How Far Afield Can Sci-Fi and Fantasy "Fake Swearing" Get Before You Feel Uncomfortable?

Robida's Future Opera
Robida's Future Opera

Total intolerance: Regular swearing only/Just say "fuck"

On the one hand, it is unlikely that three hundred years in the future, a group of space marauders (or six hundred years ago in Ruritania, or on the third 5,000-year resurrection cycle on an alternate Earth that looks suspiciously like the Dalmation Coast) is going to rely on the same profanity as twenty-first-century North Americans. But on the other hand, everything else sounds worse. Unless you're willing to create an entirely new language with its own complex set of rules, don't bother coming up with a ten-word vocabulary of invented oaths. The best this can sound is stupid. Curse words are meant to intensify a feeling that's already present in speech; if they draw too much attention to themselves specifically, they've already failed to do what they're supposed to. They're already speaking English, which doesn't make much sense either. Just say "fuck." It's fine! It works! You don't need to get creative with cursing; that's one aspect of speech where "don't fix what isn't broken" ought to be the rule.

Slight intolerance: G.R.R. Martin/Utah rules

Like how people in G.R.R. Martin stories and small towns in Utah often have familiar-to-us names that are just spelled a little bit differently, like Petyr instead of Peter, or Hellin instead of Helen, or Laecey instead of Lacy. Your Babylon 5 "frags," your "gorrams," etc, that sound similar enough to real-life curses that they manage to draft on shared cultural weight, and peppering in some regular "hells" and "damns" to reassure the viewer that you're not throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Moderate tolerance: Borrow some British swears

Other languages can enter into it – most commonly, for whatever reason, either Mandarin or French – but British is the classic go-to for the obvious reason that most American audiences will find the words familiar enough to pick up on their intended meaning, but alien enough that it won't offend many sensibilities. Gormless. Sod. Bloody. Sure! (Also this borrowing subconsciously flatters a particular American belief that Britain is no longer "real" in the way that America is real, that it is a place of the exquisite, the droll, the residual, the left-over, the twee, and can be pastiched, borrowed, excised from in order to decorate our own flights of fancy. They are the Little Folk and we are Men; they are the fairies at the bottom of the garden. It is for this reason that it is very difficult for any American person to have a non-deranged psychic relationship to Britishness.)*

High tolerance/Dependence: Go for broke

What you gain in vocabularity, you lose to silliness. "What in the glorping blixar was that," etc. Real Douglas Adams shit. Silly swears were very popular in the 1980s and again in the 2010s, but they're out now (and thank God for that, I say). Silliness and cursing are both important, but they should have as little do with one another as possible. Did you ever got those wretched little airport books that were like, collections of "900 of the most impressive historical curse words you've EVER HEARD" from a sort of indifferent aunt for Christmas? I did, and it nearly killed me.

Resurrecting Historical Oaths: Waking Ned Devine/Reviving Ophelia

For my money, this is the absolute worst option, no question. I don't even like it when they do this in historical dramas, where it's arguably accurate. It's why I had to stop watching Harlots, despite mostly really enjoying the show. I hate, hate, hate old-timey alternatives to "pussy" and "dick" and "fuck," anything that smacks of theatrical, too-cutesy bawdiness. This includes any play on the word "country," but also "cunny," anything to do with flutes or purses, "pintle," anything that seems to conspicuously pride itself on "sweariness." I like Armando Iannucci as much as anybody, but I'm afraid he is going to be held to a great and terrible account someday.

*I ran this theory past Jo, who mostly agreed, and suggested that in reverse instances, "I think we see ourselves as the few remaining giants, with the Americans as our many somewhat-fond babies; it's all a question of perspective." The same theory of supersession, with varying proportions!

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]