Every culture has its own set of taboos surrounding bodily functions, religion, and naming things. In Anglophone cultures, our taboos generally involve waste excretion, particular body parts, sexual acts, and Christian deities. But we can still talk about these things (with varying degrees of comfort) by replacing them with non-taboo words, or we can “soften” them to non-taboo forms by changing something about the word itself. This column will unavoidably include cusswords, though I will try to keep them to a minimum…
Taboo words in English have non-taboo counterparts and, in many cases, elevated/clinical terms as well. (As a native US-English speaker, I’m focusing on that variety, but I’ll mention some British as well.) Take, for example, the word feces. It’s a dry, clinical, neutral term for solid bodily waste. We also have crap, less clinical, slightly vulgar but still allowed on TV, poo or poop and all its variants, a childhood word, and the delightful, vulgar Germanic word shit. Each of these words has situations where it’s appropriate and inappropriate, and they all indicate something about the person using them (and the situation they’re in).
Medical records will use feces (or possibly stool, excrement, or excreta) but none of the others; when people step in dog feces on the street, they don’t refer to it as dog feces, but use one of the other words, like dog crap, dog poo, doggy doo-doo, dog turds, or dog shit. Some of these things are more okay to say in front of a child than others, and one of them is too vulgar for broadcast TV.
When used as an exclamation or interjection, we don’t use feces, turd, or doo-doo; these are strongly tied to the object. Instead, we’ll say crap, shit, or poop, depending on our personal preferences and who’s around us at the time. I try really hard to avoid cussing in front of my five-year-old niece, because she’s a sponge for that sort of thing, and we don’t need her to go to school sounding like a sailor.
We can also say shoot or sugar or something similar, where you can still recognize the vulgarity, but it’s been changed. When I was a young 3dgy teen, my mom would give me this Look and say, “it’s gosh darn it.” She still doesn’t like me cussing, but I’m 44 now, and here I am, writing about swear words.
Reading Shakespeare as a teen, I saw all these zounds! and the like, and had no idea what it meant, but, based on context, I could tell it was some sort of swear. I pronounced it rhyming with sounds, because that’s what it looked like, but I later learned it was derived from God’s wounds—and thus a blasphemous swear. Bloody also stems from religion: God’s blood. Jiminy cricket is also a deformation of a blasphemous swear, as are gee, geez/jeez, and a whole plethora of words.
As language users, we thus have a few tricks in our bag for how to avoid taboos, and we use them all the time. In many cases, we use avoidance words without even knowing that they’re avoiding something!
When script writers had to avoid bad words because of FCC broadcast rules, they could take a variety of tacks, just like we do every day. You get lots of “oh, geez” and “shoot” or “freaking” in your contemporary (and historical) fare, but in SFF-land, writers have another trick up their sleeves: alien languages, or even made-up future-English words. That’s where our fraks and frells come in (via Battlestar Galactica and Farscape, respectively). Sometimes you get other inventive ways of evading the censors, like Joss Whedon did with Firefly and having people cuss in Chinese.
Of course, now, with the rise of Netflix and Prime originals, people can swear to their heart’s content. In the Expanse books, Chrisjen Avasarala uses fuck freely and creatively. In the SyFy seasons, she doesn’t swear much, but once the show switched over to Amazon Prime, she now gets to use her favorite word almost as much as in the books. It’s delightful to see this respectable grandmother and politician with a gravelly voice talking like a sailor, and I love it.
Of course, evading the censors isn’t the only reason to deform taboo words. Some authors use invented swears as worldbuilding or because they aren’t as potty-mouthed as I am.
In his book The Widening Gyre, Michael R. Johnston has the main character comment that Kelvak, one of the non-human languages, is his favorite to curse in, because there’s “nothing as satisfying as the harsh consonants” in the word skalk.
There’s something to that statement. The two most common vulgarities, shit and fuck, are characterized by a fricative at the word onset and a plosive as the coda. A successful deformation of these words—one that leaves the speaker satisfied—follows that pattern. Deformations that are closer to the original are also more satisfying. Shoot is more satisfying than sugar; frak is more satisfying (to me) than frell. Judas priest is more satisfying (and blasphemous) than jiminy cricket. The Kelvak word skalk starts with a fricative (albeit in a cluster) and ends with a plosive, so it feels “sweary.”
You could theorize that there’s some sort of sound-symbolic connection with the fricative-vowel-plosive combination, where the plosive represents a closing or hitting, but that gets a bit Whorfian. We don’t need psychological justification for it.
So: what are some of your favorite SFF swears and taboo deformations? I’m partial to “Bilairy’s balls!” from Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series, in which Bilairy is the god of the dead.
CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke. You can find her current project, a book on practical linguistics for writers, on Patreon.