Damn, That’s Good: Pseudo-Profanity as SFF Worldbuilding

You’re reading your latest SFF obsession and you hit a string of back-to-back profanities: “Fuck! Shit! Damn!” The rogue stubbed her toe during a challenging stretch of a treacherous climb. 

I see segments like this and I chuckle. There’s an odd, intangible pleasure in seeing a swear word taking up space on a page. “Hey, I say that when I stub my toe, too!” (Of course, I’m not climbing cliffs or buildings. I last stubbed my toe chasing my cat, who refuses to swallow his pill.)

SFF authors have proven time and again that profanity can be an art form. I look to Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard sequence as the gold standard, here—the series elevates swearing to the realm of artistic achievement. But for every book blending the familiar profanities we know and love with magical lands and spacefaring civilizations, there’s a work that substitutes new terms that take the place of common expletives to great effect. 

In my recent reads, encountering profanities that are specific to one particular world or group of characters have genuinely added to the immersive experience in ways that go beyond wordplay or the author simply having some fun…for example:

“Storms!” Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive characters whip this exclamation out regularly. It’s a sigh of relief, a shout of agony, an utterance of frustration. “Storms” acknowledges a power Rosharans can barely understand, but which irrevocably shapes their world.

“Stars!” Becky Chambers uses this one in tandem with our own beloved profane lexicon. It’s not the only swear, but it’s one of the few new ones you’ll encounter in the Wayfarers series. “Stars” tells us we’re witnessing human stories from a future far removed from our present, both in time and space. 

“Scrum/Scrumming!” Robert Jackson Bennett’s beautiful substitute for “fuck” and its versatile forms stands in for the fan-favorite F word perfectly in Foundryside and its sequels. “Scrum” is a signpost telling us “You are here, and here is nothing like where you’re from.”

What purpose do these replacements serve? I think the easy and occasionally correct interpretation of such substitutes is an author’s desire to shy away from actual swears. 

And I get it. Some people just don’t like profanity. They can take it, but they don’t want to read it every few paragraphs. Hell, I have one friend who says “frick” and “dang” when they need to blow off some steam. Whether it’s out of some misdirected piousness or a holdover from childhood, I don’t know. I’ve also seen folks comment on LinkedIn posts asking the original poster why they felt a particular swear was necessary; clearly it can strike a nerve.

Despite what may seem like the norm, especially online, there are still plenty of people that shun swears in all their forms. As such, an author’s desire to cater to the masses is a viable reason to steer clear of such language. I think there’s an element of this in Sanderson’s “Storms!”—what a tonal shift it would be to hear Kaladin yelling “Fuck, I need to save the weak and underprivileged!” every few chapters. 

I wanted to nod to this explanation for a moment because it’s probably a very real factor, and any reason for replacing a common swear with a new one should be treated as valid. 

…Valid, sure, but scrumming boring. Luckily, I don’t think most authors are beating around the bush simply to please swear-averse readers. Instead, I see invented profanity in fiction as a crucial storming tool in an author’s storytelling arsenal.

Consider The Stormlight Archive first—or any Cosmere story; “Colors” from Warbreaker is a personal favorite. “Storms” can stand in for almost any exclamatory swear, which is to say, all of them. “Storms” and “storming” works in the place of fuck, shit, damn, and anything else you’re bound to utter when your forearm nicks the red-hot rack as you maneuver your frozen pizza from the oven. 

But let’s not forget that literal storms ravage Roshar on a regular basis. So regular, in fact, that they create the planet’s climate. These storms dominate daily life and define the calendar by which Rosharans live. As the series progresses, our protagonists come to understand more about the storms, their historical meaning, and their impact on the future of the civilizations on Roshar. 

“Storms” has a pseudo-religious feel to it, more along the lines of saying “hell” or “damn.” Nobody in The Stormlight Archive balks at its use. Instead, its ubiquity unites characters from all walks of life. Queens, generals, lighteyes, darkeyes…they all drop “storms” into conversation from time to time, as they literally live in the shadow of a force beyond their comprehension.

As simple as it seems, “Storms” is an expression that firmly roots the reader in a new world and forces us to reckon with the reality of highstorms as though we lived on Roshar, too. Sanderson uses a substitute swear word to ground the reader in his foreign world, and it works. “Storms” worms its way into the Rosharan vernacular as easily as “fuck” or “damn” find their way into our everyday speech. It is both a fact of day-today Rosharan life and a reminder that we, the readers, are not in Kansas anymore. 

In our next example, we turn to humanity’s future as imagined in Becky Chambers’ impeccable Wayfarers series. Humans exist as one of many species in a galactic civilization. In fact, humans are low on the societal ladder. Forced to abandon their home for a fleet of starships, humans subsist on donated stars and handouts. Some choose to remain in the Fleet while others venture to alien worlds and settlements to make new homes. 

“Stars,” then, is a symbol of humanity’s humility. The swears of yore all pop up in equal measure, so instead of replacing our profane vocabulary, “Stars” adds to it. It’s not particularly profane by any stretch. Instead, Chambers’ characters tend to use it as a sigh of relief, an expression of irritation, or a simple placeholder when no other words can coagulate a thought into coherent phrases. 

Save for radical sects from a dying Earth, humans have evolved beyond religious zealotry in Chambers’ sci-fi universe. “Stars” becomes a nod to our origins. Stars die. Their matter spreads across the universe. Under the right conditions, that space dust collects into planets. If the planet is lucky and well-placed, perhaps it yields biological life. 

Chambers doesn’t outline this process in as many words, but she doesn’t need to. She has the only word she needs: “Stars.” It captures the vastness of existence, which expands far beyond earthly humanity’s wildest dreams. “Stars” encapsulates the entire universe and all the tiny specks of matter living and breathing within it.

For readers, “Stars” serves as a reminder that we’re witnessing a different humanity from the one we know. This humanity has grappled with its problems, watching its Earth decay. Wayfarers—in particular, Record of a Spaceborn Few—chronicles a small, scared remainder of humanity living in the long shadow of its mistakes and struggling to stay relevant on a cosmic scale. Stars. What else is there to say?

Shifting gears once more, let’s turn to another fantasy: Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (and the larger Founder’s Trilogy, though I have yet to read the sequels). In Tevanne, there is no use of “fuck” or “fucking.” There is only “scrum” and “scrumming.” I have to hand it to Bennett, because it’s hard to find a replacement with the same percussive oomph as the word “fuck,” but he did it. While we’re on the subject, I also want to shout out “candle,” which stands in for “penis” to hilarious effect throughout. 

Whereas Stormlight Archive takes place on a completely different planet and Wayfarers takes readers to space, Foundryside feels the most grounded of the three titles. Tevanne shares some similarities with Italy and Spain, and the Romantic-sounding names certainly further this overall feel. 

Because Tevanne feels inspired by real-world history and locations, “scrum” has some extra weight to pull. Again, we see a fictional swear reminding us at every turn that we are not at home anymore. We are somewhere different, where the rules have changed. Magic and technology are one. Scriving dominates civilization, with the rich using it to bask in luxury while the poor pine for a taste of what the magic can offer. 

I don’t find it particularly difficult as a reader to imagine a new world, especially when a sharp and practiced author makes it easy. But small things can help the worldbuilding gears turn in my brain, and something as simple as “scrum” replacing “fuck” can go a long way toward making that world feel real and lived-in. 

Foundryside also offers large quantities of something both of the other books I mention toy with to some extent: humor. Levity radiates throughout Foundryside, despite the stakes being massive and the challenges facing Sancia and her crew being dangerous. I chuckled when I saw “scrum” gracing the page because it’s such a ridiculous collection of sounds. It fits as a profanity stand-in, and although it replaces a real-life swear of unparalleled utility, it still hits just as hard. 

Swear words can serve any number of purposes in an SFF novel, all of them unique and interesting in their own way. I love them as tools of characterization and punchy dialogue. But there’s something special about an author who can twist a word’s meaning or create a new world altogether in a way that fleshes out the setting and general feel of a book. 

Sure, “fuck,” “ass,” “damn,” and their profane brethren have a well-earned place in our day-to-day language, whether you choose to use them or not. But newfangled exclamations that border on the profane can help drive home a well-honed fantasy or sci-fi world and bring new flair to an already great book. 

So, got any scrumming swear stand-ins that tickle your fancy? Drop ‘em in the comments. For my part, I’ll leave you with my personal favorite, from The Lies of Locke Lamora… “Nice bird, asshole.”

Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.

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