Fantasy has two schools of thought on swearing. The first is that swearing should be completely made-up. This is to position the language in that world, and to stop those teens hearing nasty words during the three chapters of the dark knight doing wonderfully elaborate things with peasant intestines. This is why Robert Jordan’s WoT has such ridiculous swears as ‘bloody buttered onions.’ As most swearing is rooted in sex, genitals and/or excretions, I don’t really want to know what, in Jordan’s universe, buttered onions is slang for.
The second school of thought is the thoroughly modern way of using much of our English swearing. Isn’t there a thrill when you first hear somebody in a Fantasy universe colour the air like any old deadbeat at the pub?
Using our swearwords is how some authors modernise Fantasy. Made-up curse words is laboured worldbuilding. They get tiring in a short story. Over an 8-book epic they get ridiculous. Fantasy does need modernising. GRRM writes like a speech from a burly mayor introducing the 16th annual Medieval Reenactment Fair. You know what I mean. Belly for stomach, seed for jizz, quaff for the drinking of any alcoholic beverage, horns of ale (from which to quaff ), steed for horse, wench for woman, heavy with child for pregnant and so forth. It’s too much. I shouldn’t have to gird my loins to read this stuff.
I read Fantasy as though it is a translation from whatever language they speak
But if ye olde talk gets tiring, how can one describe and interact with a Fantasy world using modern language? How should Fantasy characters swear?
If you look at the way Fantasy is written in English, you’ll notice some things. Fantasy in English generally doesn’t use loanwords from other languages, yet English uses a great deal of these words. A reader can’t immerse themselves in a world where the characters regularly parlay with each other with bons mots, say ciao when they leave, and approvingly mutter bueno when they see a good looking hombre. This is why Ken Liu saying mano e mano in his novel doesn’t work, partly because it moves the reader from English into further translation, and partly because Ken Liu’s world has absolutely no justification for putting Spanish terms into the novel. If there’s no speakers of the parent language of these examples anywhere in the world, then why are the characters speaking like that?
But if your elf calls somebody a ‘motherfucker’, that’s using a swearword that doesn’t originate in English, so would that imply that there was a culture similar to whoever English adopted ‘fuck’ from floating around this elvish kingdom? If we accept ‘fuck’ but not the examples above, would that mean that it’s simply a matter of how long English has used the word for?
Here’s where etymology comes in. Fantasy worlds often have real world analogues to draw their inspiration from, but the way Fantasy characters speak and swear have their roots in history. If they speak and swear like we do then it suggests similar histories.
Think of this like the power of the word in Le Guin’s Earthsea. The true name of an object, spoken, will give one power over an object. This symbolises the very real depth that any name has. Our own names have roots from thousands of years ago. My own name is meant to be taken from one of the Roman gods. If I saw my name in a Fantasy novel, should I assume it had the same root and historical basis?
It feels wrong when the language doesn’t match the period. Glen Cook wrote ‘butt’ a lot, but then as his characters were Vietnam vets, he probably wasn’t allowed anything stronger by his publisher and had to settle. Mark Lawrence used ‘can-opener’ to describe a mace, in a world where cans or can-openers are not visible within the world.
But these are anachronistic transgressions, different from the loanword transgressions. We still haven’t figured out where does this leave our elf saying ‘fuck’.
For the most part I read Fantasy as though it is a translation from whatever language they speak in that world to English. Translations tend not to employ hypermodern language, slang or idioms, anything that can date a text to a particular period. A Victor Hugo novel with a fresh translation every 50 years won’t have wild changes but for the rise and fall of words that fall in and out of favour.
Fantasy is nuts for creating languages – though few took it as far as Tolkien – but there is a definite lack of care in how Fantasy authors create a cohesive syntax. To use the translation approach, Fantasy writers often don’t have the same uniformity of language in their texts.
If Fantasy is a translation, then our foul-mouthed elf would get a pass, because ‘fuck’ in this case presumably represents a similar word in Elvish, with a similar connotation and history. The elf saying ‘merde’ would only work if there is a French-speaking Elvish community, and ‘flaming bloody goats’ would never work, because nobody actually swears like that, anywhere.
Of course, this is my take on how language is used in Fantasy. Language is a huge part of the genre, from its beginnings in the oral retelling of stories to the creation of worlds and people that speak in ways different than how we do now. As a reader, I find I am better able to immerse myself in a Fantasy world that is self-contained and presents no faults in the logic of the languages. When there are errors to this language, in the continuity of the style as it is presented to the reader, it has the same effect as watching a period film on ancient Rome and spotting a character with a wristwatch.
There you have it. Your complete guide to Fantasy swearing.