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Author Topic: Made up curse words
KayTi
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This came up in the "what do you hate..." topic and raised a question I have been mulling over for a while.

I'm curious if there is value to using made-up curse words. My main reason for asking this is that I write for a broad audience. I don't want to limit myself to only certain categories/age groups due to use of curse words. However, it seems unrealistic to have my characters not be able to use a swear word from time to time, particularly in the heat of the moment - "Drat! The air lock handle is busted!" doesn't quite seem to have the punch.

I have only recently discovered Battlestar Gallactica, the new series. I love the use of the made-up word "frak" as an exclamation and a curse. It works really well, it conveys the emotion of a scene, the sense of this being a group of gritty working men and women (it's clearly used more by characters like Starbuck.) But it's also clearly made up.

Is there a way to bridge the ridiculousness divide with something like that, or has Battlestar Gallactica taken the only good one?

Piggybacking on my brand-name post from a few days ago, I suppose I could use the term coined by the Battlestar Gallactica writers, as OSC mentions the example of coining xenocide but not being able to prevent others from using it. However, borrowing frak just doesn't seem right to me, though it appeals to me because of it's all-purpose nature. "Frak, the air lock handle is all fraked up!"

Any thoughts?


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trailmix
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In the Firefly series they use "gorram" instead of "god damn" which I found clever. Its set in the future. We have sayings and colloquialisms that are commonly used but over time people forget the origin and often the proper use or pronunciation. Some day "god damn" could very well be "gorram." It works very well, I think.
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KayTi
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Is that what they're saying? I didn't realize that. I loved the use of the word "shiny" - particularly when Kaylee said it. I always pictured the word spelled "shiney" because of the way her character pronounced it.

BIG big big huge firefly/serenity fan. I bought the dvd set recently (after getting them all from netflix) and watched the commentary tracks too. Those are always fun.


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RillSoji
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I think making up swear words is fine if you're careful about the words you choose to use. Short words, that really mean nothing, have more impact as a swear word. Longer words tend to lead to a more amusing feel. I like Puckernuts from Elfquest graphic novels but it does tend to make me laugh more than appreciate the seriousness of the moment. There was another book I read a loooong time ago in which the author liked to string words together rather than just use a curse word (Great flying green elephants!). I thought it was very silly and didn't fit with the book, character or situation at all.

Good luck! If you need some help getting the creative cursing juices going, check out this video. It's a movie about a game but the script is pretty hilarious. Fear not, it is PG rated.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5q3TG5yCG0

Apologies if this doesn't make sense to anyone else. ^_^ It helped me when I stumbled onto this same bloiting problem a little while ago.


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Robert Nowall
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It's difficult to give any made-up words emotional significance and resonance, much less swear words which come with this almost exclusively. If you feel the need for such, go ahead and do your best.

Semi-sidebar: I was watching "The Producers" (the movie of the musical of the movie), where there's a fair amount of swearing---but, it seemed, every swear word I could catch was a noun or verb, rather than an adjective or adverb. That might be a good way to handle it...


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Christine
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Farscape also hadd awhole dictionary full of made-up swear words.

I see their value in an alien language and the reason is simple: there may be no direct translation. When making up language, the real test is whether there is a comparable English word and I think there is room to believe, in cursing, that there is not. The curse words we choose are based on our own values. On another world, the worst thing you can say to someone may not have anything to do with a sexual encounter, it may be calling them unenlightened or something.

Of course, in the series I mentioned (and in the example from Battlestar Galactica), they were making up words that were pretty clearly supposed to translate to f***, s***, etc. They were basically trying to get away with cussing on TV by creating their languages. I forgave Farscape, because I liked it, but I thought it was pretty cheesy.

The other downsides:

1. We won't have an emotional connection to the made up curse words. (This can be good or bad, especially if you are bringing a human into an alien culture it might be exactly what you want.)

2. You need to create a culture to support the words. I find that culture creation is the most difficult thing that authors do -- inevitably, they seem very Asian to me.

3. You have to contend with a part of your audience who won't like it or but it -- of course that's true with absolutely anything.


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rickfisher
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I think the response in the "what I hate" thread was predicated on the idea that the purpose of cursing was to shock, so why would you make up a word that had less shock value? And the answer is, it depends on who you're trying to shock, the reader or the other characters. The other characters will be shocked just fine by whatever words they aren't supposed to say (even the name "Voldemort," for instance, though that's never used as a swear word). It can seem cheesy, but it doesn't have to; "A Clockwork Orange" does it wonderfully (although Anthony Burgess later said it was cowardly of him and he should have used the real words--in my opinion, the clever use of language in that book was one of its charms).

Of course, the other point, and probably the more important one, is that most people who curse, most of the time, use the words they do because that's the way they talk; they don't even think about it. It's almost as mindless as " . . . um . . ." and as a result, it can be left out of written dialogue just as often. However, sometimes an " . . . um . . ." is appropriate, and so is swearing/cursing/profanity/vulgarism. In these cases, relatively mild words like "damn" and "hell" usually avoid any possibility of either cheesiness or childishness, and will drive away very few readers (though no doubt there are some). If you really don't want to include even that much, then spend a fair amount of effort making sure your made up profanity sounds believable. Or if you have a character who swears constantly, and want to demonstrate that, but fear (quite reasonably) that so much swearing will drive away readers, then that's another case where you might want to make up your own swear words. Just remember, in that case, to have everyone else use some of them now and then, and not to let anyone say anything that we would say (unless those particular words are also included in the "offensive" characters litany).

[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited March 14, 2007).]


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Alye
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If you make up a curse word, it’s OK. I just feel that the need to curse is very limited. In my own writing I may have 5000 words and one curse. It is there when something very dismaying just occurred and I want that brought to the reader urgently.

If you do make up a curse word at least let the reader know why it’s shocking so we can share in the reaction of the characters.

One made-up curse that really confused me as to its vulgarness was by Robert Jordan, "Mother’s milk in a cup." Um... OK. I don’t get it. Why should a mother’s milk be vulgar when it is in a cup?


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franc li
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If we don't write every "umm" "well," and "so" that people actually would say, why do we have to include cursing? Just a thought.

Did Star Wars have any cursing? It would have been funny if it were all derived from principles related to force. "Sweet coefficient of Friction, Chewie! What were you thinking?"


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InarticulateBabbler
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In the comic book Judge Dredd they used Drokk in place of nearly every cruse word available. I never had a problem with it. Anthrax--the band, not the disease--made a song called, I am the Law that was about Judge Dredd. The lyrics chanted Drokk It! during the bridge, and it sounded perfectly natural.

Frag and Frak are not originally from Battlestar Galactica or Farscape. Frag, much like snafu and the acronym for Fornicate Under the Command of the King, was used in reference to something else (in this case, an explosion). Frick adn Frak were developed as alternates for curse words in cartoons (which was used proficiently by Yosemite Sam).

An aside:
There was an episode of South Park where the use of curse words, prolifically, resurrected demons. It was an intersting interpretation of curse words. Where you could actually curse somebody by saying the word...

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited March 14, 2007).]


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hoptoad
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As mentioned above the word gorram is a great example of extrpolation.

There are real equivalents in english. Cor' blimey or blimey is one. Originally it was the oath "God blind me." Struth is another originally 'God's Truth'. The word bloody as an expletive is also religious in origin stemming from common oaths referring to either the blood of Christ or the blood of Mary.

It happens with other words too, like tawdry, which was originally 'Saint Audrey.' It refers to the festival of Saint Audrey where the participants dressed up in brightly coloured costumes.

I like the this approach to making up swear words. It makes more sense in a sci-fi setting to me.

Maybe you could call people tourists stemming from how 'some' folk prounounce terrorist.

I'm usually not convinced by swearing in fantasy settings. I think it brings the whole feel of the story down to a kindergarten baby-talk level.

Swear words need reasons to be such and should have a meaning. Consider how in English a lot of swear words were once legitimate anglo-saxon words made unpopular and considered crass by the invading normans. Perhaps this sort of approach would be helpful in a fantasy setting where there is a strong cultural contempt/pride ie: when a person swears they are actually using their mother tongue or one borrowed from a conquered people. But, in my opinion, all swear words need one quality in order to be used by 'the people' and that is the ability to be spat out in a moment of emotional extremes. That's why, 'drokk' is so dumb. You can't say it fast and nothing looks more stupid than a person stumbling over their swear words.

'Mother pus-busket' Is a good example of using a word with all the right sounds in Ghost Busters when Bill Murray's character is confronted by the whole 'jaws of hell' vista. You can spit out each syllable easily. It just rolled off his tongue, and mine too for maybe a year afterward.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited March 15, 2007).]


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InarticulateBabbler
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quote:

That's why, 'drokk' is so dumb. You can't say it fast and nothing looks more stupid than a person stumbling over their swear words.

Drokk is said faster than gorram. It's pronounced Drock and is a one syllable word. It's said like the F--- word.
<shrug> I didn't create it.

It was interesting to learn the origin of blimey, though.

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited March 14, 2007).]


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hoptoad
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Sorry, dumb was wrong word. Unlikely was more accurate.

The 'dr' sound is a palatal gymnastic that, when said fast, naturally turns into a 'j', 'ch' or 'tr' sound making the word come out 'chok' trok' or jok' . It is uncomfortable in the mouth, unless someone places a schwa between the 'd' and 'r' making it sound like 'da-rokk'. Which is ostensibly a two syllable word anyway.

So, unless there is an important reason to spell it 'drokk' I would simplify. It seems like a classic case of someone shoving together a few likely looking letters without road testing the word. Of course this is just my opinion.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited March 14, 2007).]


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InarticulateBabbler
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Kevin J.Anderson uses shizz a lot in the Saga of Seven Suns.
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hoptoad
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that's interesting
it allows people to put in the 't' as the 'zz' in italian does.
See, now there's a good reason to spell it that way.


However there is a tendency in english to replace indefinite rather than definite sounds like a 't'. For example, our common word 'a' meaning a single article was originally 'one' became 'an' through repetition of an unstressed vowel and eventually dropped the 'n' atogether unless it precedes a vowel sound. Likewise 'mine' became 'my' and 'thine' became 'thy'. The 'n' is retained before a vowel sound because it makes the 'n' more definite AND allows the speaker to put more emphasis on an otherwise unstressed vowel syllable. So the words effectively become 'a napple', 'a nhour' etc

So, although a particular word in english is unlikely to lose the definite 't' sound, in the case of 'shizz' the author has carefully retained it by using a 'zz'.

I like it -- again just opinion.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited March 14, 2007).]


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lehollis
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Curses and insults can help define both a character and a world. I feel they both tend to revolve around what the society values, in many cases (certainly not all cases). So I try to make the curse word fit the society or character. How a society insults will say much about them. A deeply religious society will likely have insults related to the church and diety. A society based on astrology and mystics, might have exclamations like, 'Falling Stars'. I just try to establish the principles first, so it won't confuse the reader.
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franc li
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It has been reported to me that "Oh, Kib!" was invented for some living scriptures audio. See, that one always sounded dumb. If you are going to dramatize the lives of ancient prophets, it would seem more realistic to have them say "goat doots" or something.


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wbriggs
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I think it's fine. There are certainly characters who wouldn't curse, but for those that would, well, you can tone it down, but if you eliminate it entirely, you really change the character.

I'm thinking of someone I know who uses the F word* 5 times in a sentence. (He talks fast. If he left out the F word, he could talk slowly and get out the same content!) What do you do with him? If he's in SF-land, you can use "flink" or something. I don't know what I'd do with him in present-day.

"It was so freakin' amazing, man. I mean, this freakin' dude was like, holding on to the freakin' steering wheel with his freakin' *toes*. I thought we were going to run off the freakin' road!"

I think I'd cut back to one F-word and use "freakin'" or maybe change it to "hellacious" or something else out-there but not one of the Big Six. But I don't know. Maybe it would sound silly.

---

*FORTRAN, of course.


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kings_falcon
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I don't mind made up curse words but then I don't mind alternate tags for time either as long as the use is clear.

In the original Galactica they used two different time measures: "Centon" and I now forget the other (time to pull out those DVDs). I hated that because I couldn't tell which was a minute and which was an hour. But the swearing, the swearing made sense.

I really loved the Firefly and Serenity used profanity and other worse that were devolutions of ones we use today. The English language is getting full of slang - in fact. some of it is in Webster's dictionary now. It makes sense that 1000 year in the future that the language would have shifted further to a mix of English and other languages.

We create new words all the time. After all, English is a wonderful language where a proper noun can become a verb. To be "Mirandized" is to have your Miranda rights read to you. Poor Mr. Miranda didn't know that his last name would become a verb when he protested his conviction and "now" illegal interrogation.

I tend to like having specific words or phrases linked solely to the fantasy or Sci Fi world I'm reading about. The trick of course is to get them to work.

Robert Jordon's "mother’s milk in a cup" didn't work for me but "blood and ashes" did.



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pantros
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Swear words - use the ones we all know or do the Firefly/BSG one-off extrapolations.

Don't use gibberish.

In a fantasy/classical setting swear on the local gods like in HBO's Rome.

Don't make me, as a reader, stop and wonder if that was a swear word and how bad it was.

There is always just saying: "Mike swore." Don't be afraid to add an adverb to steer that more clearly.



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Robert Nowall
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I read once (I think) that English swear words have not changed all that much since English "got settled"...the early forms still look like the most recent forms...but for about two hundred or so years they all just drop from sight (and inspection), disappearing about mid-sixteenth century only to reemerge in the mid-eighteenth. (Exact dates uncertain---must've been a library book 'cause I don't have it in my files, and even if I did I might not be able to locate it under all this [swear word goes here])
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Ray
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You don't necessarily have to stick to English for cursing. Firefly had a universe that mixed both American and Chinese cultures together, and a lot of the profanity used is spoken in Mandarin. Of course, they were doing it so they could say those things without annoying the censors, but it's something to keep in mind if you're using a society that's multi-cultural.

I usually don't pay attention to fake profanity unless the words and/or phrases are really calling attention to themselves. Robert Jordan's profanity really isn't that farfetched considering the societies he created, and in fact, it's usually invisible unless he wants attention drawn to it. Those are usually for character moments, like to show Elayne's childishness or Mat's temper. In one case, it's the only memorable trait for a soldier and was used as a comic relief around Nynaeve.


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dee_boncci
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The whole sensitivity to expletives is something I don't get. They fill a role in the way we communicate, whether you like them or not. There was a woman I used to work with who would say "poo!" when she made a mistake. One day another colleague said "shit!" when he screwed up and the poo-woman had a near-apoplexy, and about took it to human resources when he couldn't manage to apologize with sufficient sincerity.

I don't know about where all of you live, but here, shit=poo and poo=shit, both in their function as nouns, and as expletives. I'm not sure if "poo" has verb sense or not. Might need the trailing "p" for that.

"Made up" expletives can be enriching for a story, mostly when pertaining to those derived from religious belief systems when those systems are notably different from today's common western ones. Made up vulgaraties don't seem to work so well, but the notion of vulgarities is a holdover from times when the ruling classes spoke different languages than the common people. Even today, people use those distinctions in diction to set one group(usually themselves) at a higher social level than the other (usually those who "explete" plainly, rather than with obfuscation).

Overall, less is probably better, made-up or not. It's somewhat illogical, but many people are sensitive about that kind of stuff.


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Robert Nowall
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I've always liked the idea of having the narrator make a statement paraphrasing the dialog, without using the exact words involved. ("The Joker remarked on the nature of the relationship between Batman and Robin" or somesuch.)

*****

Using a foreign set of swear words instead of English, as "Firefly" apparently does (I haven't seen it), when your audience is reading or listening in English, really strikes me as a way of saying, "Hey, hey, look at how clever I-the-writer am being." They might as well be made up---for the uninitiated, the foreign words and phrases have to be just as properly invested with emotional significance as any made up word.

I'm reminded of the "contest" to slip "naughty ideas" into Campbell's Astounding in the late 1940s. In one "entry," somebody once used obscure Turkish terms for not-so-obscure sexual practices as character names. (I'm not sure I've ever seen the story, or if I have, I remain unfamiliar with the Turkish terms if not the practices.)


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KayTi
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I should probably clarify here that one of the reasons I asked is because I would like to appeal to a YA/Children's lit audience with some of my work. I assume that use of known English curse words would limit the marketability of my work. This is probably a separate question, but I'm wondering if that is the case, and if so - are made-up curse words any better?
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Ray
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Made-up curses aren't offensive, if that's what you mean. My experience is that readers don't actually mind that the characters use profanity, but a sizeable portion does mind reading the actual words. Creating new words is one way of getting around that barrier, although it has its downsides. The words can't be funny if the dialogue is supposed to have any power behind it, and they have to fit in with the culture that's been created.
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NoTimeToThink
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I am not a big fan of curse words in general;  I believe that most of the time there are other ways react and still get the point across without cursing.  In Sci-fi we have the advantage of great reasons to make up curse words (alien cultures, technological differences, the evolution of languages over time, etc.) that don't exist in other genres.
 
I do not like using a "made-up" curse word when it is only being used as a direct substitute for a real one (just to get past the censors).  I am a big fan of Battlestar Galactica, but "frak" is something that has bothered me for quite some time.  My memory may be faulty (actually, I know it is), but at first they were just using "frak!" - a short, sharp expletive that could have meant anything, but got the emotional point across without being vulgar.  This was fine.  Unfortunately, the use of "frak" expanded over time into a series of phrases ("frak you", "we're frakked", "frakking--") that made exactly which curse word they were substituting for obvious.  This is where it crossed the line for me and cheapened it also.
 
Make up a curse word to give an emotional punch without giving offense.  Make up a curse word to reveal something about an invented culture.  But don't do it just to try to fake out your audience's sensibilities - you'll just wind up insulting them even more.

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RMatthewWare
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Good take on it, 'no time to think'.

I think some people are morally opposed to curse words, but made up words that mean the exact same thing are some how okay. The F-bomb is bad, but Frak, which means the same is fine. The S-bomb is bad, but Shiz is fine. If you're just trying to override the real word, you might as well use it. Unless your new swear word means something different. If you have a creative word that is some terrible insult of one's mother, great.

Matt


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trousercuit
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I've already said everything I want to about futuristic swearing:

http://mr-writing-person.blogspot.com/2006/06/ask-mr-writing-person-gracking-grits.html

Being as modest as I am, I consider it required reading on this subject.


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InarticulateBabbler
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LoL at S-Bomb and F-Bomb, for two reasons:

1)

quote:
...made up words that mean the exact same thing ...

2) S-Bomb is doubly funny, because sometimes it literally acts like a bomb.


On a more serious note, however, shizz--in Kevin J. Anderson's use, atleast--sounds like it evolved from shit, over the course of many generations.

I think Firefly/Serenity uses the made-up (and Mandarin) curse words very well. You can't always tell what their saying, but the sentiment is clear.

KatTi, you asked:

quote:
I would like to appeal to a YA/Children's lit audience... are made-up curse words any better?

Honestly--whether anyone wants to admit it or not--young adults are probably more proficient in the use of actual curse words and the newly evolving ones than any of us are. I think if you cleanly convey your characters emotions, it won't matter if you really curse, make up curses, or surgically remove every hint of vulgarity. Be true to your story.


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RMatthewWare
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I read a few YA novels by Holly Black, and she's very good at using the F-word. So, if you're worried about offending the audience of editors there, it seems you're the only one. If you don't want to curse, just don't.

Matt


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RFLong
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Red Dwarf used Smeg which is also the brand name of very expensive kitchen equipment from Scandanavia (I think - I didn't investigate too far as I can't afford them anyway). After a few years of hearing smeg on RD, the range launched here. How we laughed at all those adds...

R


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Robert Nowall
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If you go to your dictionary and look up the word "smegma," you should realize that the shortened form "smeg," in English, already is a dirty word. The guys at "Red Dwarf" did not make it up...

(I had to use an online site---my big dictionary doesn't have it (usually a dead giveaway about "dirty words"), and I wanted to be sure.)


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Kadri
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The main problem with swear words is that if you're writing something that conceivably could be YA lit and it has swear words in it, you can't assign it in classroom because it's always the least mature student that brings everyone down to his level and sooner or later everyone's pointing and giggling that their homework has swear words in it. Even if they are normally mature about language, putting a swear word in something assigned is like putting it in giant neon lights.
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trousercuit
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I suppose the most mature thing one could do with a book riddled with profanity is put it down.
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wbriggs
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****, yeah!
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RMatthewWare
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In a world where Harry Potter gets banned, if you want your book read in a classroom, don't put ANY profanity in it. I remember reading Bridge to Terabithia as a kid and I think it said 'damn' once or twice. It was a banned book at some schools.

Also, if you're worried about getting banned, you shouldn't write any fantasy at all. Scifi should be okay as long as it's dumbed down.

Personally, I hope that someday a book I've written gets banned. I would take it as a badge of honor.

Matt


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Pyre Dynasty
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How about a little poll here, who has liked a book that was assigned in school? I'm a mostly no, with one yes (Which was The Old Man and the Sea, That in itself is strange because I normally can't stand Hemingway.)
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trousercuit
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Of all. The books that I liked. None were by Hemingway.

I definitely liked Jude the Obscure. A paragon of literary whatevers it was, and every time I opened it, it was like inhaling a new ray of sunshine.

Or something. That book was truly awful.

Hmm... I honestly can't think of a book I enjoyed. A few plays, yes.


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Robert Nowall
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School ruined my appreciation for any number of doubtless-good books. I pretty much dislike everything I had to read for school, unless it was one that in rare instances I had read before that point. (Clarke's Childhood's End is the only one I can recall, but I'm pretty sure there were a few others.)

As a result, there are several writers who usually come highly recommended (Tolstoy, Dostoyevski) that I've never sampled beyond what I read in school. Then there are several writers (Hemingway, Orwell) whose work I read and liked later, but whose work I had to read for school (The Old Man and the Sea, 1984) I still don't like.

(I think we hashed this out over at the Books forum a while back. Sometimes I wish we could get things like this going over there more often.)


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Uhm, perhaps you should start a topic on this in Discussing Published Books and Hooks, instead of putting it here?
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Robert Nowall
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I dunno...seems every time I put something up over there, it just lays down and dies.
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I am destiny
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RFLong...I love Red Dwarf. The McD's by my house shortens the sausage mc muffin w/ egg to SMEG on the digital board. I laugh every time I eat breakfast there, it is worth going through the drive through just to brighten my day.

I'm sad, our PBS station dropped it a few years ago and my Saturday nights aren't the same. *sigh*

I use damn, hell and crap, alot; but none of the other ones. The others are just too harsh in my oppinion. Besides the more my MC becomes enlightened the less he uses the words.

Destiny


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spcpthook
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Depending on your world it may be necessary to make up curse words. Both Fantasy and sci-fi tend to have worlds that have little focus on god or his oppposite. Words like hell have precious little meaning in a setting that offers no hell or even an underworld or a belief in the afterlife. (And yes I know plenty of fantasy and sci fi do offer these things but...)

Why would anybody say God damnit (or god blessit) if god is always referred to as Zeus or Apollo or blessed Balla for that matter. If there's a whole Pantheon of gods nobody ever says 'oh god' its not effective as a curse and throws a wrench in the works. Furthermore if your world doesn't believe in an afterlife there's probably not much concern about blessing or damnation so where do you go from there?

At times its appropriate to twist the wrench a bit and come up with world appropriate cursing. and Fu#$ and sh*& are just too much of this world to creep their way into mine.


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trousercuit
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quote:
Furthermore if your world doesn't believe in an afterlife there's probably not much concern about blessing or damnation so where do you go from there?

There's always sex and bodily waste. If your culture believes it rude to eat in public (for example), there'd be plenty of good cursing centered on food.

The main thing is that, in a society where it's possible to reduce "I want to offend you" to a single word, it'll be done.

[This message has been edited by trousercuit (edited April 11, 2007).]


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