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This is not a question about slang, but about swearing and word creation.

I have a character who uses swear words, and this is part of his voice. I do not use real swear words. I want the sense of those words in the story. But not the words.

Other characters, in other parts of my world, simply use descriptive phrases effectively, no swear words. The two approaches to 'swearing' tells us where characters grew up, etc.

I've seen authors make up swear words that look like, and have an etymology similar to, real swear words - but are not actually swear words. (Like 'frak' on BSG.)

Here's what I have done instead, to incorporate swearing into the story: In my story, two different words for the concept of God/heavenly father/lord, are fake words derived from author-of-life, and from beautiful idol.

When I read these fake words, they make sense, and I think a reader who realizes the fake word is related to, for example, 'beautiful idol,' will 'get it.'

The problem is, when critique groups read my passages, they routinely get hung up on the fake words. They also don't understand why I am 'translating' the dialogue, but not the swear words, into regular English.

I don't understand this. Before I prune these words out altogether (because I'd prefer to keep them as character voice and religious tradition), I'd like to find out if there are guidelines.

My Question: What is the best way to introduce fake swear words so that they are assimilated easily by the reader? Is there a rule of thumb as to how many such words could be introduced per chapter?

I'm considering solutions like: the first two occurrences of the 'author' word to be firmly planted within a phrase we'd recognize. "By author above, you will not hurt my child!" or, "I swear by author-of-life that I did not raid that cookie jar!" And then, after a couple of instances where the swear word is inside a phrase we'd recognize, I can use the word for 'God' all on its own. (The short and long versions roughly equate to God and God-in-Heaven).

Is this the solution? I am not seeing current authors make up fake words like this, but I would like to. Another solution is to have a character explain to another character - 'Oh, that word loosely translates to 'God.' '

Edit - Happy to report that people reading recent drafts have no issue with the swear words. I'm down to three. The word for 'shit' is introduced after saying that something smells like sewage. The word for God is used within contextual sentences, like the example of 'Crom' given in comments. The word for 'hell' is close enough to words we would recognize that it parses. I took out the other swear words, though I think I still have a 'god-damn' in there, a single instance, with plans to use it in book 2.

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    You might find the show firefly worth looking at. Gorram was most common. Those guys, especially Jayne were rough space pirates and they were going to curse, but they didn't want to use real curses on TV so they made up a language and (I don't speak chinese), but supposedly cursed in Chinese, but I'm not sure how accurate that actually is. smallcultfollowing.com/firefly-chinese-slang.pdf firefly.wikia.com/wiki/Dictionary In firefly, no explanation of the words was needed, just saying the unfamiliar word, the meaning was clear enough. That was watching not writing though. – userLTK Nov 9 '17 at 23:22
  • C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy has another good example: instead of "fuck" the inhabitants of the fictional world say "vulk", a reference to their planet's extreme volcanic activity. The word has a similar 'impact' while not being an actual real-world profanity. – Dan J Nov 10 '17 at 4:27
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    You may be overthinking this. In stories published way back in the 1930s, Conan the Barbarian went around swearing "by Crom" and audiences had no difficulty picking up what he meant. – Royal Canadian Bandit Nov 10 '17 at 11:11
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    Personally I'd disregard your critique group opinion on this matter, unless they can pin point some actual examples of swear words that don't work in that particular context and why. It seems to me that you've already put some effort in creating new, context-wise swear words for your character; no point translating them back to english. They give flavour to the story and they should be kept. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Nov 10 '17 at 11:52
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    I think you're working backwards with your 'mother-of-life' example; setting it up as part of your setting before using it as a swear might well be more effective. Brandon Sanderson is a good example of this - for example the novel Warbreaker uses a bunch of terms for swears based on the mythology it's already built, using terms they've already established as holy and the like. – BlueHairedMeerkat Nov 10 '17 at 15:49

11 Answers 11

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First, I would not do the "translation" of your last sentence.

Second, you need to understand that swear words are typically one or two syllables, and the audio effect needs to be somewhat similar.

Another word for "fuck" is "intercourse", but it is nearly impossible to use "intercourse!" as a swear word, in places where we would normally say "fuck!". "Intercourse you" sounds stupid. "Oh intercourse!" when I stub my toe sounds stupid. "Intercourse off!" sounds stupid. You need the "K" sound. You need a single syllable. That is why "frak" is used, and "frikkin" for the adjective "fucking".

It is why "Damn" is replaced by "Dang" and "Darn", and even "God Damn it" it replaced by "Dag Nab it". It is why "Bitch" is replaced by "Witch"; they have a similar 'mouth feel' when said. The same goes for "God and Gol", as in "Gol dang it" vs "God damn it".

In the current TV series "The Good Place" the characters are magically prohibited from uttering any curses, and can only utter the closest sounding non-curse word. Their replacement for "fuck" is "fork": One syllable, begins with "F" and ends with "K", and it works and is funny: A character in trouble says, "We are so forked."

Made up swear words need the same number of syllables as the words you think they replace, and some of the same starting and ending sounds, or at least they need the same "mouth feel" when uttered (number of muscular movements of the jaw, tongue and lips), and that mouth feel tells people which curse it is.

Hard sounds where the original curse has hard sounds, soft for soft, sibilant where sibilant. "Pussy" and "Wussy" are an example of the last.

You don't have to be quite as obvious as I used for examples, but the principle holds. IMO "Author of life" is not a good replacement for God, even if you somehow explained that it was. It takes too many mouth and tongue movements to say, and drops me out of the willing suspension of disbelief, I cannot imagine myself slicing a finger and saying "Author of life!".

However, the word "Gee" alludes to the first letter of "God" without saying it, and the later "Geez" is a similar reference to "Jesus". I can see a character cutting her finger and saying "Gee!" or "Geez!". They are plausible exclamatories.


From my comment below, from "The Good Place" (and writing from my memory), how the screenwriters introduced alternatives to swear words.

In the first episode, the MC (Kristen Bell) tries to say 'fuck', as in "fuck that," and it comes out "fork that."

She says, "Fork. Fork. Why the fork can't I say fork? What the fork is wrong with me?"

Another character tells her, "You can't say fork here, all you can say is fork."

MC says, "Well that's a ship rule. Ship. Oh ship! I can't say ship either?"


A writing lesson to be drawn from that, if you want to introduce alternatives to swear words, make sure the very first usage of each alternative swear word is in a spot where it is unambiguous to the reader what actual swear word should be there. In the context of the first (and on film), no reasonable American adult would expect anything but "Fuck that" in the first instance, Kristen's dismissive facial expression and wave of her hand makes this clear.

The same is true for "Ship" instead of "Shit", it is the only reasonable curse word to fit in the second example, preceding the word "rule" and commonly said after the word "Oh" when a realization is made. (So is 'damn' or 'fuck', but they don't fit with 'rule', and the "shi" is giving us the clue to the intended curse).

Once the reader understands the substitution, then subsequent usage should be consistent with normal usage, but wouldn't have to be quite so obvious.

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    See also Red Dwarf's 'smeg' / 'smegging' / 'smeghead' and 'gimboid'. They all have the kind of visceral impact that makes it obvious they're swear words, despite having been made up. – user27710 Nov 10 '17 at 13:38
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    A very useful rule of thumb. Most curse words end in a stop sound (like a k or a t). Perhaps coincidentally, it is very hard for young children to learn how to say words that end a stop sound, which is why "dad" becomes "daddy." – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 10 '17 at 19:48
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    Accepting this answer - but I am not convinced about the single syllable rule or even the hard sounds rule. Shit is less hard than fuck, and piss off is soft with two syllables. Motherfucker is a good four syllable curse, Son of a bitch is soft all the way through. But, the second half of the answer is almost certainly dead to rights, and what I like about the other answers are variations on that essence. Autoremelde, (Goddamn) I think I have an answer. – DPT Nov 11 '17 at 21:41
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    I used to use "shoot" a lot, stretching the oo as long as suited me. – Joshua Nov 12 '17 at 3:46
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    @Joshua I am pretty sure "shoot" is a polite form of "shit". – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 12 '17 at 11:17
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Keep it consistent throughout the story and don't use lots of words. Making up one or two is better than four, and keep using those. Make his audience gasp when they hear him saying the word. Make them shake their heads at his foul language. No need to say what it means, the reader if he reads it a couple of times should catch the idea.

And if they don't, they can go sumina themselves, those machika losers! Cause I have no intention of machika translating it to them. Sumina, them all!

A different language is usually written in italics and at times, authors put it in capital letters, although I don't see the need.

  • I agree. Repetition is key to make it normal. – FraEnrico Nov 9 '17 at 21:32
  • I feel this answer should get more recognition. +1 for me – Liquid - Reinstate Monica Nov 10 '17 at 11:48
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I think this is a good technique, I've recommended it myself elsewhere here, but it needs to align with how people really create and use words. Curse words and oaths are generally used for shock value. Euphemisms are used to clean up or soften curses. And slang is used to establish an in-group (that understands the slang) and an out-group (that doesn't).

If a word doesn't sound shocking to the reader, it won't function as a curse word. "Fark" works because it sounds like a rude curse word we all know. "Mudblood" works, because it sounds pretty transparently insulting. Even words that are taboo solely because they are holy have a shock value --it's the inappropriately blasphemous use of them that makes it into a curse. On the other hand, perfectly real, but archaic curse words like "Zounds!" just sound laughable to the modern reader, because the derivation of them isn't obvious. Similarly, "author of life" and "beautiful idol" aren't shocking. They sound like respectful euphemisms, not curses. And when you take it one step further away from the source (like turning "God's wounds" into "zounds"), it's no wonder you lose your audience. It might work better if you introduced them first as reverential expressions --that way the audience could feel the shock value when they are abused.

It is true that real-world slang (for instance, Cockney rhyming slang) is often elaborate and playful. I could see complex circumlocutions like yours believably being part of some subculture's private slang (including their cursewords). But if you're going to deploy it like that, be aware that it inevitably positions your audience as a member of the "out-group" --that is, the people who are intended to be baffled and annoyed by the slang. You have to remember that your characters' experiences live only inside your readers' heads, and only to the extent you succeed in placing them there. Just having worked out an elaborate backstory for a word, or telling us something is impactful to the character doesn't mean it will come alive for the reader. We (the audience) need to be able to feel it too.

  • I believe swear words are used to relieve tension in the person saying them, no? This particular character often says them when he is in dire straits, and alone. – DPT Nov 9 '17 at 18:55
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    @DPT I think the issue is that you're focusing on the impact to the character, but you need to be more concerned about the impact to the audience. The character's experience is created inside the reader's head by your words. It doesn't work to just tell us something is impactful to the character, we (the audience) need to be able to feel it too. – Chris Sunami Nov 9 '17 at 19:00
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Fake swear words are a staple, particularly in otherworld fantasy and science fiction. But most of the fake swear words that I can think of are real words, just not ones that are typically used as swear words. This is fairly realistic to real life, too. If you think about it, the word 'bitch' doesn't have any intrinsically scatological, sexual, or blasphemous meanings and is simply an ordinary word to which negative connotations have been attached.

Examples:
"Rust and Ruin!" from Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. 'Ruin' is the name of a malevolent god, and metal has magical importance. 'Rust' and 'rusting' are common swears on their own.

"Hell's Bells", "Stars and Stones", and "Empty Night" from the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. No idea what the phrases mean, but Butcher has indicated that they are significant.

"Shards" and "Shells" from The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffery. Both refer to dragon eggs.

"Figs" is used in The Widdershins Adventures by Ari Marmell, but that's a quirk of main character, which is explicitly addressed in story. Everyone else uses regular swears.

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan has an entire dictionary.

Then there are many swears which simply replace "God" with the deity of choice of the world.


If you do want to use an untranslated swear, I think that the best methods are to lampshade its lack of translation, or to include enough other untranslated words so that it doesn't feel out of place.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer uses "D'Arvit", but the first time it is used it is accompanied by a footnote reading "There is no point translating that word as it would have to be censored." You don't need a narrative comment, but if there is a character around who doesn't recognize the word (and can't find anyone who is willing to translate it) you can add a bit of humor while justifying the word's untranslated state.

Watership Down by Richard Adams includes an entire insulting phrase in the rabbit language, but by that point the rabbit language had been pretty thoroughly scattered through the novel, enough that if you care to it's possible to translate the phrase in its entirety.

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    +1 especially for Watership Down--I was going to post something about that. The three words I remember run the gamut: Frith is the name of their main deity; hraka is a scatological term; and embleer refers to the smell of a fox. The first two words are introduced in other contexts before they're used in swearing, so we already know what they refer to. The third is introduced as an expletive ("I'll swim the embleer river," IIRC), but it's explained in a footnote. – DLosc Nov 10 '17 at 6:27
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    It's worth noting that the words that are rendered in Lapine are ones that don't have direct English equivalents (such as embleer for fox smell, or tharn for the instinctive freezing rabbits do when startled) or are very different contextually for rabbits (hrududu for cars, siflay for grazing, and hraka for caecotrophs). The phrase I was thinking of specifically "Siflay hraka u embleer rah!" is not translated in the text, but means more or less "Eat shit, king of stink!" – Arcanist Lupus Nov 10 '17 at 9:04
  • Taking your specific example of "bitch", it also depends very much on context. People involved with dogs, and perhaps breeders in particular, talk about bitches all the time, and use the word as a purely technical term for "female dog". Now take the same term and use it among a group of middle- or high-school children, and it'll likely mean something completely different. One author I like to read even went so far as to have the POV character point out that at one point the word was used in its technical sense, and another (just later) in its non-technical sense, for extra effect. – a CVn Jan 8 '18 at 9:08
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One way to accomplish this is by using the same word roots and structure of swear words but modifying them in a way that is not immediately obvious. For example, think of the ominous land of "Mordor" in Lord of the Rings, which uses the same root as "Murder", a very negative thing. J.K. Rowling employed this tactic as well when naming places, things and characters. For example, the hostile and dark Professor Severus Snape's name is based on the roots and phonemes of "severe", and "snake" - words with negative connotations.

With swear words you can do the same. You can use sounds from existing swear words and build new components around them. Another way to go about it could be to combine two or more existing swear words in such a way that the connotation is obvious but the source is not, for example with the word "shmilfke".

  • I would add that "Snape" also sounds a bit like "snap". The character Snape is much like a snapping snake. – rayray Feb 25 at 0:17
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Derive the profane words from something your characters' culture reveres.

Swearing emphasizes a moment. Profanity does that while also reinforcing the cultural background that helps to make a story interesting, and the cultural background provides a framework for ranking the severity of the profane words.

For example, many terms in Quebec French profanity are based on the vocabulary of the Roman Catholic Church.

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As an accompaniment to the other suggestions, I would suggest initially telling us that the characters are swearing.

For example, the dialogue:

Bob: How does this apparatus work?
Alice: Jesus! Do I have to explain it again? Fuck that.

might become

"How does this apparatus work?" whimpered Bob shyly.
"Geez!" swore Alice. "Do I have to explain it again? Feck that!" she continued harshly.

I used common minced oaths, but I think it would work equally well with newly coined terms.

  • That could definitely work, but it would become clumsy and/or redundant after a while. For instance, it would go against the common practice of avoiding dialogue markers other then "he said, she said": using too many synonyms for "to say" is pretty much advised against. The same goes with adverbs. – FraEnrico Nov 13 '17 at 14:08
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    @FraEnrico do you think a sentence like "Dinm!" Swearing had become second nature since joining the pirate crew. is preferable to "Dinm!" he swore. I like the idea of tagging 'he swore' early on in the story, to establish the word, and then avoiding the tag later. (The examples here are hastily contrived.) – DPT Nov 13 '17 at 16:50
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As an author, the best way to sully your story is to willfully pen a blatant and obvious lie. Your reader may forgive you for creating a character that curses a time or two, too many, but they'll never forgive a forgery of a world, whitewashed of your characters motivations to satisfy your own moral obligations. We are not responsible for the deeds of our villains, nor the sins of our heroes, only the truthful literary rendering of their humanity or lack thereof at any given moment. If you have a character that is inclined to use foul language that smells of a fortnight of bar-crawling and adorns itself with the jargon of brothels, the only question you should ask is what such language tells you about this character that is important to progress of their character arc, or the story arc. If it does nothing, than the language is just filler and it is not the cursing that needs be stricken, but the entire sentence, paragraph or even the character themselves. Let every word work double time for you, including your curse words. Just a few scattered here and there can be used to establish the character and as an added bonus, if only one character loves cursing, you can use such language to signal a dialogue change in those tricky situations where it's unclear who's saying what. In those hopefully rare circumstances where the character is letting loose a cacophonous deluge of bile from his wagging snake tongue, then switch to some stunned prose by the narrator or the emotions of the other character to avoid bogging down your reader with a segment of human language you're probably not that familiar with anyways. With some luck, your reader will have dragged their ears through more gutters than you and will fill in those precious details with whatever they want, from PG to X^N.

As to the main question itself? Frip you, you illnim piece of sheip! See that? You might not understand the words, but if you're versed in English, you can probably guess what I said. The trick with fake words is to mix in enough of the original word or phrase that the reader 'guesses it' and does so easily enough to still feel clever about themselves. This must be done sparingly however, to avoid messing with your pacing. The reader is going to have to guess at the meaning and that will kill your reading experience if not used in very very small doses. So, if you're introducing lots of new words, experiences and places, using it in curse words is just that much more weight on the readers shoulders and if it's the only baggage in the world, it had better have a good reason for being there, like a reason central to the story or the character (Fiddly diddly with Ned Flanders from the Simpsons being an example of such). Beyond that, spare your reader the agony and learn to love the smell of F-Bombs in the morning. After all, you're an author, you not just writing such words for kicks and giggles, words are your tools and if you want to nail that sentence, sometimes it just makes sense to grab a hammer.

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"Yosemite-Sam" Style: "FLIPPIN' BUCKETS OVER SUNDAY MORNING! See, when one begins yelling random regular words like this, it sounds like how Yosemite Sam (Warner Bros. Cartoon Char. from Bugs Bunny/Mel Blanc) seemed to be cussing, but really wasn't saying anything that a child should not hear.

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In the "Known Space" science fiction series, Larry Niven uses "tanj", the acronym for "there ain't no justice." In "The Moon is a harsh Mistress", the author uses "tanstaafl" from "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch", reflecting the cynicism of the Moon colony.

Try it yourself.

"nowas" for "no worthwhile answers (on) stack exchange", perhaps!

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I believe that this is a unconscious psychological affect. When people hear words they don't know or understand, another mechanism in their brain activates to try to find a match for the word, and it keeps failing.

To disarm this pattern, just inform them beforehand that you're replacing curse words with close variants.

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