Friday, September 12, 2014

A Pox on Your Tongue!

“By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!”
Dr. Lazarus of Tev'Meck, Galaxy Quest

Inga, the farmer's innocent daughter?
Sometimes, a witty retort is just not enough.  Bad guys, being so bad and evil and bad, do things that are just mean, just spiteful for no better reason that to keep things interesting.  In that moment, it’s not only appropriate for your heroine to swear, it’s practically encouraged.

But what if Sasha Feathersword of the Blood Oath Sisterhood lives on Eternia, a million-jillion light years from Earth in another dimension (the space between spaces)?  Her culture may have no concept of Hell or damnation, etc. or a carpenter's son sent to save us all from our sinful ways!

How then can she properly vent her frustration at the necromancer Mandark Blackheart who has just fatally stabbed Inga, the farmer's innocent daughter?

The power behind cursing, swearing, or profaning is cultural taboo.  It starts with what is considered acceptable in polite company, and then moves to what is considered most base and dirty, things you wouldn’t necessarily want to talk about over tea and crumpets with the good and pious religious leaders or your mother.  You create effective swears based off your society’s culture, history and mythology.

Durin the Deathless is not amused.
Take Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for example.  “But Rob,” you’re saying to yourself, “Tolkien was a philologist, a university professor whose love of words ran so deep that he made an entire career out of them.  Why would he ever stood so low as to have a single character utter a profane syllable?”  Well, Tolkien was also telling a very good story, and he told it realistically (for the most part).  I assure you, there are some very in-world curses. Treebeard's are some of my favorites. “Root and twig” is a favorite of his.  But when the Ent became riled over Saruman's deforestation projects, he went very profane with, “Curse him, root and branch!” Coming from a tree-shepherd that's quite vehement.

This is no different than cursing by Jesus' wounds, or Ganesh's tusks, Odin's balls, or Ishtar's unmentionables. To these characters, as Tolkien was right to note, these aspects are, or border on, the sacred, if not the religious. When Gimli curses “by Durin's beard” he's talking about Durin the Deathless, the eldest of the seven fathers of dwarves. Essentially, Durin is a minor deity in his own right, and this is as much a legitimate curse as anything Samuel L. Jackson ever uttered while on a commercial flight.

Thanks Obama!
But you don’t need to invent an entire mythology to swear it up.  All you really need is another language no one else is generally familiar with.  Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity used Mandarin Chinese as the language of choice for its creative swears.  One of my favorites is (and this is transliterated, so please forgive me): “Liou coe shway duh biao-tze huh hoe-tze duh ur-tze.  Roughly translated, this means, “Stupid son of a drooling whore and a monkey.”  It doesn’t matter if you make up your own language for the random profane utterance, or if you borrow an obscure one.  Either works just fine.

So the next time you find yourself on the beach of an alien planet with a beautiful, scantily clad, but mute humanoid, only to discover you were on Earth the whole time, you’ll have more than one way to declaim, “You maniacs.  You blew it up.  Ah, damn you.  Goddamn you all to hell!”

1 comment:

  1. Of course there is the more peculiar curses and insults that are the product of greater stratification in society, like, say English aristocrats suggesting that one's manners are fit only for people with regular employment like bankers. Same principle but less applicable in general society, In his history of England, William of Malmsbury (who noted he only wanted to record memorable things) had William II Rufus swearing "By the Holy Face of Lucca," which was scandalous because no one knew exactly what that meant, Lucca being an Italian city conquered by his Norman brethren, but they were sure he meant business.