughes 43).
A fictional world explains the existence of fictional swear words, while the profanities augment the fictional world’s credibility.
In this reciprocal relationship it is this cultural dependency of swearing that, combined with the fact that the particular culture is exotic to us, provides the causal base for the existence of exotic new ways of being profane. In other words, a fictional world explains the existence of fictional swear words, while the profanities augment the fictional world’s credibility.
What are the possibilities?
These artificial swear words can take on many forms. They can be words entirely unknown before, created solely for the occasion of the newly emerging storyline. They could be formerly innocent words used in a foul context or fictional realities of that particular story, such as mythology and creatures living there. Some authors go to such lengths of taking foreign language swear words or combine this approach with the first one and create an entirely new fictional language. And then they swear in it. Thus the censors lose their ground, because these new words cannot insult the readers for the very simple reason of not being classified as offensive.
The first and most popular category among both authors and the fans of their work is the creation of entirely new words, also known as coinage. This approach aims for words that mimic the real world profanities we know now, both in form and in meaning. Form usually follows the pattern of so-called “four-letter words”, which implies that many contemporary swear words are made of four letters and pronounced as a single syllable. This brevity is then combined with consonants such as k, r, or sh that give the resulting curse the proper force. Meaning usually refers to sexual behaviour, bowel movement, or intelligence.
Two most popular artificial swear words were conceived this way: “Frak” introduced in Glen A. Larson’s 1978 television series Battlestar Galactica and popularised in its 2004 reboot of the same name created by Ronald D. Moore; and “Smeg” and by extension “Smeghead”, that originated in the famous 1988 British sitcom Red Dwarf by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. The first of the two is a clear attempt to mimic the form and meaning of the real-world “fuck”, the second, as the creators stated in an interview published as a bonus material on their DVD, that they only “wanted to invent a futuristic curse word which had the right sort of consonant and vowel arrangement to make it sound like a genuine . . . curse word” (1997, Six of the Best).
Another science fiction series, Henson and O’Brian’s Farscape from 1999, has taken this approach to the extreme and has given birth to several dozens of such new coinages, ranging in meaning from four-letter words, intimate body parts, religion, unpleasant alien fauna and many others. Many of these, however, were mentioned only once or twice over the entire course of the series due to their overwhelming number.
Another approach, albeit a less frequent one, is a shift in connotation. It involves taking an existing word usually used in a neutral (or sometimes even positive) connotation and using it profanely. This has been seen mainly in Joss Whedon’s series Firefly where the outlaws often use “Rut” (or “Rutting”) and “Hump” in place of the more common and much more frowned-upon “fuck” and other its variants. While the two words are mostly synonyms of “fuck” in the real world, the creators of the series innovated their use to include phrases normally limited to the latter swear word, such as “If they find us at all we’re humped!” spoken in episode 1. This way the characters speak their mind clearly, but at the same time they do not use the prohibited swear word.
A second major option the authors often resort to is mimicking the religious and cultural taboos that often exist in our own world. Names of religious figures, deities, and demons, or socially stigmatised names are often employed here with the intent of providing the reader or viewer with a deeper immersion into the details of the specific culture.
One of the most popular uses of these culturally specific terms in modern literature can be seen in Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Here wizards not born into a family of exclusively wizards and witches are taunted as “Mudbloods”, and those who sympathise with them or even with non-wizarding ordinary people are referred to as “Muggle-Lovers” and “Blood Traitors”. Other use worth mentioning is in the previously mentioned reboot of Battlestar Galactica, where the human crew of the ship derogatively calls their mechanical enemies “Toasters”. The exclamation “Frakking Toasters!” has become sort of a symbol of the series. Religious use can be exemplified in the world of The Witcher created by Andrzej Sapkowski and famously adapted as video games by the polish developer of CD Projekt RED. Many characters there curse rather creatively using the name of the goddess Melitelé and accompanying it with various private parts of her body or wardrobe.
Loanwords from other languages, as well as entire language systems invented specifically for the use in that particular universe, constitute the third major group. Here the characters do swear using acknowledged swear words. Those are, however, generally not spoken in the country of the work’s origin. One such example is the ample use of Chinese in the previously mentioned series Firefly. In its universe, apart from old American West, Chinese is one of the predominant cultures in the amalgamated society. For this reason, the characters often resort to Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese in order to convey their disappointment at the disagreement between them and the person at the other end of the drawn gun.
Another example is Czech that has been used in the series Stargate Atlantis created by Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper. One of its characters, a theoretical physicist of Czech origin Radek Zelenka resorts to his mother tongue’s supply of foul language at numerous occasions when he is slighted by his self-centred colleague or when he is forced to suffer pain and discomfort in order to carry out a crucial task.
As was the case with Farscape and its many coinages, this group has also seen its share of extremes, for example in the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. In order to appropriately express the rebellion of the young protagonist and his generation, Burgess invented his own slang of loanwords, semi-translations and mangled transliterations from Russian, adorned by Cockney rhyming slang. Since the characters frequently indulge in violence, destruction, drug abuse, and other illegal activities, the whole slang san be considered a taboo of sorts owing to its very negative connotation.
While the previous approaches were conceived with the intent of avoiding censorship and giving a fantastic world the proper feeling of vividness, the following approach is different. The author uses it not merely for those two reasons, but mainly to entertain those who read or see his work. The method of choice is the semantic shift, which would usually change the meaning of a word from neutral towards profanity in order to convey proper strong emotions. There are, however, two cases when this principle is used in one direction or the other in order to provoke laughter.
One such case can be seen in the American edition of Life, The Universe, and Everything from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. During the process of evaluation, the censors strictly rejected his use of three of the well-known real world swear words in his book, so he replaced them with his own words “Swut” and “Kneebiter”, and the seemingly innocent name of a European country – “Belgium”. The first two were used in accordance with their category, but the latter was implemented as the most unspeakably rude word in the Galaxy. The writer even went as far as to add a whole paragraph about the word’s status in the universe, clearly mocking the censors (Adams 159-160).
The second entertaining use of a semantic shift can be seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel called Raising Steam. One of the characters of the book threatens to have his visitor thrown down the “Effing stairs” should he dare to waste his time. This would in other contexts immediately invoke the concept of the f-word and catch the scornful eye of censors, but the author hurries to deliver the point of his joke in one of the famous footnotes that intersperse his books: The stairs are made of a special sort of wood that grows in the Effing Forest. This way not only is he not profane, but he also boasts about his well-furnished homestead.
The phenomenon of the creation of artificial swear words is far from limited to the examples mentioned here. It can, however, be seen that it is both a fruitful and viable method of adaptation against the threat of censorship. It can not only lead to a smooth publishing process, but also contribute to the overall exotic atmosphere and the feeling of a living world that so many authors of fictional worlds strive for.
With the oldest examples dating decades back to the 1970s, it is clearly a long-lasting approach that continues to provide the fans of science-fiction, fantasy and other genres with more and more interesting material and food for thought should they attempt to decipher its origins. Artificial swear words thus contribute to the fullness of experience for readers, viewers and videogame players worldwide.
This article is based on the author’s bachelor thesis “Artificial Taboo Words in Contemporary English Fiction” elaborated at Masaryk University in 2015.
Adams, Douglas. Life, the Universe and Everything. London: Pan, 1982. Print.
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