Monday, June 27, 2011

Potty Mouth

By Janet Fogg

No, I’m not going to curse the slow pace of my writing, the economy, or the general state of the world, though I could. What I would like to understand is how you handle cursing in speculative fiction and whether you often stumble as I do, when reading an unusual curse.

I love science fiction and fantasy and have read it since I was young, but I’m often shoved out of the glorious world created by an author when a “custom” curse leaps from the page to poke me right in the eye. And I don’t mean an F-bomb or other common four letter words. I’m referring to a creative word or combination of words that the author has molded to specifically fit into the context of his world-building, and unfortunately, that unusual curse sometimes gets in the way like a swollen thumb.

An example I’ll point to (using an index finger and not my thumb) is in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series. I wish I had a tenth of his talent and have read most of his books multiple times, so I mean no disrespect when I point to his use of "Tanj!" and “Tanjit!” When I read those curses I stop cold. To me, "Tanj!" is non-euphonious and somewhat awkward. Not that curses should be particularly pleasing to the ear, but they do tend to roll off the tongue.

So is it just me and “Tanj!” that don’t get along? How do you handle “custom” curses in your manuscripts?

14 comments:

Dean K Miller said...

Maybe those words in our current society roll off our tongue because we either use, or hear them so often?

Sometimes I, too, am stopped by similar words, even in pieces set in the old west that use authentic dialogue.

For me, math geek that I used to be, if I read "Tanjit" I'd think of the term "Tangent" because it sounds so similar, and would wonder why the character kept randomly yelling about math. :-{

Sisters of the Quill said...

If I wrote fantasy I might consider picking up a few from my husband's native Mandarin and roughly translate. The Chinese have come up with some doozies over the last 5,000 years! Turtles, monkey butts, and moles on the face that really belong to angels are featured in some of them. Hubby taught me a phrase to use on repeat Chinese telemarketers who ignore the no-call list. Karen Lin

Marti Verlander said...

I usually use curses with the names of the character's gods, such as "by Landir's tits!" or "for Baldair's sake!"

Brent Wescott said...

The most famous recent example might be the all the "frakking" going on on Battlestar Galactica. That's actually made it into common parlance.

Cozy in Texas said...

Interesting post.
Ann

Janet Fogg said...

Good point, Dean. It does sound like "tangent."

Karen, I think you need to teach me that curse for telemarketers.

Thanks, Marti. I like that approach.

Brent, I'd completely forgotten about frakking! And wasn't there another, long word that they used, that was completely awkward?

Ann and all, thanks so much for stopping by!

Karen Duvall said...

Fun post, Janet.

I rarely curse in my books except for the occasional f-bomb, but even those are sparse as my editor nixed most of them. The cuss word i remember from one of the now defunct sf tv shows is "frill." WTF? LOL!

In my unpublished alternate history steampunk novel, my characters don't curse but they get "wrathy." That's an actual slang word used in America around the turn of the century. It means angry. I sometimes use it myself now. Ha!

thinkbannedthoughts said...

Jim Butcher has a couple in his Codex Alera series, but it's things like "crows" and "Crow-begotten", so while the first time you read them you might not necessarily realize it's a curse word, it doesn't take long before you catch on through context.
I like his approach of taking a benign, but somewhat culturally sinister, object and making it a curse word.
Though I probably would have chosen pigeons. At least I know I curse every time I have to deal with one of those crow-begotten rats with wings.

Shannon said...

I love the way they curse in Firefly and on 30 Rock. In fact, on days when I try very hard, I substitute "blerg" for something else that would make my mother roll over in her grave--or fly away in a wisp of ash, as the case may be.

fpdorchak said...

Sorry to get gnarly on everyone, but I feel strongly about this: I say call a spade a [insert choice expletive] spade. I understand universe building and all, but not everything in universe building is different or we wouldn't recognize or understand it. We add verisimilitude to make things seem REAL. "Real" is some people curse and others don't. Make THAT clear in your writing, and it will work either way, but to go out of your way to make up another word or avoid it when the situation clearly demands it is cheapening the experience and not being honest to the story or the readers. If you don't want to add curses, just don't, but make THAT work, or don't write something that clearly demands it. Personally, making up curse words detracts for me, cause I know what's being done. Sure, it can be cute, it can even work, but IMHO don't go out of your way to circumvent something just because you don't personally like it (editors cutting them is whole nother story). I don't like violence, but it's part of most of what I and a ton of others write. Please, be HONEST. Dig DEEP and explore these areas, make them work for the story being written. Flagarant overuse, unless a character is that way, is obvious, but there's a lot of middle ground. I'm short on "PC" in my writing, since I'm so bound by it in my daily life. Long and the short is you will never please everyone, but please the STORY.

Margaret Yang said...

It's one of those things that works when it works. And when it doesn't, it sounds silly. "Frak" just sounds stupid to my ears.

I think it worked well on Firefly. I'm especially fond of "goram" and "rutting."

Brent Wescott said...

I agree that Frak doesn't sounds funny normal speech, but it works extremely well in the BG universe. And it works outside that realm as a nerdy/hip way to swear and reference your geekiness at the same time.

fpdorchak said...

@Margaret/Brent/Janet: Aye! All I said above being said, I forgot to include some of the ones I felt worked: "By Crom!" from Robert E. Howard's "Conan" series, and "Shazbot!" from TV's Mork and Mindy. Man, what was I ON, yesterday?! Leaving now....

Joanne Kennedy said...

I recently read a book where the heroine had a "custom curse word" that was rather unpleasant. It would have been funny once or twice but she used it so often she seemed kind of crass and insensitive.
I'm not a cusser myself, but cowboys swear and much as I love the word "dang," it doesn't always work. Sometimes only the real thing will do!