Zounds! Swearing in Fantasy

September 23rd, 2007

Here’s one we can all get our teeth into. An issue that comes up from time to time, and one that looks as if it will come up a bit more for me since publication in America, is that of the use of ‘modern’ swear-words in fantasy.

Blast my potty-mouth, it gets me in all kinds of trouble. Since sensitive souls may well stumble upon this particular post, I will use asterisks to spare their blushes.

John, over at Grasping for the Wind, is having a very polite, dignified and well-thought out discussion with my American editor, Lou Anders on this very topic, and he’s taken his recent reading of The Blade Itself as his starting point. So naturally I thought I would throw in my obscene, over-dramatic and ill-considered thoughts.

There was an interesting discussion of this very issue (which again started with a reading of The Blade Itself , blast my potty-mouth again) over at SFFWorld a while back. Some of the objections raised to swearing there (and I underline that these are not necessarily John’s objections) were: that these are ‘modern’ swear-words out of context in a ‘ye olde’ fantasy setting, that you’re better off making up a culture-specific oath like ‘by the holy orb of Zalxoz I will destroy thee!’, that you can just make up your own non-offensive word to substitute for the evil English creations (like BSGs frel, for example).

So allow me to viciously destroy this straw-man I have myself created, by repeating parts of the post I made there:

The notion that ‘folks all spoke nice in them old days’ is entirely a Victorian invention. The three words that I believe we are chiefly talking about here (F**K, S**T, and C**T, forgive my euphemisms) are all words with long and proud traditions in the english language, going back hundreds of years.

Of course, fantasy is not history. Fantasies can include all kinds of different elements corresponding to different time periods. Furthermore, even if we are describing a pseudo-medieval setting, no-one could pretend that we are writing for a medieval audience. As I see it, an author has to select the mode of expression which he feels best communicates his meaning, or the meaning of his characters, to a reader of modern English. It’s a question of judgement, and, as with the explicitness of sex or violence in a book, every author will find his own way, and different readers will have their own unique response.

For me, as a reader, I find complicated oaths (by the holy beard of Swarfega etc.) to be unconvincing (and often truly risible) unless very well integrated into some specific element of a fantasy culture, and even then they are rarely a good substitute for a simple S**T in times of high excitement. When I stub my toe I very rarely reach for a culture-specific mouthful such as, “by the golden boots of David Beckham!” or some such.

To make up a word simply to act as a substitute for a perfectly good English word seems to me almost cowardly, and as a reader I would find it extremely irritating. After all, if frel or whatever is supposed to mean F**K, why not just call a spade a spade? And if it doesn’t mean F**K, then what the f**k is it supposed to mean? I can see the point if it means a TV show can air before the watershed, but I can’t for the life of me see the point in an adult work of fiction.

Take that, you straw motherf*cker!

But seriously.

For me, the inclusion of swearing isn’t about trying to inject grittiness, or to make my books adult, or even to try and make them sell (though that would be nice). It’s a question of honesty. You see, when I started writing, my Mum said to me, “Joe, you’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to think about every description, every line of speech, every image that you use and ask yourself – is this true? Is this how that thing really looks? Is this how a person would really speak? Keep everything absolutely true, and you can never go far wrong.” Best piece of advice I’ve ever had. Apart from don’t eat yellow snow, of course.

Now some folks might say, “hey, it’s fantasy, it doesn’t have to be real,” but I’d say the exact opposite. It’s happening in a made up place, so it has to be more real than ever. Its being fantasy doesn’t forgive its being unconvincing, its being dishonest, its being false. Between you (which of course is potentially the entire world, but f*ck it) and me, I think fantasy is a genre where authors get away with weak-ass, lazy dialogue way too often.

It goes without saying that, ultimately, every reader’s interpretation of what is false or unconvincing is going to be different, and some are going to find the use of swear-words jarring, but it isn’t the reader’s opinion that’s important here, it’s the writer’s. Precisely because every reader will see things differently, you simply can’t take their potential opinons into account when you write. You have to write for yourself first. You have to write the kind of book that you love, that you find true, and just hope you’ll be carrying some people along with you. The alternative is just to turn out bland, commercial pulp that you think is going to please the widest market, and that type of sh*t rarely works, even commercially.

As a reader, there’s nothing more irritating to me than faux-shakespearian dialogue, “verily, my liege, we should teach these goblins a harsh lesson.” I swear a lot in my everyday work and home life, it’s part of my everyday mode of expression and that of most people I relate to, so it would seem odd to me if my characters didn’t. It would certainly seem very, very odd if characters who are, to put it nicely, scum, didn’t swear in life-threatening situations. There are some words I don’t use, because they don’t feel right in the setting. I don’t use b*ll*cks. Too English rugby club. I don’t use d*ck (if you’ll allow the expression), but I’ve nothing against c*ck and pr*ck, depending on who’s talking. After all, what are you supposed to call it? Or should you just avoid talking about it at all?

Incidentally, I’m not knocking writers who don’t use piles of swearing. That’s their business, and it’s all part of creating a consistent atmosphere that feels right and honest for them and their readers. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be improved if Gandalf told the Balrog to f*ck itself, for example. Or maybe it would?

Having said all that, on reading the Blade Itself recently, I did think I’d gone a bit too far with the swearing – not necessarily in the quantity – but in the variety of characters and situations I’d applied it to. I think perhaps when you write two chapters and have a swear-word in each, for example, in the experience of writing, those words might be a week apart. In the experience of reading they might be only five minutes apart. And overuse definitely does reduce impact. As everyone would, I’m sure, agree, it’s a delicate balance. But one that, ultimately, every author has to find their own way with. If you spent your time worrying about what might offend every possible reader, you’d never write a word…

Posted in opinion, Uncategorized by Joe Abercrombie on September 23rd, 2007. Tags:

56 comments so far

  • j.g.thomas says:

    Interesting article Joe. Have to say that I don’t have any problems with swearing in novels and I don’t recall thinking that you made use of them too often.

    In fact I see them as necessary to establish some degree of realism in the writing. I don’t watch TV soaps, but when I am unfortunate enough to see one it always rankles with me that some characters, when finding themselves in a nasty situation, mutter “flamin’ ‘eck!” rather than a straight forward ‘oh f*ck’! Of course there is good reason for this, but I hope you see my point. A well-used swear word can help to the reader to guage the seriousness of the situation and add some realism.

    Incidentally, I’d love to see an alternative version of LOTR where the balrog mounts the bridge, nostrils flaring and fire rippling across its massive frame, only for Gandalf to sigh and say, “Oh, f*ck off you silly c*nt.”

  • Jackie says:

    Thanks for another entertaining post – I have to confess to being somewhat potty-mouthed in real life so I guess my tolerance level for it in fiction is pretty high. I didn’t recall your book being that bad though, so perhaps I’m even more tolerant than I thought?

    Oh, and by the way: ‘frel’ is actually from Farscape, while the good folks of BSG prefer to ‘frak!’.

  • Aidan Moher says:

    Terrific article, Joe.

    When I originally saw John’s article I knew it was a subject that I wanted to broach. Your take on the subject spurred me to get off my ass and do it.

    You can find my take over at my own blog where I use this article and John’s article as heavy sources. You might be interested in what I have to say on the subject.

    This is something I feel pretty strongly about and it always bothers me when people complain about not being able to get into a work like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire because of nothing more than the bad language.

    Thanks for sharing your take on it, Joe.

    A Dribble of Ink

  • Darren T says:

    As it happens, Tim Lebbon covered the same subject in his BFS Award for best novel acceptance speech this afternoon at Fantasycon. Apparently some folks have objected to his use of the f**k word in Dusk and Dawn, to which his reply (probably paraphrased slightly, but I think I remember the gist) was: “well, if I have to invent a new word for ‘f**k’, then I also have to invent new words for ‘sword’ and ‘tree’ and ‘bread’, at which point I’m just going to end up inventing and writing a whole new language…”

    And I think the point about honesty in writing is absolutely right. And Let’s face it – warrior-types through the ages have tended to be pretty forthright and colourful in their speech patterns and to ignore this completely, merely in order to protect the delicate sensibilities of a few potential audience members is to rob the prose of a whole layer of authenticity. Which would be just plain f**king dumb, if you ask me.

  • Jo AKA Ser Mel T says:

    I find your use of the words ” David Beckham ” completely offensive in every way . Really , Joe – this takes the proverbial biscuit . Get a grip , man ;p

    P.S – frel was Farscape , BSG is frack , as in frack you , motherfracker .


  • Thanks for your thoughts Joe. I agree that the writer has to decide for himself what is too much and what is just the right amount.

    I know from my few visits to London that swearing is much more acceptable and common in England than it is in the United States. So for readers in Britain, this might be less of an issue. Those of us stateside are a wee bit more sensitive.

    I also like that you point out that this is how you speak, and therefore how you write. That makes good plain sense.

    Your books are not an example of overuse of swearing. I felt that some characters swore who didn’t have too and that perhaps some did unnecessarily, but didn’t feel you pushed the limit.

    Overuse would be something like using the swear words two or three times in the same sentence. So much so that the meaning of the sentence was lost in the story.

    Fantasy doesn’t have to have Victorian language to be good, nor does it have to by wholly clean.

    I would say, (no slight to you mother) that the honesty argument can be used by people who simply want an excuse to be crass. But if a good author like you uses it, than anyone can, so an author should be careful about using that as a starting point for his reasons for using swearing.

    Good points though, I was writing from the reader’ side and realized later that perhaps I forgot to take in the author’s side as well. You did that excellently. Thanks.

  • Jackie and Jo,
    Frak is definitely better than frel, but let’s face it, there’s not an awful lot in it.

    Interesting that Tim Lebbon should make that point – the whole area of translation of a presumably foreign language into English. We probably assume the characters in a fantasy book aren’t talking in English. But at the same time we (the writers, that is) don’t necessarily ‘translate’ into modern vernacular, even though our readers are, of course, contemporary English speakers. “Talk to the hand,” said Aragorn, “before I slap you upside the head.” We avoid certain words that don’t feel right. We use the odd strange, idiosyncratic term to give the feel of alienness. We make up names for characters that give a ‘flavour’ of what our theoretical languages might sound like. It’s all a bit of a smoke and mirrors thing to produce roughtly the ‘feel’ that we’re after. I guess everyone’s notion of truthfulness in this case is something a little bit different.

    You’re absolutely right – honesty alone is not the seal of quality. An honest book can be crass, ill-considered, or, for that matter, simply bad. But I’m not sure that a book that is frequently dishonest (in this sense) can ever be that good. Better to err on the side of excessive honesty, for my money, even if you’ll ruffle a few feathers on the way.

  • Anonymous says:

    Personally, I feel that the word c**t should EVER be used in ANY context.

  • Greetings anonymous.

    I’m assuming you mean “NEVER be used in any context”.

    Clearly it’s an offensive word, but could I ask why you feel so very strongly?

  • Mister Roy says:

    I’d much rather have venerable anglosaxon words like f***, s*** and c*** than anachronisms like ‘wow’ or ‘OK’.

  • niamh O'Toole says:

    Anonymous is clearly american, and americans hate the word c*nt. It’s a language barrier ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Mister Roy says:

    I too would be interested in the thinking behind c**t “NEVER be[ing] used in any context”. I suppose every language and culture has to have an ‘ultimate’ swear word, which therefore needs to be used sparingly to retain its power. But c**t isn’t ‘the’ word everywhere. A Catalan frend explained that it’s much milder in those (ahem) parts, used in expessions such as ‘que cono pasa’ (‘what the c**t is going on here’), and ‘quinto cono’ (‘the fifth c**t’, a remote place out in the sticks.) (He may have been lying to get me in trouble by glibly using these phrases in conversation with nuns and small children, but it had the ring of truth.)

    My wife’s feminism made the c word as rare as unicorn pudendae in our household for many a year. However a recent change of heart (‘3rd wave feminism’, perhaps, or the influence of your books) means that we now use it all the time – usually in nonsensical ways such as ‘It’s bright as a c**t outside’, or ‘The dinner is as cooked as a c**t’.

    My all-time favouite usage was when I was working on the door of a club. An aged bouncer explained why chasing someone who had, hypothetically, taken the cash box and run round the corner would be unwise as ‘They would punch the c**t out of ye.’

    In sum, the language would be sdadly diminished without this word.

  • niamh,
    They do seem to see that particular word differently.

    Interesting, this c*nt business. The problem I’ve got at the moment is not the use of the word as an insult, but it’s use as defined in the dictionary. Put simply, if one is looking for a decent slang word for the female genitals that would sound in any way authentic in a fantasy novel, I ask you – where else can you go? Seriously. Answers on a postcard, people.

  • Totally agree with you! I think using made up swear-words is a bit cowardly and also unnecessary.

    Though, for me, it’s not just swear words that get on my nerves – it’s when they start replacing words like “cat” and “dog” for obscure things which, when they then go to describe, is basically just a cat or dog.

    Like apparently everyone else to reply to this post, I think LOTR would have been particularly improved by swearing (and some sarcastic humour) too. J.G. Thomas’s example was particularly funny.

    Can’t wait for the 3rd book!

  • Anonymous says:

    I just read the first book, bought the third book at the store, and glare daggers at the postman every time he fails to bring me the Amazon package with the second book.

    The swearing doesn’t bother me at all: it’d be weird to have these characters speak politely in this regard. It strikes me as odd to be offended by the language but not, for example, by the scenes of graphic torture.

    If I were to worry about the swearing, I’d wonder about whether the use of sexual-taboo swearing is appropriate for this culture. It may well be–but it’s not the only kind of swearing out there. We Anglo-Saxons used to worry tremendously about religious-taboo swearing (damn, hell, zounds, Christ, God, etc.), but not care about sex/scatalogical taboo swearing: the latter wasn’t especially offensive, and it’s not where people went when they wanted to offend or to express strong emotion.

    That’s changed over the past century or so. Now, religious swearing appears on the comics page, a place that sex swearing could never appear. Shows like Deadwood are in this respect stylized: characters convey emotion using modern swearing rather than historically-accurate swearing (as the latter would sound quaint to us).

    Cultures tend to swear based on where their taboos are strongest. If your cultures in your books put their taboos around bodily functions, then the swearing makes total sense. If they don’t, then it’s stylized in order to convey the emotions and taboo-breaking of the swearing.


  • Anonymous says:

    I realize this posting was awhile ago but since I discoverewd this blog in the last few months, what the hell.
    We swear, we are swearing creatures. For me a book that replaces a swear word with either a lesser word or a unnecessary made up word is lacking. Yes on BDG they use the made up word frak. That was devised to get around censors in the 70’s just like felgercarb was(I don’t care for the new BSG so I don’t know if they use this word in it.)
    I don’t recall the book’s title but I read a sci-fi book years ago that replaced the word f*ck with the word rape. It was explained in the story by a character as being a more offensive word and therefore overshadowed f*ck. Personally, I thought some going “Rape!! that hurt was incredibly stupid.
    Some works such as Tolkien’s since they are written in a more archaic style would suffer from modern profanity. But I laugh myself silly at the notion of Gandalf telling the balrog to f*ck off.
    I was a soldier and I do medieval re-enactment now. We swear because sometime no other word fits. I got thrown out of a faire once because after getting hit so hard in the balls I think my cup was imbedded in my flesh I lay on the ground and moaned f*ck over and over again.
    But what word would fit other than that. Ouch? Darn?
    I love your books Mr. Abercrombie and if I were still King of my particular realm I would knight you for Logan’s speech about battle alone.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think we can learn a lot from Christopher Brookmyre who uses a lot of swearing in his books but defends himself by asking why people are OK with the murders, blood etc but not OK with the use of particular words. Ditto Mr Abercrombie — no one seems to have complained about the torture, beheadings and general gory slaying, so why complain if the characters let loose the occasional oath?!

  • Anonymous says:

    Wasn’t the word f**k originally an anachronism for fornication *nder *onsent of the king? Bless the Anglo-saxons for giving us that.

    As for ‘answers on a postcard’- ‘quim’ doesn’t get used very often, and that’s a brilliant word…

    Mr Abercrombie – I was recommended your books by a friend and the first one was so good I read all three in a week. You Sir, are a genius. Thankyou for the least pretentious fantasy novels I’ve ever read. Can’t wait for ‘Best Served Cold’ (please let Glokta appear in it)!


  • Anonymous says:

    The thing about swearing in fantasy is that, as Mr Abercrumblie said, it is appropriate at the time.

    The characters of Logen, Ferro and Black Dow being the examples; all are brutal and savage in various degrees, so it would be odd if one recieved a cut from an enemy and yelled "Ah crap!" or something.

    Sometimes a foul mouth is as part of a character as a missing finger, a thunderous temper or a semi-sadistic personality.

  • Ben says:

    I just have to put a plug in there for the conservative readers out there. I loved your books, Joe, but there were definitely some parts that made me uncomfortable. From my perspective, there's seldom an actual need for swearing in literature. Putting in swearing doesn't make a book feel honest to me. Pretty much anything you intend to convey with the use of swearing in literature can also be done without it. This is just an illustration of the fact that you can't please everyone. Every reader has their own opinion. Mine happens to be different from yours. Oh, did I mention I loved your books anyway? Some of the best writing I've read in a long time.

  • Peg says:

    So sorry I didn’t discover Joe’s books sooner to be able to make a current post on this topic ! I’m 2/3 ‘s of the way through book 2 & book 3 is in the on deck circle. I have to say I have enjoyed these books more than anything I have read since ASOIAF. BTW,”The Bloody Nine” has to be one of the best character names ever.
    I really have no problem w/swearing in books.Frankly,there are situations in which lack of swearing just wouldn’t ring true.It’s made up swear words I have a problem with.When I was a teen in the 1970’s I read The Thin Red Line & was annoyed with the use of the term “fug”,which somehow sounded worse than f***.IIRC that was done by the publisher,since at the time the book came out there was no f***ing way you were going to drop the f-bomb in print.So maybe we Yanks have progressed somewhat in that area….A few years later the immortal National Lampoon High School Yearbook issue dared to print “Twat? I c*** hear you – bare a**ed you again,before I have to finger it out myself.”
    Anyway,the most egregious use of a phony swear word I’ve seen recently was in the book The Passage.It wasn’t that bad a read,except for the use of the term “flyers” for a curse. I found myself muttering,If one more person f***ing says flyers one more time……..Because firstly,being a Penguins hockey fan from the Western part of PA,the thing that instantly sprang to mind was the Philadelphia Flyers – which come to think of it,would be considered a curse word of sorts;secondly,I fail to believe,cataclysmic event or no,that a perfectly good swear word like f***,which has been in use for hundreds of years,would just suddenly be forgotten by all & sundry.For shame,Mr.Cronin. F*** your f***ing flyers & those Flyers too…;-)
    Lastly,yes,Americans do respond to the word c*** w/a particular kind of horror.I’m not even sure that it was the feminist movement which caused this. My mother,who is in her mid-eighties taught me a phrase from her youth,”She’s a 4 letter woman”,which was the “nice” way of calling a woman a c***.So that word has been an American aversion for quite some time.All I can say is stick to your guns,Joe.I can’t imagine a bunch of barbarians are going to be saying things like “Odds Bodkins”.

  • Dungeonmum says:

    I think swearing is big and clever. Swear words have a strong effect on people, therefore they should be used where appropriate. I’m just getting into your stuff Joe, got 28 hours of Monscaro Murcatto to listen to and some of the stuff those people come out with really makes me smile – where she suggests to Shivers that he would rather kill a man for money than suck a c***t for it – priceless.

    My English teacher said a lot of things that I’ve forgotten but on the subject of swearing I remember her saying c***t and country are only separated by one syllable. Americans apparently don’t like this word, but in my experience it is the strongest word over here too. You have to convey a world and its characters as clearly and strikingly as possible, and if swearing helps to bring them to life, then it must be used. Whatever’s necessary.

  • Cal says:

    This is a very interesting subject. The writer who uses swear words commonly in public on a casual or consistent basis will likely not agonize much over the issue of whether to inject swear words in his published dialogue. Since published books (or any writing) are, in essence, a direct extension of the writer himself or herself(regardless of the churning infinite theoretical babbles of indemnification, artistic license or immunity) most conflicts relative to swear words have a moral flint whereas that dubious spark begins in the heart of the writer and moves outward for absolution in the form of say, a question, discussion or blog. What it is then, is sign of a potential moral contradiction between the inner man and the ‘published’ outer man, whereas publication is, in effect, a writer “speaking” to the readers of the world. Although the writer’s audience may be narrow or worldwide, when the writer is done with the daily compliments of “what a great book” or “I really enjoyed your book”, the writer is ultimately left with only themselves and the only solace and victory any writer can hope for is to know within themselves those things that “are most important’ and to write outwardly from this point of conscienceness, not backtracking into it with the steam roller of rationalization. For the writer’s writing is in fact [taken as] a ver batim testament of the writer’s beliefs and personal dispositions, and once the proverbial cat is out of the bag and on the bookstores, there is no turning back for an edit. At that point it is done. The writer has spoken and has proclaimed to the world “this is who I am and this is what I beleive – this is where and how my mind works”. Readers aren’t so naieve to believe the writer tortures himself by writing things that he or she does not believe or have afinity in. Readers know and writers know. When a writer experiences such a conflict from the heart it behooves a writer to be very still at that very moment and search inward for a resolution the soul feels good about, not listening to the opinions of others or the gab of the game crews, for everyone will have something to say and one can find Christmas in New York anyday, but to ask himself or herself, within the deepest recesses of their soul, if the writing, by virtue of the inclusion of swear words, in essence, does more harm than good to themselves as a person and not just a writer, and not just relative to optimizing the effectiveness of the text but relative to the writer being true to himself and herself and relative to how that writer’s publishing will affect every reader’s world. It is a very serious matter, because in the end, rationalization fails, and the only remaining light for a writer is whether or nor they are truly at peace with what they have given the world.

  • RichardBW says:

    I think that the appropriate use of swear words is perfectly fine. Obviously appropriate is subjective but IMO Joe has it right. I was re-reading some of the later Thieves world books again and they using “frogging” everywhere and it just got on my nerves to such a degree that I stopped reading them. Thanks for all the books BTW – Love ’em ! Waiting for Heroes with baited breath. Kept a few Mb on my ebook reader specially for it ๐Ÿ™‚

  • The Chubby 41 says:

    I find this topic to be fairly hilarious and honestly a sad sad reflection on the confused priority of western society morals in general. People have no problems with the vivid descriptions of war and violence but say fuck (btw, a word my friends and I have been tossing around since…hell, 6th grade at least and in Jr High it seemed it was a contest to see who could use the most curse words in every sentence) and undies get wadded. If you want to ground a reader (a reasonable one, at least) out of his suspended reality then by all means have a soldier who just got stabbed say “AH SHUCKS!”. I’m very glad you’ve stuck to a more realistic vocal setting.

  • Rachael says:

    Great article – I fucking love the swears!!

    The level of bad language in the trilogy is spot on, when I read the first ‘fuck’ I was relieved that I wasn’t going to be subjected to a whole daft new set of swearwords unique to this world.

    I think it’s a bit silly for anyone who’s into these books to be offended by the language. Surely if you can deal with all the brutal rapey torturey injustice of it all you can handle some naughty words.

    However I do swear my ass off all the time, when just screaming one just isn’t enough I put all my favourite ones together eg “what the shittingcuntingfuck do you WANT from me?” (to my incessantly meowing cat)

    BTW I just finished Before They Are Hanged this morning and it blew my mind – so thanks for being awesome!

  • Jim says:

    I’m a big fan of Deadwood and that programme has an inordinate amount of swearing in it. I rememeber reading an interview with the screen writer where he said he’d originally had his characters using swear words more contemporary with the setting but it made them all sound like Yosemite Sam! As Joe said above, if you’re writing for a modern audience you’re better off using modern language to convey your meaning.

  • Dan says:

    Where does this idea that swearing is incompatible with being a Christian come from? Has this guy never heard an Irish Catholic speak?

  • Magpie says:

    Hey, none of these guys are actually speaking English. They’re speaking whatever the hell it is they speak in their country. So you translate their dialogue into modern English, because that’s what you and your audience reads.

    Doesn’t make sense to me that you’d get squeamish about translating the local version of “fuck” into “fuck”. You translated the other words pretty well, why fall down on the swearin’s?

    Other side of the coin: if all your guys are speaking Ye Olde Englishe, how do you, as an author, show the reader if a character is actually speaking in archaic language, that the other characters would think was weird?

    ‘Course, now I’m writing something for the Young Adult audience (largely because Old Adults can use the genre as an excuse to enjoy melodrama, which we’re otherwise too cynical to permit ourselves to like. I digs me some melodrama), and I’m stuck with the problem of how much swearing I’ll be allowed to get away with.

    All the teenagers I know use swear words as punctuation unless there’s an authority figure about. Problem being, most adults only see the “there’s an authority figure about” part, and don’t realise quite how much kids swear.

    Like you say: it has to be real. People really swear, particularly during the events they’ll be living through in your standard fantasy book. It just annoys me no end to have to worry about that sort of thing.

    Maybe Gandalf wasn’t the sort of feller to swear, but I reckon a hearty “what the fuck is THAT?” would have been pretty appropriate dialogue from one of the others on first sight of a Balrog.

  • AntMac says:

    Joe. I read The Blade on the advice of a friend, got it out of the library. loved it so much I went straight out and brought the rest of your books in a pile.
    Re the swearing, I wish people would grow up. If plumbers swear, and we do, obviously people-who-murder-with-swords and State Torturers would swear. Polite words are for people who don’t have to deal with real Shit. Children, in other words. So many children amoungst our Cousins Johnathan.

    I have made 3 people your fans, by the way. Wasn’t dificult, just a matter of letting them read the first book.

  • Jools says:

    I have just finished the first 3 books and now just started Best Served Cold. I do not swear, just the way I was bought up I suppose. Having said that, and, as somebody else said .. when you create hard charcters like the Northmen and Ferro, it would be totally unrealistic to expect them NOT to swear!!!!

    Actually, I don’t really know why some people need to make such a big deal out of it … if they don’t like it .. do the other f***ing thing LOL!!!

    Keep up the good work Joe, I am totally converted ๐Ÿ™‚ xx

  • Karban Doombringer says:

    I lover your vernacular. Too many people spend too much time inventing genre-centric expletives when a good old fruck etc can do. I am an active player in a AD&D campaign where one player is exceedingly christian and prohibits swearing, while I drop the F’s, Sh’s and C’s without thinking.
    Concentrating on the story rather than trying to think of fantastical bleet words lets down many stories (look at th kiddy oriented dragonlance or magice the gathering) one player when he runs a game his halflings are ALWAYS kender, elves always uphold the law and goblins and orcs are allways evil.
    My world has halflings as real people, elves who can be evil and some orcs who can be good.
    Hence all swear and are good at it.
    Please don’t stop writing.

  • Mitchell Lurie says:

    Never heard feel on BSG. Frak though, I have.

  • Aben Zin says:

    Am I too late to the party?
    These days, now that I’m a proper grown up (technically at least), I find it increasingly weird that people can be upset by swearing. Hell, as a kid we were always told “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Which is, of course, entirely untrue. (Not the sticks and stones bit. They can totally break bones.)
    You should never object to a word being used, only the context and the reason behind it being used. “What the c*nt is going on?” or “what’s the c*nty time?” is about as offensive as an elderly neighbour borrowing a cup of flour. Even if someone calls me a c*nt (a difficult linguistic feat), how offended I am is very much context dependent. If it’s a friend then it’s probably justified because I’ve just shot them in the back of the head playing cooperative Halo (and to which my reply would be “That’s THE c*nt, thank you very much!”), but if a bank clerk calls me that for filling a credit form incorrectly I dare say I would be a touch offended, like if said neighbour had not only stolen an entire bag of flour but spat at my cat and kicked me in the gonads on the way out. Or possibly just amused.

    As to the hairy question of a woman’s genitalia, I think it would depend very much on the context. For a flowery, romantic sort of scene, “minge” or “clunge” would probably be your best choice. For more of a gritty, dirty scene perhaps “axe wound” or “gash” would be better terms. Though if this scene had just followed a fight scene, further clarification may be required.

  • arcanespace says:

    The “for unlawful carnal knowledge” bit is total urban legend. Fuck has a long and glorious tradition going right back to old German (ficken, to fuck). I would not be surprised to see cunt and shit be just as old. Really short, sharp, simple words tend to be very old.

    There was a saying I read once about naming things in science fiction. If you have a creature that looks like a dog, and acts like a dog, and barks, just call it a dog. Maybe a Martian Dog or something if you want to indicate it’s not exactly the same. Don’t call it a Vnheasjjj or some stupid ass thing.

    I think this applies to swearing in fantasy. Why make up some ridiculous nonsense when there’s already great words for it? The “anachronistic” argument doesn’t hold much force for me either. I mean, technically the story takes place in a different world, so why are you writing in English? The whole novel ought to be in High Elvish, or Imperial, or whatever.

    And who said Americans hate cunts? I love them, and the word too. The funny thing is that you brits say “fanny” when you mean cunt, when over here, that’s a mild old-fashioned word for butt. As in, my old granny might threaten to “spank your fanny” if you didn’t stop misbehaving.

  • Pinky says:

    To quote from above.

    โ€˜by the holy orb of Zalxoz I will destroy thee!

    That just does not have the same ring or dramatic effect as “F*cking hell I’ll F*cking kill you!”

    Remember, those that thinks Joe swears too much in his books, or those that think he shouldn’t swear at all in his book. If you can find a better way to say “Oh F*ck!” that has the edge needed for these highly violent, sarcastically humoured books then please suggest them. Personally I think swearing, since it is such an integral part of life, should not be left out of anything, writing or talking.

    Those you take offense must remember. Offense is taken and not given. For you to take offense is a non point, thats your choice. You chose to find it offensive. Means nothing and has no argumentative merit.

    At the end of the day they are just words on a page. Dont like it go read Tolkien or something where all is happy and smiles. Joe paints a dark, harsh fantasy world where dark and harsh language is to be expected. Can you really imagine Black Dow, who’s killed more men than the cold, saying “Gosh and darn it!”

  • Brian Turner says:

    There’s a hardcore of fantasy readers who expect their characters to sound like early-twentieth century scholars. These are the characters who are twee elves or grummpy dwarfs or ‘heroic’ white human heterosexual males with all the emotional development of a frying pan.

    To quote Scott Lynch, “What’s with al this bumfuckery?”

    There’s a modern fantasy reader who wants modern realistic fantasy, IMO. Thanks goodness we have writers such as George R R Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch, who are helping to reinvent the genre for the benefit of everyone else so far excluded.

    2c. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • […] from cuparius.com. Next, an interesting post on the subject by Jo Walton. Also, check out a great post by Joe Abecrombie (who uses many, many curses in his novels). Finally, a list of all the slang and […]

  • Timlagor says:

    While I understand the reasons*, the new-BSG “frak” grated particularly hard since it was so obviously just a direct substitute (they use it to describe the act at some point as well as for swearing) in a vocabulary otherwise entirely American-English.

    I find the attitude that considers “frak” but not *u** acceptable utterly idiotic.

  • Timlagor says:

    Me again..

    I noticed the “Zounds!” in your title. “Zounds”=”God’s Wounds” a reference to Christ on the Cross (offensive through impiety) -both pithy and very deeply culturally embedded. They haven’t stuck in my mind but I have certainly seen good equivalents in fantasy but they do need a little work to establish.

    I have lately been finding sex a much bigger issue. I’m happy for the characters to have sex and don’t find it offensive but I do want it to be kept succinct because that’s not what I’m reading the book for: you handled it pretty well I thought -sometimes there are important details but I don’t need to know about every encounter.
    [Sadly “urban fantasy” seems to have become almost synonymous with “fantasy romance/erotica” in the publishers’ minds which makes it hard to find the stuff I actually want to read]

  • kara says:

    Frell is from Farscape
    Frack/Frak is from Battle Star Galactica. Just saying.
    And you’ve probably all ready had someone point that out but I just wanted to say so before I forgot.

  • Peter Buchanan says:

    You’re absolutely right that curse words have a rich history in English. Anyone who pipes up about the modernity of “shit” ought to take a look at the fifteenth-century play Mankind, that has a song with the lyrics, “He that shitteth with his hole / but [unless] he wipe his arse clean / on his breaches it shall be seen.” I modernized the spelling but didn’t change any words. It’s a five hundred year old song about shitting your pants! Turd is another venerable medieval word, that is used in a different play.

  • Ben says:

    As a reader here in the states I personally loved your use of “foul” language. It makes the book real, the characters relatable (that is not a word and should be) and over all, more intense. Using words like frak and frel make me feel cheated in a sense, not because the author is trying to make it fully a creation of his or her own design, but because those words are something Im not familiar with. When I mess up I say f***, when I hurt myself I yell s***, so, to me, the use of these words which hold significant meaning with people who live in the modern age make the story easy to connect with. When the BN curses, you know s*** is about to get f*****g intense or something has gone terribly wrong. This is an absolute essential aspect of the world in which you specifically created. The BN and his band of ruthless, battle hardened northerners wouldnt be nearly as brutal without the language you have given them.

    Secondly, I read a post further up saying c*** should NEVER be used. Unfortunately, in America, c*** is definitely viewed as one of the worst words you can say. For some reason f***, s*** and others aren’t terribly bad. Although not socially acceptable in certain situations, they are used fairly regularly. C*** on the other hand is a big no no in America. I dont know why, its stupid and in my opinion the asshole in America who decided this word was the root of all evil is, in fact, the biggest C*** of them all.

    Loved your books, the trilogy, the standalones, all of it. Cant wait till you revisit the ole boys in the north again. Keep up the great work!

  • […] authors like Joe Abercrombie and N. K. Jemisin use different approaches to profanity in their work. Abercrombie uses modern […]

  • Alan says:

    Just read the whole of this post and keep coming back to one thought…

    Your Mum told you to use swear words in your books?

    respect ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Hazelnut says:

    Also, getting back to c**t, I actually go out my way to use it when Americans are present because it really shocks them.

    Yet in my workplace (a law firm in East London) it gets used all the time. “What daft c**t booked me Mr Annoyingfeatureswithnocase for 2.00 pm when I have court 15 minutes after?” “Well the opposition are acting like a shower of c**ts.”

    In Scotland, and in Australia, it’s a positive thing. “He’s a good c**t, don’t knock ‘im.”

  • Tal Pasko says:

    I believe that an excess of curse words is not necessarily a simple matter of counting pages. If you have a warrior, standing around in the cold all day, it only makes sense that he’d curse to relieve the agony of frostbite.
    However, a king in a castle shouldn’t start cursing around his lords when he stubs his foot. Even if this is true to our world, it will not seem realistic. It might be “true”, but not necessarily “realistic”. Just like foreshadowing.

    I’d like to raise an additional point. Inventing cusses in a fantasy setting can enhance the world and characters.
    I’ll give an example from my own WIP. I have two characters. One is a foreigner, and we’ll call him Toad. The other owns a horse, and we’ll call him Fred.

    Toad calls Fred’s horse by some jargon swear word. The swear word is related to Toad’s language.
    Then, the angered Fred tells Toad not to call his horse “Fucking”.
    Of course, I AM using strong language. But I utilize nonsense like “fel” to enhance characters and the world.

    In my example, the common tongue is not the character’s first language. It is only sensible that in the heat of the moment, he’d turn to his (nonsensical) mother tongue.

  • […] we should just swear rather than be coy and use made-up swears is blogged about here by Joe Abercrombie. If you know anything about his writing, you’ll know where he stands.ย  I found this ending […]

  • Dave says:

    I once heard that swearing is, possibly subconsciously, a class thing: that cunt, arse, shit and fuck are Saxon while vagina, fundament, faeces and copulate are Latin. The argument was based on the number of syllables so you can imagine the type of person who advanced it…

    I have no idea whether there’s any truth in the assertion but regardless I feel it’s time we campaigned for Shinglewell in Kent to readopt its original name (see the etymology of ‘cunt’ in the OED online).

  • elwoodcock says:

    Totally agree with Joe. But one thing I’m curious about, which I don’t think has come up here (I guess it’s slang rather than swearing): Where did ‘fruits’ come from? I assumed you had made that up, as it’s not a term I’ve come across anywhere else in either history or fantasy (plums, yes, but fruits no). It’s a great term, which always makes me smile. Does it have any real world precedence?

  • Frits says:

    Very late to the party. I just wanted to say that I mostly agree with Joe on swearing. In his boks it”s completere functionaliteit and does not Detract from the story or the characters, but rather adds to the atmosphere of dark grittiness. I’d like to add though that it IS possible to make setting specific curses and swearwords work, though this happens rarely. I am thinking of Steven Eriksons Malazan book of the fallen. Hรจ uses worldspecific swearwords that work. A particular favoriet of mine always gas been Hoods Hairy balls! (Hood being the god of death) but I must admit that he is one of the few authors I know who makes that work, and he also does use contemporary swearwords als well

  • […] authors like Joe Abercrombie and N. K. Jemisin use different approaches to profanity in their work. Abercrombie uses modern […]

  • Michael says:

    There is an interesting video extra in the TV series of ‘Deadwood’ where they discuss the unbridled use of profanity in the show. Anyone who has watched it will know what I mean!
    Well worth a look.

  • Alex says:

    While I agree with your intended pitch on using “modern” cursing in works of fantasy and science fiction, you actually supported the opposing argument by censoring this article, taking the cowardly, irritating route you denounced. Let’s face it, most authors don’t invent fantasy curses to present a more colorful world. There are much better ways to do that. They do it to avoid adult content labels on mainstream work and reach a wider audience.

    Either you are okay with that explicit content label branding your work and possibly reaching a more limited audience, or you’re intentionally writing for a more mature audience. I write for both crowds, but I’m sure as hell not going to have a distributor branding my mainstream work “mature” for language alone. If other content in the book warrants the label, great.

    For these reasons, I generally include mature content, including modern curses, for Earth settings and less gory detail and invented curses for alternate world settings. I don’t censor concepts, only how they are described. Is this the coward’s way out? Maybe, but that’s how our society distributes media. It’s not an artistic choice so much as a practical marketing choice. To pretend otherwise is only trying to fool myself.

    You pitch the brazen use of more authentic, poignant language in literature, but are unwilling to back it up on your blog under the pressures of mainstream society – the very reason many authors resort to invented curses in the first place.

  • InfinI says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your stance on this issue. First and foremost, these are your books, and it’s your decision on the type of emphasis you use. I feel that your choice of language fits well with the type of characters portrayed, and also helps to add realism to a fantasy world, as you stated. Please don’t buckle under the pressure of red tape, stay true to your roots and your fans will stay loyal for sure.

  • SlickTC says:

    Don’t agree at all with Alex’s post from September 17, especially the intent.

    Is putting an asterisk really “censoring”? When one writes “f**k” does it let any room for free interpretation? I really don’t think so. Swearing IS used in JA’s books so why does he have to prove he can use them also in his forum? Because “f**k society”? It’s not the same context, it’s not the same use, it’s not the same English.

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