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Hold Your Hippogriffs: A (more often than not) cringeworthy version of a saying (though can be invented on the spot), that is prone to cause Fatal Death in most readers.

But it sounds fun, who wouldn't want to say "You have as much chance as Flower Hill against the exterminators.", or closer to the trope "I'd rather watch an Orion-drive takeoff from bellow than to go there".

You get the point.

So, how can I make in-universe sayings/curses/ whatever, without popping a reader's head?

  • oh blood and bloody ashes – Andrey Apr 5 at 20:38
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You do it as you did, they just need to be short and pithy enough that people get what they are; slang or shorthand for something ridiculous or over the top. I would read them out loud (in my studio alone, or to the dog), to see if they feel "sayable". The Flower Hill comment does, the Orion thing does not.

To become popular, sayings need to be short and memorizable quickly and easily by even the poor students. "Putting lipstick on a pig" is short, visual, and memorable. "Coyote ugly" is a memorable reference to a memorable joke. If you get too complex or the saying is hard to say in a single normal breath, they would not have ever gone viral, and you are trying to hard.

All such phrases are extreme exaggerations of some condition. People do not have to know the story you refer to (like who or what is Flower Hill), the context of usage tells them what the nature of the exaggeration is.

As for curses; believable curses are few syllables, not sentences, and can be used as sudden exclamations even at the very end of an exhalation. Even more so, these must be easy to say (not just for the fictional character, but for the reader in their mind). Curses occupy a different place in our brain than the rest of language (as evidenced by FMRI), new ones have to "fit" like existing curses to feel right, by "fit" I mean be able to be used in similar circumstances without straining to make it work. "Oh Boggle!" could be a curse, "Indubidilous!" takes too much work to say.

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I've never liked these 'fake words,' and I asked something similar here. I don't think there are any easy ways. Even though I dislike them as a reader, I want to use them as a writer, and so I am resigned that this is an uphill battle.

The upside is that people that learn the word eventually become the 'in group' that know, for example, what a mudblood is.

I'm (semi-)determined to use the ones I have created, but from the feedback I received on that linked thread above, I changed how I introduced them. I added more care to how they were introduced, and limited myself to 3 such words in the first novel. (one word is used frequently in chapter 1, the second is introduced around chapter 5, and the third near the end.)

My word for sh1t is based on merde. It is 'mierela.'

This word does not fit a rule about how to make a fake word for sh1t, and I might change it, but I doubt it.

I introduce it by saying "the city smelled like sewage, like mierela."

At some point the reader will accept it. I eventually got used to 'frak' in BSG but it is a bad version of the more common word it is meant to replace.

At a higher level of thought, I tried to make my swear words consistent with a language derivation approach. I tried to have them flow naturally from customs and language of the area in the world.

  • 1
    I think when done right, a quirky 1 phrase could become a fun "in word" as you said. I recall this only once in star wars where the term "Bantha poodoo" was used. It has always stuck with me for some reason and I use it myself from time to time in place of other words. If it were more frequently used, I would think it would lose it's magic. – ggiaquin16 Dec 7 '17 at 22:02
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    Seconded keeping it short and sweet. Look at the use of "Gorram" in Firefly. Or "Feth" from 40k. The words are unfamiliar - the intent behind them is crystal clear – Thomo Dec 8 '17 at 0:56
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    Remindes me on Farscape and their swearwords, like "Frell" – Pawana Dec 20 '17 at 8:05
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    Re Firefly: I don't speak a word of Chinese, don't recognize any of these words, and I still get when the characters are swearing and when they are just randomly saying things in Chinese. – Kevin Apr 2 at 3:39
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Do:

  • research swear words and curses in real Earth languages and cultures.
  • identify how curses and insults are constructed and what's transgressive about them.
  • find appropriate equivalents in your fictional cultures.
  • construct some original insults following the patterns you identified.

Some common insult themes are bodily waste, personal failings, sexual behavior, dubious parentage, and religious standing.

Example:

In my story, which follows fantasy tropes as portrayed in RPGs, "bastard" is used as by a faction led by nobles and royals; other factions won't even understand the concept. "Damn" is used by worshipers of the "Good" gods; among their opponents, who don't subscribe to the doctrine of salvation, it is a sign you do, and a serious faux pas. Sexual swears imply nothing worse than laziness regardless of how horrible the act is, and mentions of excrement are common. Accusations of cowardice and stolen valor are very serious business (although what counts as cowardice varies between cultures).

Don't:

  • use fake minced oaths to disguise normal swear words ("drek" for "shit" and such), unless writing to conform to a rating agency's demands.
  • use direct substitution on real-world collocations, unless writing comedy, OR the substitution is an in-universe joke made by a character. The more specific the collocation or the replacement, the more cringeworthy the result.

Examples:

from the question:

  • "Flower Hill against the exterminators" is a strange case. It would work perfectly without context in any setting, but given that the source is North Korean militarist propaganda, I assume the inhabitants of the hill are more than qualified to deal with enemy humans.

  • "I'd rather watch an Orion-drive takeoff from below" strikes me as a bit too specific to flow well. To elaborate, suppose I wrote, "What? Anthem!? I'd rather play Big Rigs!" Appropriate on a gaming forum, but tortured if I had to elaborate, "Uh, you know, Big Rigs, that one racing game where, er, nevermind."

from the TV Tropes page linked in the question:

  • "Upload them all, the unborn god will know its own." (Charles Stross) - good, the speaker is making a deliberate historical reference.

  • "When I was a child, an uncle asked: what gift I wanted for my name day." (Game of Thrones) - not a trope, fine.

  • "Like an antelope in headlights." (the Black Panther 2018 movie) - bad, a realistic Earth civilization would have its own similes.

  • "The Bloodwing's share", and "like h'vart in an alley." (alien saying in a Star Trek novel) - bad, but compare with:

  • "The pin that broke the zipthar’s wing." (human colonist "saying" in a Star Trek novel) - fine, because it can be interpreted as the speaker deliberately poking fun at the strangeness and familiarity of their new home.

  • "Tending children is like herding Gammorean slime cats." (a Star Wars novel) - a particularly egregious example of overspecificity.

  • short invocations of deities (multiple examples): almost always fine, but check if it makes sense. A character could call his/her patron god, or the god of justice, or the trickster god as a witness, but a paladin on a holy quest to save the world from destruction wouldn't question if the omnibenevolent god of Good is "willing" to help.

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The best approach varies by story. I'll discuss British examples, but bear in mind the need for regional variants on this depending on your context.

  • The film adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox consistently uses the word cuss or cussing in place of instances of cussing, which suits the humour of the film extremely well.
  • Some stories set in the future or a fantasy world resort to inventing a plausible substitution; Red Dwarf is a notable variant in its use of smeg, which is a contraction of a real word you wouldn't want to use in a polite context, so the main "unrealistic" aspect of it is that that word has become so frequent for swearing.
  • Another approach is to use milder words that aren't quite as common in the real world (except maybe a small region in which your story is set, which gives you local colour), such as when Only Fools and Horses uses berk, dipstick, pillock, plonker, pranny, twonk and wally. Of course, these are just the tip of the iceberg. I can't think right now of a work that used numpty, nor do I think I've used it in my writing, but if it's not right for you something else is. The language is huge!

But lastly, don't assume in-universe inventions have to be cringeworthy. One reason they might not be is if the characters have a reason to invent them. Take for example the verb whomp in Recess, which children use precisely so they won't get in trouble. This comes to a head in one episode, but usually it's no problem for them. But when you do invent such words, it's important to use the sorts of sounds real swear words have.

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I do want to practice swearing like a 1950s scifi hero. "By all the moons of Jupiter!" "Lunar Landings, Pop! It looks like you need some help!" "What the space is going on here?" Real words, silly context. (I already say "dang" and "heck," so some people think I avoid swears, but I just think my choices are more amusing. )

When moderately mad, I do vowel-less cusses: "fck" "sht." (I mostly cuss/communicate online, so pronunciation doesn't matter as much.) And then people know I'm really mad if I don't blank out a letter.

So be sure within your book, different characters have different levels of swearing. Most of my friends drop F-bombs casually. Some get weirdly creative. Some have specific reasons for which words they will or will not use. Some won't say more "casual" curses because they have a misogynistic origin, others are Australian. (joke -- but non-U.S. countries are more casual with the C-word, where it's highly radioactive here.)

Deadwood used current-to-2005 sexual cursing, because the current-to-1870s cursing was more religious based, and in the show would sound dainty and silly. So they sacrificed literal accuracy to the time period for emotional accuracy.

Although I said I mostly type, so I don't really worry about pronunciation, I think that fake curses need to have phonemes in common with the "real" one. "Frak" doesn't work as well, because the vowel sound of long-but-flat "a" is so different from the flexible schwa of the "u." Some novel, post WWII, (blanking on the name) used "fug" as the cuss -- I think that softening the "ck" to a "g" is worthy concession to the mores of the time. The vowel still gives the flexibility to be stretched, and the word feels like it can be used as any part of speech.

"Merde" is an odd one: Picard got away with it in ST: TNG because it doesn't sound like shit. Yet I see a connection in the vowels -- both the "air" and the "ih" have a bit of a slither -- neither word has harsh consonants -- the "t" in shit is typically glottal-stopped to a sound closer to a d.

For whole phrases, borrowing from another culture is a great way to have a coherent-enough system. In Babylon 5, the Narn greet people with "Have you eaten?" -- this is from Korean culture. (Source - Lurker's Guide to B5, I think?)

Try to extrapolate WHY a metaphor may be something that a culture originated, and then double-extrapolate to how it may have changed. "The exception that proves the rule" - prove used to mean to test/challenge something. (How do you know water is wet unless you have dry to compare it to?) But now people use it with the more common meaning of proof -- this verifies the rule is true.

So the way it's commonly used is an error, but only pedants like me care. Do you have characters who would know the origin (or think they know) of a phrase, and try to correct people? Are yours the ones who just go by what they heard (not read), or vice versa? Did they learn these phrases from classmates/peers, or from parents, or from adults they were with in an unsupervised setting?

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