Sunday, January 30, 2011

I Swear

Because I'm a word nerd, one the things I've been noticing lately are the words that an author chooses for a character to swear with.  These are the words that come out of a character's mouth when emotions are at the highest, when the action is peaking.  They can add period authenticity in historicals and subtly reinforce elements of a paranormal world.  In a contemporary, they can serve to peg the character into a class, region, or ethnicity.  Swear words have a lot of power and they tell you a lot about a character. James Lipton likes to ask his famous interviewees what their favorite curse word is.

The book that sent me down the path of this post is Meljean Brook's The Iron Duke, and Mina's favorite oath: "My blue heaven." It just fit so perfectly into the world where the skies are clouded with smog; and there's this one moment when she sees an actual blue sky, possibly for the first time:
Rhys watched her face as she stepped down from the car, and saw that her first glance was in the same direction as everyone else who journeyed from London-- up, where the sun hung high in the brilliant blue sky, rather than shining like a dull coin embedded in a shark's belly.  Her lips parted and her face softened, and Rhys vowed that he would see that expression again.
I swear I'm not that old, really, but I knew that "My Blue Heaven" was the name of a song; I thought maybe from the 40s or 50s, but when I looked it up, the original is even older than I thought -- 1927.  Not quite the right era, but it does kind of evoke the motorcars and early era of technology that fits in with the steampunk aesthetic, yes? No? OK, maybe that's a stretch

I don't know, maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it's just one of those little authorial choices that seems to add so much to the story, at both a character and world-building level.


Then came Anne Stewart's, Reckless, which opened a bit shockingly:

"Move yer bleedin' arse," Miss Charlotte Spenser's maid, Meggie, said to her.

The contradiction of formal title and the rude language and particularly that the maid says it to the lady, is a great hook and pulled me in to the character quickly.  Unfortunately, it ended up being a bit gimmicky as the whole schtick about the "Bluestocking Ladies" learning how to swear was dropped right away.  It was a decent introduction but it could have added a lot more to the story if the author had wanted to work it a bit more.

But... I can't let this one drop without observing that it can't possibly be a coincidence that it's exactly the same line that Eliza Doolittle lets loose with in My Fair Lady, can it? (Well, technically, Eliza says "bloomin'," rather than "bleedin'". Still.)


I already talked a bit about how Kim Harrison uses the phrase, "By the Turn" in her Rachel Morgan/Hallows series.  I found it a bit heavy-handed (though that could be a cumulative effect of multiple books) and it lacks the delicious subtle layering of Brook's "my blue heaven," BUT it does reinforce the otherness of the Hallows world and the cultural magnitude of the event that "outed" all the paranormal beings.


So tell me about your favorite use of profanity in fiction - how do authors use it to make a point about their characters?  For you writers lurking out there, feel free to jump in with any of your own favorite examples.

And finally, I leave you with this, just because it's hilarious (it's heavily bleeped but you might want to have headphones on if you're at work or have rugrats in earshot)


Victoria Janssen said...

Most swearing is either religious, sexual, or scatological. One thing I find tricky, from a writing pov, is how to create swear words for a world without religion, especially if I want to avoid the scatological and sexual. (I ended up giving in on the sexual swearing and creating a sort of substitute for religion.)

In reading sf and fantasy, it bugs me when the cursing is too long or too awkward-sounding. Curses should flow. People abbreviate when they speak.

Sylvia Sybil said...

In Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, people depend on dragons to save their lives and keep the world from being eaten alive. Most of their curses revolve around dragons, including "Scorch it!" - may a dragon breathe fire at it. One curse, "Shards!", conjures up the image of a broken dragon egg - one of the strongest blasphemies in their culture. It's a clever way to show the amount of reverence the people have for dragons. They're also short and filled with harsh consonants, making them sound like curses.

I think too many spec fic (sci fi and fantasy) authors think of made-up curses as a way to censor profanity and don't explore this wonderful, subtle method of worldbuilding. Victoria's right, most cursing is religious, sexual or scatological (I would also add heritage such as "bastard" and racial slurs) and thus your curses show what is truly important to you and your culture.

Nicola O. said...

your curses show what is truly important to you and your culture

EXACTLY! Very succinct version of this whole post, LOL.

@Victoria on "flowing," yes, that too! There's something about the very sound of a good cuss that satisfies -- a sibilant or fricative followed by a nice hard plosive for emphasis.

Lacey Reah said...

My favorite cursing has to come from the Victorian erotica book, "My Secret Life" an autobiographical account of an anonymous man's sex life. He uses words from back in the day like, "piddle" for peeing, gamahuching for eating out, slit for vagina, and tallywag for penis. I found the book so enjoyable just because of the way the guy talked.

Sylvia Sybil said...

This post got me thinking so much that I wrote a two part response about profanity in sci fi and fantasy. (salty language in Part I) Part I up today, Part II up next Wednesday.


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