Wed
Jan 22 2014 11:00am

Knights Who Say “Fuck”: Swearing in Genre Fiction

What Makes This Book So Great Jo Walton Knighs Who Say FuckJo Walton’s new book What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), is a collection of some of her best Tor.com posts honoring, analyzing, and reassessing science fiction and fantasy. The full collection, featuring over 130 essays, is out on January 21st and includes great opinion pieces like this, originally published in December of 2008.

A little while ago the Mighty God King posted a marvellous collection of doctored book covers, with the titles he felt the books he’d loved as a teenager should have had. The genius of this was the way he used the exact right fonts every time, so that Mercedes Lackey’s My Little Pony Goes to War had just the font you were expecting to see on that cover. One of them that made me laugh out loud was his cover for George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. (I love those books.) His new title was Knights Who Say “Fuck,” which amused me not only because of the clever Python reference but also because it’s true, they do, and that’s one of the things that makes it different from traditional high fantasy. He’s not the only person whose knights are saying “fuck” these days—Sarah Monette’s charmingly foul-mouthed Mildmay leaps to mind—but it is something you never used to see. It didn’t fit the register of fantasy. The register has broadened. Interesting.

I’m reading Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, which was published in 1981. I started it immediately after finishing Hellburner, which is set earlier but was published in 1992. I noticed immediately that in Downbelow Station the troopers “breathe an obscenity into com,” “swore quietly,” “swore at length,” “adding an obscenity.” In Hellburner in equivalent situations they’re saying “Shit, shit, shit!” and “Fuck!”

Now I read both of these books pretty much when they came out, and I didn’t notice anything odd about the level of permitted swearing in them. Yet something definitely changed between 1981 and 1992, and it wasn’t C. J. Cherryh. The number of times someone breathes an oath, an obscenity, or swears viciously in Downbelow Station, you can tell she knows the words the troopers are saying. In fact it reminds me of the coy dashes you get in Trollope, where the fact that a husband called a wife a “——” in He Knew He Was Right is plot-rocking, and no, you never find out what the word is. (The footnotes think “harlot.” As I’m not even faintly shocked by “harlot” I’ve decided to fill in that blank, and all Trollope’s blanks, with the worst words I know.)

What Makes This Book So Great Jo WaltonSo, was Cherryh being effectively censored by what you were allowed to say?

The thing that surprises me about that is the date. I thought it was the sixties when people in books were allowed to use actual oaths, rather than just mighty ones. Did genre fiction lag behind? Certainly it was the New Wave that started talking about sex, but how careful were the words? I noticed when reading W. E. B. Griffin that you can say “shit” all you like in his books as long as you’re not talking about “human excrement” and similarly “fuck” is fine unless you’re talking about “sexual intercourse.” Obscenities are different from description, and use of the words can vary in either direction. These words are charged, and they have very specific registers, they’re significant markers.

You used to see fake “futuristic” swearing. (Who can forget Larry Niven’s “tanj”?) When did that stop? Drinking Sapphire Wine has it, and that’s 1976.

So, things clearly changed in the eighties. Why? Was there a specific change, a specific book or date that it changed, within genre fiction? Or was it a general cultural change of what was acceptable slowly bleeding through into genre? Did it get to SF first and seep into fantasy later? A Game of Thrones is 1996.

And when did it stop being daring for people to swear “like a trooper” and become normal? My memory is that in South Wales when I was a child adults swore in Welsh, and what they said, translated, meant “God” or “the Devil,” and “bloody” was pretty strong swearing in English. But my memory of being a young adult in Britain in the early and mid-eighties didn’t include other young women casually saying “fuck” the way they do now. I think there has been an actual change, and it isn’t just that literature was coy about recording what people said, as that what people say has changed. I’m sure this is also a difference between Britain and North America, and maybe between different areas too.

And in the future? Well, there are fashions in these things. Perhaps our texts with their liberal scatterings of “fuck” will eventually look as quaint as Trollope’s dashes.


Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012.

29 comments
dalgoda
1. dalgoda
To me, when the book was published is not even the question about whether or not to use certain language. Was it used during the time the book is set?
For example, how OLD are the words Shit and Fuck?
Playing Assassin's Creed:Black Flag (which takes place in the 1700s), it uses the word Fuck at different times. Was that word even used in the 1700s? Or does anyone really care whether or not that was the case? Is it used to just make the book, game, movie, more MODERN in some way?
Just wondering.
Gerd K
2. Kah-thurak
@Jo
There is still "fake" swearing - Battle Star Galactica for example replaces "Fuck" with "Frak" to escape US TV sensibilities and a lot of fantasy authors use in-world curses which may be world building or "cussword-evasion" or both.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Dalgoda: Well, that only applies if the characters are speaking English and the story is set in the historical world. Westeros isn't England. ("Fuck" is attested from 1503 and is probably older. "Shit" is Old English as a verb, and 1580s as a noun.)
dalgoda
4. Lsana
I don't know whether it was official censorship or not, but here's my thought on why foul language may have taken longer to get into at least fantasy if not sci-fi:

Swearing was something traditionally associated with lower classes. One "swears like a sailor" after all rather than "swearing like an earl." In general, early fantasy heros were expected to be noble, in deed at least, and usually in blood. If Aragorn went around saying "f--- this s---!" every time something went wrong, it would be much harder to think of him as, "The High King whose return was prophesized and will bring peace to the land." Fantasy heroes are supposed to be better than the run-of-the-mill human, and their language reflects that. In Martin's books, his point is that these men aren't in fact any better (and in many ways are worse) than the average man, and the language helps reenforce that point; it's hard to think of any of his knights or kings as traditional heroes after hearing them talk the way they do. "Knights in shining armor" are in an entirely different category from "Knights who say 'f---.'"

It doesn't quite explain sci-fi, though, whose characters often are the equivalent of sailors. That may have more to do with the perception that sci-fi was a teenage boy's genre, and publishers being more hesitant to include bad language in "children's books."
dalgoda
5. Narmitaj
"I thought it was the sixties" - I don't know about books, but it was 1969 and Love Chronicles by Al Stewart that, I think, first had "fucking" printed in the lyrics on the album cover. Interestingly, though, it wasn't in swearing mode but explicitly sexual:

And where I thought that just plucking
The fruits of the bed was enough
It grew to be less like fucking
And more like making love

(Though I can't help thinking of the last line as "And more like making luff").
dalgoda
6. a1ay
If Aragorn went around saying "f--- this s---!" every time something
went wrong, it would be much harder to think of him as, "The High King
whose return was prophesized and will bring peace to the land."

And once again we mourn the outdated Hollywood casting conventions that never even gave Samuel L Jackson a chance at that role.

Blimey, now there's an idea: all-black, or at least all-non-white, Lord of the Rings! Casting suggestions please. I mean, apart from Morgan Freeman as Gandalf, which is a no-brainer. And given that Peter Jackson was intent on making the Elves into martial arts masters, I'd be entirely behind Chow Yun-Fat as Legolas...
dalgoda
7. treeandleaf
@4
Swearing was something traditionally associated with lower classes./i>

Well, yes and no. I don't know much about swearing norms pre-twentieth century (other than, for the 'respectable' working class and the middles and uppers, there was a sharp Victorian distinction between what you could and couldn't say in front of a lady - so Trollope knows the word his unjust husband uses, but he can't write it down in a novel which has a mixed, possibly primarily femal audience), but the twentieth century British stereotype was that the working class and the upper class cursed cheerfully, but the middle class didn't swear as much; the least likely to swear of all were lower-middle class people.

But in Tolkien, of course, his views about the inherent nobility of good language comes in to play. Presumably you can't swear at all in Quenya, Common Speech swearing doesn't go much beyond 'bloody', and the Black Speech makes "The Wolf of Wall Street" sound lika vicarage tea party.*

* Note: actually, although everyone always apologies for swearing even quite mildly in front of vicars, they swear just as much as anyone else, at least in private....
dalgoda
8. Jessy100502
I always get aggravated at 18th and 19th century literature (especially from England) where they go to the town of "H---" or talk to "Mr. R--- and Mrs. T---". Could they just not be bothered to come up with a name there? What the heck is up with that?
Clark Myers
9. ClarkEMyers
Interesting exchange with David G Hartwell back in the 2008 original posting on the general subject of offensive - for some values of offensive - language and national distribution (banned in Boston is bad for sales in Boston but may increase sales in some markets?).

The Stratemeyer syndicate barred even oh gosh and oh golly - reportedly used mostly by the Bobbsey Twins - as euphemisms for the Deity and so limiting in the intended juvenile market.

And of course Mr. Heinlein's efforts to slip something past the publisher and into the hands of young adults are well known e.g. Star Beast. Maybe older editors lagged the younger readers.

Speaking of military in the 60's I remember somebody who ran his unit on a morning jog singing their usual songs - but he led the route through family quarters and so attracted a severe talking to of the you just don't fucking do that variety and a little more.

From a useage perspective I'd say my generation and immediately preceding used fuck and other such only when we and the general situation were already very tense or perhaps with the deliberate intent of increasing the tension in a social setting - something approaching fighting words especially in mixed company. Men at least have died subsequent to using foul language in mixed company when other men felt bound to defend somebody's innocent ears or something.

Myself I like the way David Drake handles swearing generally in the Hammer's Slammers - certainly the characters swear like troopers but the usage is modified - cleaned up if you will - by using alternative language that conveys the sense and usage of a timeless language. I wouldn't find that it moved the story along to read fucking fuckers fucking fucked repeatedly.

Current usage among people only a little younger than I am to quite a bit younger seems to me more noise than information in context. Mr. Heinlein again has one of his characters - and I do believe Mr. Heinlein approved of the character and intended the description as praise for praiseworthy behavior - use an extensive accurate and specific vocabulary most of the time. Even in Starship Troopers not swaring like a trooper but limiting profanity to times and places where I do believe highly tense might be a good description. There are some class issues in Starship Troopers - maybe the merchant mariners swear liberally.

Fuck as universal praise and condemnation both shocks me and takes quite a bit of focus to decode. It annoys my ear just as much as the much parodied Valley Speak.
dalgoda
10. Max222222222
@8
That's still done in moderni lit fiction, i.e. Jonathan Franzen
dalgoda
11. James Moar
I always get aggravated at 18th and 19th century literature (especially from England) where they go to the town of "H---" or talk to "Mr. R--- and Mrs. T---".
That could interact oddly with Jo's "fill in with the worst words I know" approach.

The intended effect seems to be an increase in verisimiltude by implying something similiar to "names have been changed to protect the innocent", but it can backfire for a more modern audience.
Matthew Schmeer
12. mwschmeer
Maybe it is not when books changed, but when fantasy and science fiction media changed. 1982-1982 were banner years for science fiction on film, and the general population got a glimpse at darker, grittier worlds in Mad Max 2, Blade Runner, Escape from New York, etc. It's hard to read about generalized oath swearing and bland muttered obscenities when Deckard & company are muttering actual obscenities. Even in E.T. we hear a few "shits". The movies seem "more realistic" than the sanitized explanations in print, so the "more realistic" becomes the new normal.
dalgoda
13. EC Spurlock
@#8 Jessy100502, this covention was carried over to novels from broadsheet press (the tabloids and gossip rags of the 18th century). These broadsheets relayed all kinds of scandal and gossip (both true and fabricated) about very well-known and quite powerful aristocrats who could easily have the writers, editors and publishers of the papers jailed, bankrupted or even executed for speaking libel against them. By using only the first initial of the name, the publishers could escape being held accountable by claiming the scandalous material was written about someone else, even though the general public would certainly know who the story was really about. Novelists carried on the tradition when referencing real, identifiable people and places in their books, and for the same reason, since back in the day fiction was considered very unsavory and sensational reading material.
Fredrik Coulter
14. fcoulter
Re: the overuse of "those" words.

I've tried to teach my daughters not to casually curse. My argument is that there will come a time when you REALLY need to curse. And if you do it every day, cursing won't be useful anymore. Instead, limit it to respond to really bad things.

Of course, being teenagers, everything is larger than life.
dalgoda
15. Leah Bobet
@6:
Blimey, now there's an idea: all-black, or at least all-non-white, Lord of the Rings! Casting suggestions please.

Supremely Unimpressed Idris Elba for Supremely Unimpressed Elrond, please.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Chiwetel Ejiofor is the only actor I could ever imagine playing Aragorn.

I would actually watch that.
dalgoda
17. Gerry__Quinn
There are paradoxes involved. Recall the liberal use of the word c**t in Deadwood (where I live it hardly needs asterisks but I will defer to US sensibilities). But one of the writers noted that in the period concerned, the word used would be "snatch". Which I recall from my schooldays, but haven't heard in conversation since.

Personally I've always taken the view that it's useful to have a vocabulary that will wake people up or indicate certain emotions, and this becomes all the easier if one's vocabulary is generally moderate.

This would apply just as much in writing characters.
Theresa Wymer
18. Tekalynn
Robert Silverberg has a character think about this at some length in The World Inside , published 1974 and set in the twenty-second century. The historian character finds it strange that words like "fuck" and "cunt" were ever censored, but considers them to be archaic and old fashioned, compared to the slang phrases "top" and "slot" used in his day.
dalgoda
19. Dariusfallenstar
I think the injection of colloquial swear words started in the 80s, probably in Sci-fi novels and later began swimming over to the fantasy realm. Heroes Die by Matthew Stover was the first fantasy novel that I remember taking a step back over the amount of *real* cursing. Then again, it heightened the sensibility and verisimilitude of the tale, so I had no issues with it.
dalgoda
20. vfc
re: different swears
I enjoyed the "blight!" and "Blight it" in the Sharing Knife series
dalgoda
21. a1ay
There are paradoxes involved. Recall the liberal use of the word c**t
in Deadwood (where I live it hardly needs asterisks but I will defer to
US sensibilities). But one of the writers noted that in the period
concerned, the word used would be "snatch". Which I recall from my
schooldays, but haven't heard in conversation since.

IIRC the dialogue is completely inauthentic in terms of vocabulary, but in terms of atmosphere it's as good as they could make it - i.e. people in that environment not only swore a lot, they took pride in swearing in really baroque, elaborate ways.
dalgoda
22. Crazy Biker Gran
And, of course, there's the wonderful "qwim" which reared it's Scotish head in 'Rob Roy'.
dalgoda
23. Jordan Fan
I really enjoy all of the alternate swearing in The Wheel of Time. My family has taken to using those phrases ourselves, many of which are far more entertaining than modern curses. ("Mother's milk in a cup!" being one of our favorites). My kids even bought me a T-Shirt filled with the huge variety of alternate curses and insults in that series.

Maybe it's just me, but I find most modern swearing fairly unimaginative, and as #14 suggested, overuse dilutes the power of the words. I'm not offended by it, just unimpressed. That said, I think realism in characters' language is very important in writing. Whether an author chooses to go with modern curses or world-appropriate (fantasy or alien cultures) or evolved (far-future SF) cursing is partially a personal decision, and as others have mentioned, a business decision (at least in certain media like prime-time TV and movies in the US).

I'm sure it's a pretty small minority, but I know of at least one kid who became a dedicated fan when, at a book signing, in response to her thanking the author for not swearing (not unusual even in the childrens' books genre), he promised her that none of his books would ever contain profanity.

It's tricky, because as an author, you care a lot about evoking just the right kind of effect on a reader. But with profanity, the reaction to it varies so much from person to person, that you are bound to generate unintended responses in a non-trivial percentage of your audience.

On the other side, George R. R. Martin's work is a good example of one where he has a very specific goal to achieve, one that self-selects his audience, so it's probably not an issue for him (other than some choosing not to read it because of how shocking much of the content is). But obviously, he's okay with that, so it's a fair choice on his part.

In any case, I find the whole topic quite fascinating. If I were to ever write fantasy, I'd probably go the Robert Jordan route, partially for the more predictable effect on the audience, and partially because it's just such a wonderful opportunity to convey the nuances of the cultures you are creating.
Carl Anderson
24. Carl V. Anderson
For me the issue isn't whether or not the swearing is present but whether it works for the story. Swearing in military SF, regardless of whether or not it takes place in a future Earth or some far distant galaxy, does not ring false. Whereas I have read fantasy novels in which the author was making up their own language for certain concepts and painting a very imaginative fantasy world in which the repeated presence of the word "fuck" would throw me out of that world he/she was trying to create.

I don't meant to imply that swearing works in SF but not in F, those were just a couple of examples that spring to mind. I have had similar things happen with science fiction in which the presence of expletives in use today grated against the imaginative language used elsewhere in the story. At times I get the feeling that the use of "fuck", especially, is meant to convey some degree of grittiness or maturity to the work, something that separates it from Tolkien or the like. Unless that language fits the character and world that the author lays out, it feels false and leads me to lay that book aside for one of the many waiting on the TBR pile.
dalgoda
25. Susan Macdonald
I far prefer books that say So-and-so "muttered an obscenity under his breath" or "swore to make a sailor" blush rather than ones that use actual cuss-words. Profanity exists. Most people use it occasionally; Hollywood uses it excessively. That doesn't mean we should encourage or applaud its use in otherwise good books. As the T-shirt says, "vulgarity is no substitute for wit."
Alan Brown
26. AlanBrown
I remember when I was a wee one, my dad hit his thumb with a hammer so hard he later lost the nail. I remember him dancing around, gasping and saying things like "Oh my." and "Goodness." But he didn't swear, even though it was obvious what was on the tip of his tongue.
Years later, he dropped some blunt Anglo-Saxon phrase into conversation without batting an eye. When I reminded him that he never used to do things like that, he shrugged and said, "Times change." It rather surprised me how easily he let go of something that he had worked so hard on earlier in life.
dalgoda
27. joachim boaz
"Certainly it was the New Wave that started talking about sex" -- umm, what about Philip José Farmer in the 50s?!? His famous work "The Lovers" (1953) caused quite a stir, and Strange Relations (1960) containing novelettes from the mid 50s are sexually explicit for the time....
dalgoda
28. a1ay
I think there has been an actual change, and it isn’t just that
literature was coy about recording what people said, as that what people say has changed. I’m sure this is also a difference between Britain and North America

Definitely - I would bet money that everyone in the comments above taking a moral position against using naughty words is North American. I've never met an adult British person who would sincerely say something like "Profanity exists. Most people use it occasionally; Hollywood uses it excessively. That doesn't mean we should encourage or applaud its use in otherwise good books."
Tabby Alleman
29. Tabbyfl55
Could it be as simple and mundane as demographics?

If I were writing for a young audience, I would avoid actual cussing in my prose, but for an adult audience, no holds barred.

Maybe in the 70's most sci-fi/fantasy readers were adolescents, and as those fans grew up, the average reader age went up. And maybe the authors/editors/publishers were aware of this and responded accordingly.

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