Swearing

Tagged: Theme

Genre SF authors often depict futuristic swearing, blasphemy and other forms of foul speech, not always with any great conviction. Robert Graves's Lars Porsena; Or, the Future of Swearing and Improper Language (1927 chap; exp vt The Future of Swearing and Improper Language 1936) foreshadows the problem afflicting the SF Magazines for decades after the year of his light-hearted essay – that any realistic bad language was Taboo. Though prepared to risk "bloody" – which George Bernard Shaw had controversially brought to the London stage in Pygmalion (performed 1913; London 1914) – Graves felt he had to write "bugger" as "b." and to finesse stronger words via indirection and euphemism. But Lars Porsena does provide some general headings for discussion.

The tradition of swearing by God or a variety of gods has been sanitized and science-fictionalized in various ways, perhaps most famously by E E Smith in his Lensman sequence, whose spacefarers swear vigorously by the invented "space-gods" Noshabkeming and – especially – Klono. "By Klono's TUNGSTEN TEETH and CURVING CARBALLOY CLAWS!" cries Kim Kinnison when surprised in Children of the Lens (November 1947-February 1948 Astounding; 1954); reference is elsewhere made to this entity's golden gills, gadolinium guts, iridium intestines and so forth. Unusually, Kinnison in Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951) offers a defence of such swearing by Klono to his wife-to-be (who thinks it rather silly):

He's got so much stuff – teeth and whiskers, claws and horns, tail and everything – that he's much more satisfactory to swear by than any other space-god I know of. [...] A man swears to keep from crying, a woman cries to keep from swearing. Both are sound psychology. Safety valves – means of blowing off excess pressure.

Whether invoking a made-up god commanding no actual belief can indeed provide such a safety valve is not discussed. G K Chesterton argued in an essay that it is impossible effectively to blaspheme in the absence of belief, his Thought-Experiment example being blasphemy against Odin. Isaac Asimov's Foundation (May 1942-October 1944 Astounding; fixup 1951) features another invented god, the Galactic Spirit, known by all major players in the narrative to be a fake. A solemn curse delivered "In the name of the Galactic Spirit and of his prophet, Hari Seldon, and of his interpreters, the holy men of the Foundation ..." has immediate and devastating effect because, and only because, this synthetic Religion is backed by advanced Technology. The same is true of "the great god Mota" whose temples and litanies mask a freedom-fighting movement in the occupied USA of Robert A Heinlein's Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951). The catchphrase oath of Dr Lazarus, the Spock figure in Galaxy Quest (1999), begins "By Grabthar's hammer ..." Meanwhile Foundation also adapts the Catholic tradition of invoking the saints, with even non-religious characters occasionally swearing by the secular hero Hari Seldon who created the Foundation. In an actual Catholic context, the holy name of the Blessed Leibowitz (who was an electronics designer rather than a man of singular virtue) is frequently invoked by the monks in Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959).

Robert Graves in the above-mentioned Lars Porsena quotes The Rivals (performed 1775; 1775) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) for its comic discussion of "the oath referential or sentimental swearing", such as "odds triggers and flints!" in a military context. The typical sf extrapolation is that future spacefarers will swear by astronomical objects or space itself. Thus Isaac Asimov's already-cited Foundation features such robust ejaculations as "Space!", "Great Space", "By Space", "Galaxy" and "by the Galaxy". Alien "Ganae" from planet Gana in A E van Vogt's "The Monster" (August 1948 Astounding; vt "Resurrection") invoke their world or perhaps their ancestors: "By ancient Ganae!" Superman has "Great Krypton!" A character in R L Fanthorpe's Galaxy 666 (1963) as by Pel Torro swears "By the seven green moons", Samuel R Delany's Empire Star (1966 dos) has "What under the light of seven suns ..." and the above-cited Galaxy Quest oath continues with "... by the suns of Warvan". Much more recently in Becky Chambers's A Closed and Common Orbit (2016), the universal mild expletive is "stars" – though with recourse to more conventional strong language at times of high emotion. Invective in Kenneth Bulmer's Hook sequence, opening with Whirlpool of Stars (1974) as by Tully Zetford, takes its cue from pathology rather than astronomy: "I've said you're a chancroid, Hook, and a burst ulcer, and a candidate for advanced pustular syphiloderma, and I'll go on telling you you're a Pasteurella pestis ..." The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy offers occasional science-based swearing: "What the photon is it?"

Euphemisms also abound. Descriptive statements along the lines of "He cursed fluently and inventively for five minutes" have long been a Cliché of genre fiction; Fritz Leiber rings the changes on this form of avoidance in The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; 1962), with a mob of angry pseudo-writers shouting "all the dirty words they knew – really surprisingly few for even technically literary people, no more than seven." Isaac Asimov's above-cited Foundation includes "'Science be dashed!' swore the other, via a bouncing oath that ionized the atmosphere." Elsewhere in the Foundation trilogy, presumed obscenity is replaced by the traditional "unprintable". Mark Clifton in When They Come from Space (January-February 1962 Amazing as "Pawn of the Black Fleet"; 1962) makes a joke of it when the protagonist says "Oh darn, oh gracious, oh fudge ... To heck with those people!", with a footnote explaining that his actual words cannot be used in a publication distributed by the prim United States Post Office Department. Characters in Larry Niven's Known Space universe are apt to blister the air with cries of "Bleep!" In the US edition of Douglas Adams's Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), the epithet "asshole" (the joke here being that an Immortal, who has spent a substantial portion of eternity on a quest to differently insult every sentient being in the past, present and future universe, has only just now got around to this commonplace term) was bowdlerized as "kneebiter". Another Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy whimsy is that the rudest word in the universe is "Belgium". The conversation of a sweary character in Terry Pratchett's The Truth (2000) is sprinkled with the adjectival "—ing", the emerging gag being that he is actually saying nothing worse than "ing".

Several authors have amused themselves by inserting obscenity in coded or obfuscated form. Examples of this ancient tradition can be found in William Shakespeare, as when a character ostensibly discusses a woman's handwriting in Twelfth Night (performed 1602; 1623) – "These be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P's" (with the first spoken "and" supplying the N) – and James Joyce (1882-1941), whose Ulysses (1922) spells out two of the strongest taboo-words in innocuous-seeming doggerel: "If you see Kay / Tell him he may / See you in tea / Tell him from me". Robert Silverberg's deranged Computer in "Going Down Smooth" (August 1968 Galaxy) does in fact say or output the word FUCK, but in binary ASCII code: "1000110 1010101 1000011 1001011". The beginning and end of a character's dying word "Shit" are playfully separated in John Sladek's multi-layered "The Master Plan" (February 1969 New Worlds) by all the rest of the story, and in Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards! (1989) by paragraphs describing death by dragon-fire. One minor landmark in the history of the once strait-laced Astounding/Analog was editor Ben Bova allowing Joe Haldeman's soldiers in "Hero" (June 1972 Analog) to say in clear to their sergeant: "Fuck you, sir." ("One of the army's less-inspired morale devices.") Readers duly protested.

Some examples of invented profanity are more successful than others. The Judge Dredd expletives "Drokk!" and "Stomm!" have the right kind of gritty consonantal impact, as do Red Dwarf's "Smeg" with its allied insult "Smeghead" (strengthened by associations with "smegma", deniable since Smeg is also an Italian maker of domestic appliances), and Battlestar Galactica's "frack" or "frak". "Bowb" in Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965) also has the feel of a swear-word if not a particularly strong one. Robert A Heinlein's "frimp" in I Will Fear No Evil (1970) and Farscape's "frell", though understood to mean "fuck" or something very similar, do not carry the same verbal force. Girlish expletives from the eponym of Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars (November 1962-January 1963 If; 1963) include "Snel-frockey!" Samuel R Delany's already-cited Empire Star offers "jhup" and "bleb", and argues that "dirty" words are only dirty to what Delany here terms the simplex mind. The F-word in Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang (coll of linked stories 1969) is "fardling"; unloved entities may also be called "nardy". Weaker still is Larry Niven's "Tanj!" in his Known Space stories, standing for "There ain't no justice!" The alien "Shazbot!" from Mork & Mindy (1978-1982) gained some real-life currency during the show's run.

Comic treatments of bad language in a context of Linguistics and translation appear in Robert F Young's "Written in the Stars" (September 1957 Venture Science Fiction), in which visiting Alien "Staaid" are horrified that the constellation Orion as seen from Earth is identical to their ideogram for copulation; E E Smith's The Vortex Blaster (fixup 1960; vt Masters of the Vortex 1968), where one world's most unprintable word "Srizonified" translates literally as "descended from countless generations of dwellers in stinking, unflowering mud"; Piers Anthony's Prostho Plus (fixup 1971), whose Universal Translator renders an oyster-like being's oath "Boiling oceans!" as "gritty oil" for a Robot listener; and Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters (1988), in which a particularly deadly insult in the Discworld dwarf language is "B'zugda-hiara", meaning "lawn ornament".

Profanity can often overlap with hate-speech. In The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; 1953) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth the political climate has made "Consie" (conservationist) an abusive insult. The protagonist of Eric Frank Russell's The Space Willies (June 1956 Astounding as "Plus X"; exp 1958 dos; rev vt Next of Kin 1959) invents what he considers a "new and exceedingly repulsive word" to hurl at his Alien captors: "quilpole". Interstellar trading clans in Robert A Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy (September-December 1957 Astounding; 1957) call all planet-dwelling humans "fraki", the name of a small revolting animal; similarly insulting is "son of a Khoogra", referencing "the lowest known sapient race" in H Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy (1962). In Theodore Sturgeon's "The Comedian's Children" (May 1958 Venture), the titular performer has used the power of Television to make "Horowitz" – surname of his main perceived opponent – a term of abuse and contempt worldwide. Alien saboteurs undermining a near-Utopian galactic society in Lloyd Biggle Jr's Watchers of the Dark (1966) find that its language has no hate-words and so must import their own: "Grilf!" The hated, people-eating alien Mil of Anne McCaffrey's Restoree (1967) are invoked in various curse-words like "Milbait" and "Milrouser". Likewise, fear and hatred of alien "buggers" in Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; exp 1985) by Orson Scott Card gives rise to the all-purpose abusive term "bugger-lover". Further examples are very numerous.

In Fantasy, a particularly well-known term of disparagement is "Muggle", applied by Magic-users to those lacking this ability in the Harry Potter sequence by J K Rowling (1965-    ). The wide range of swearing by often provably real Gods and Demons in fantasy – from "By Crom!" in Robert E Howard's Conan saga to invocations of the Five Gods in Lois McMaster Bujold's World of the Five Gods – is outside the scope of the present entry. [DRL]

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