Imaginary Swearing for Imaginary Cultures

I am writing a new novel, which I am not allowed to talk about, but I can tell you this much: it is set about 65 years in the future, in North America. Among the many setting elements that I am creating for it, I’m trying to design some new swear words for people to use. Swearing is one of the most stable linguistic categories we have, so some of the words we use now will still be used in the future; “damn” has been a cuss word for hundreds of years, and will probably be so for hundreds more. On the other hand, swearing is also on of the most inventive linguistic categories, which is why (for example) people can use the word f*** as pretty much every part of speech. So I’m coming up with new swear words for two reasons: first, for personal reasons, I don’t want to use f*** at all, as any part of speech, and second, because I think it would happen anyway over time. And third, because I think it’s fun, but I didn’t mention that earlier.

The problem with coming up with new swear words is that it’s very, very hard to not make them silly. “Frak,” from Battlestar Galactica, is well-loved by fans of the show (I use it all the time), but people without that emotional investment often think it sounds silly, like the kids on the playground that say “fudge!” and think they’re being clever. The challenge, then, is to create swear words that still sound kind of horrible without actually being horrible. This is even harder than it sounds, but so far I’ve got two that I kind of like.

I had a friend who went to on a 3-day discount cruise to Mexico, including a stop in the tourist town of Ensenada, and when she came back she couldn’t stop talking about how cheap and crappy the whole thing was. She pulled out some photos of all the lame places she visited, and then told a long story about an hour-long taxi ride to go see some stupid attraction; when she showed us the next photo, she said “after that lon, horrible taxi ride, this is the blowhole we went to see.” It turns out the place was literally called a blowhole–a rock formation along the shore where incoming waves get funneled in such a way that they spout straight up, like a fountain. But I didn’t know that at first, and I thought she was using the word “blowhole” as an expletive, as some kind of combination of “this place is a hole” and “this place blows.” It had just the right combination of nastiness to be a real cuss word in the right situations (“blow” and “hole” are both vaguely scatalogical terms) while simultaneously being a completely innocent word (a blowhole is, of course, a whale’s nostril). I’m using the word blowhole in my novel, not applied to places but to people, ie, “that guy’s a real blowhole.” I think it’s working, but we’ll see what the readers say.

The second word I’m thinking of is borrowed from Wayne’s World. Back in the day, they had a skit about how they, too, were looking for a new word to use, because sometimes “Shyea” is just not strong enough. The word they settled on was “rectal,” which is, again, a perfection combination of gross and innocent, plus it has that wonderful “ct” consonant cluster in the middle to really make it harsh on the ear and deliciously nasty to say. I’m not as enamored with this one as I am with blowhole, but I think it can still work.

So: blowhole and rectal. They’re okay, but I need more, and that’s where you come in: what are some good fake swear words that you think would be awesome? Swear words tend to focus on bodily functions and religion, and I’m open to anything that is not actually blasphemous. Let’s see if we can come up with something that isn’t totally rectal.

71 Responses to “Imaginary Swearing for Imaginary Cultures”

  1. Christoph says:

    You know, coming late to this discussion, I wonder why no one yet said something about the old “Yo mama” jokes. Sure, they are not so great for swearing, but in the environment you describe insults to mothers may get out of hand pretty fast.
    Since children will be in very short supply, something like kindergarten, sandbox or toy might also be used as an expletive.

  2. Emily M. says:

    “Fect” as in “birth defect.” Except it sounds too much like the other f word.

    Something crude for uterus. Wombtomb.

    You’ve got me wondering about the emotional fragility of all the women in this world. Because miscarrying is a brutal and wrenching grief. All those women who have both lost their mothers and failed to become mothers must be going insane. I would.

  3. This is going to sound strange coming from somebody who’s built a career on being publically opinionated, but I’d probably avoid using any current figure’s names for two reasons.

    1. It’ll quickly feel dated. Example, if you used Dukakis (which really does look like an insult) as an swear today, anybody under 40 is going to just look at you funny.

    2. History has a strange way of turning out, with historical figures morphing into different things for different people. See the current spin about Ronald Reagan compared to how the same exact people talked about him when he was alive. Up to and including people who were his sworn ideological enemies a decade ago invoking his name during the state of union like they’d be friends. And that spinning has just been over 20 years with one subject.

    Though I will still despise Woodrow Wilson with a hatred that will not die. May his unspeakable foulness rot in hell. :)

  4. Steve D says:

    Larry’s point is excellent.

    If you are going to use a person’s name as an obscenity, make it someone who you’ve created. The person who is responsible for the disease or something.

  5. Tina B. says:

    In my native language swearing and cussing is a live evolving strain of the speak that can be done with finesse, or simply display how crude you really are.

    Being alien, it’s odd to me how rudimentary American English is when it comes to cussing. The base is either feces or sexual. That’s it. There’s no middle ground; cussing is either neutered (‘darn’, ‘dang’) or foul. American English stays boringly bland, no politics, no religion, and God forbid no slurs of any kind, be they racial, social or gender based.

    My advice: Think outside the limitations of your own language and pick a new base of discontent for your future world. For example, projections are that 50 years from now clean water will be scarce so anyone wasting or ruining water won’t be very popular. Or use vocations: historically, where I grew up, the lowest of the low were known as fish-wankers.

  6. Matthew Watkins says:

    Also:

    Reading Malazan Book of the Fallen, and the people in that book use Hood, and Hood’s Breath, and things like that as profanity. It really works well, and when I figured out who Hood was, it kind of blew me away.

  7. litg says:

    Dan,

    I’m curious, when you say you aren’t allowed to talk about it, who is making that determination? Editor? Publisher? Is it because it’s still in some sort of contract negotiation? Or are you not even allowed to tell us THAT much?

  8. Sean - Texas says:

    Okay, so there have been some good ideas tossed about, but I don’t think most of them have the punch you are looking for. Not sure these will either, but here goes:

    plac sack (short for placenta) or plac hole.

    “go use a hanger on yourself” or “your mama should have used a hanger” – careful here, this has some strong emotional impact on people since abortion, when illegal, was performed this way. It is visceral, so it might work. In fact, the word “hang” might take on a whole new meaning. I’m sure you could use other variations.

    You could use “Neute” or “Nute” as short for neutered.

    If I think of others, I will post again.

  9. CB - Boise says:

    All the good swear words I’ve heard, whether real or fictional, have had a really good percussive quality.

    Frak, sh**, f***… they’re perfect examples. Short, one syllable, and percussive, especially the ending sound.

  10. Arlene says:

    Hey, Dan. Long time no see. :)

    I don’t know. All of these ideas are great, but it won’t matter if it’s not applicable to what you’re writing. I’m sure you’ll think of something awesome.

    I’m probably coming in really late here, but I finally got my copy of “I Don’t Want to Kill You” and I really enjoyed it. I read it all today. I still think “Full of Holes” would’ve been a better title, but I liked the novel nonetheless.

    Can’t wait to see what else you’ve got up your sleeve. :)

  11. Arlene says:

    And, I wish I was an alpha reader.

    One can dream. :)

  12. Steven H Silver says:

    Spam!

    Short, annoying, rhymes with damn, it has everything you need in a curse word.

  13. I don’t know about some places, but using the F-word in public is extraordinarily offensive in the Bible Belt. I was at a civic club meeting, and one member lost his temper and dropped the F-bomb on a fellow member. He publicly apologized at the next meeting.

    My wife – a fifth generation Southern Baptist – will not watch anything with foul language. She has her own expression which sounds offensive, but all she’s saying is “pekingese!”

    Lou Antonelli
    Mount Pleasant, Texas

  14. Jace says:

    Hmm… I’m sure I’ve seen the term ‘backbirth’ somewhere before. Not sure if it was an insult, but it might work as one? Could also use terms relating to stillborn and miscarriage, since those would be a big fear, and loaded concepts even now, but not so much as abortion. Menstruation could also be an interesting one.

    Would they be at all afraid that any baby that DOES survive might be a horribly deformed freak? Then ‘defect’ or some derivative might work. ‘Mutard’ for mutant/retard? Although it looks a lot like ‘mustard’. Still, adding ‘tard’ to various words seems to be a trend in insults.

    Ever watch Father Ted? The word ‘feck’ was used a lot, and these guys were supposed to be priests.

    Let’s see, what other examples have I seen… in the webcomic, ‘Everything Jake’, early on in the story it’s mentioned that the main character, Jake, got drunk at a party and jumped out a window yelling ‘Quck!’. ‘Quck’ then became THE swear word in the comic, as I remember….

    Firefly’s been mentioned….

    In Ed Greenwood’s ‘Band of Four’ books, they had a couple of fake swear words. One was ‘Graul’, which for me seemed to straddle the line between effective and silly, especially when one character said, “Graul you! Yes, Graul you!” There was also ‘sargh’ and ‘bebolt’. “We’ve been in this bebolten river all night!”

    I guess that leads me to mentioning something else I’ve seen. In his book on writing sci-fi and fantasy, Orson Scott Card mentions that an author once tried using TANJ (there ain’t no justice) as a swearword in the same context as f***. “Get your tanjin’ hands off me!” In Card’s view, that just showed that it takes a lot of genius to do it well (he said, “more than I’ve ever heard of”), so it’s better to either use the actual words, or just not have swearing.

    I don’t know that I agree with that entirely. Seems to me it can be done, you just have to be careful. I do agree that a good swear word along the lines of f*** should be short, punchy, and have a hard sound to it. For me, that’s why it’s satisfying to say it when I feel inclined.

    Then again. You could also just do exactly as we’ve done here. F***, s***, a**. I haven’t technically sworn, but you know what words I’ve supposedly used. (Although this method might take readers out of the story a little, making it seem more like this is a sanitised record of events rather than simply telling a story. That could play in your favour as well if you wanted an unreliable narrator vibe.)

    Euphemisms could help. So could divorcing words from their original context. ‘F*** this s***’ compares an object or situation to fecal matter, but does not actually suggest literally copulating with ANYTHING.

    So. Yeah. I think I’ve said enough. Hope it helps.

  15. Carolyn Bahm says:

    Some body function/sexual swears: jack juice, anything + hole, twatters, gasbag, monoports ( for people who restrict their sexual choices in a sexually permissive culture), ornates (for the overly tatted and/or pierced).

    Some intelligence-doubting swears: lobots, low-watts, dial-ups, capped (as in limited bandwidth). Scoopers (people who still have live pets instead of bots).

    Some religious swears/insults: kneelies (for a religion that involves kneeling to pray), twoo believer (Twitterer who worships via texting, especially with”woo-woo” beliefs).

    Some swears that just express frustration in a futuristic society: maybe words for shit or fuck in non-English languages since we’ll probably have a more blended world vocabulary? Some references to the superbugs or their effects that defy antibiotics, such as septic, putrid, grene (for gangrene), hot heaves.

    I would love to know more about the world or frustrations/fears the characters have — I can get a lot more creative, lol.

    Best o’ luck!! :o)

  16. Wonderdog says:

    When I lived in Korea, I was surprized to learn that the insults typically dealt with physical abnormalities. “One eye” One leg” etc.

  17. Spudd86 says:

    One possibility, use old cuss words that have fallen out of use, for example swive was at one time used much like f*** is today (it even means pretty much the same thing, and also has the property that you can easily turn it into an adverb/adjective/etc) it’s from Old/Middle English.

    so you could have someone say “That guy’s a swiving jerk”

    Also my sister says “Ah dah poodah!” when something bad happens, frequently…

    Swear words should be short (two syllables at the most) and made up of very basic sounds.

    Japanese has “kuso” which is usually translated as “shit”, however it is actually a much milder curse than “shit” is in English (it’s more akin to “crap”, or even just “poo” since you can in fact say it on a kids show)

  18. R.Hunter says:

    While speaking with my exchange student about this I was educated in the art of cursing, European-style. It seems that Americans are a bit behind the times with their use of colorful language. In Switzerland, for instance, they don’t really have swear words or words they can’t speak because they’re taboo or whatever. What constitutes swearing is an entire sentence of insults. Apparently there are other cultures even more skilled in the art of cursing… But if you’re looking for a single word, I like how you’re coming so far except rectal isn’t so different from anal, which is used pretty widely without repercussion.
    I actually found a few words that I was able to recycle a while back from a book about language from the 1800s. Everything does tend to move in cycles…

  19. skunkthecat says:

    Hey Dan!

    Just thinking, if there’s some kind of biological mutation going on with the populace, maybe you could work in some ‘difference’ between how people look in the future, and how they look now. ‘Blue eyes’ could become an insult (or ‘blooie’? which ok, fair enough, kind of sounds like it comes from a 4 year old…), or ginger (which is kind of an insult now, and could get worse as time progresses – or it could become a compliment since apparently the ginger gene is becoming more rare…and I’m digressing). Basically, you could try the human equivalent of the Klingons’ “Hab SoSil’ Quch!” (Your mother has a smooth forehead! Gasp! Horror! Outrage!)

    Looking forward to reading it!

  20. I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this, but in the T.V. show Firefly, they use “gorram”, which I personally think is fantastic. They’ll say things like “Gorramit!” or “Get off this gorram ship!”

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