Curses!

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In my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, the creation myth of the world held that originally the two lands of LonTobyn had been one large land mass.  Arick, the first god, gave the land to his two sons, Lon and Tobyn, as a gift.  He wanted them to shape the land, to make of it whatever they wanted it to be.  But Lon and Tobyn were young and they fought constantly.  Arick grew weary of their bickering until at last, in a moment of rage, he smote the land with his mighty fist, sundering it in two.  Forever after, one land was Lon-Ser (Land of Lon) and the other was Tobyn-Ser (Land of Tobyn).  And also forever after, when people in LonTobyn (including my characters) cursed in anger or frustration, they said, “Fist of the God!”

For my second series, Winds of the Forelands, the people of the Forelands believed in a pantheon of gods, one of whom was Bian the Deceiver, God of the Underrealm and master of death.  All who died went to the Underrealm, but while some, the honored dead, spent eternity in a place of light and comfort, those who lived lives of evil spent eternity tormented by flame and dark, evil creatures — a conception of the afterlife that was similar to our own conception of hell.  When people in the Forelands expressed anger or fear or frustration they said, “Demons and fire!”

In my new work in progress the religion centers around a duality embodied in a god and goddess, Sipar and Kheraya.  One is land, the other is water; one is death, the other is birth; when one is ascendent the other is quiescent, and so the seasons are Sipar’s Stirring, Waking, Ascending, Descending, Fading, and Settling, and then Kheraya’s Stirring, Waking, etc.  At the Equinoxes, one is Awakening while the other is Settling; at the solstices, one or the other is said to be Ascendent.  As I say, a duality.  Yin/Yang.  Whatever you want to call it.  When someone in this world (Islevale) curses, they generally say, “Damn them both!” which is as offensive as any curse invoking the lord’s name would be in our own world.

Why the focus on curses?  Because worldbuilding is a topic that doesn’t really lend itself to a single, manageable post.  It’s huge, and highly individual.  But by using something as simple and common as invective, we can reinforce whatever worldbuilding we’ve done.  “Fist of the God!” is a throwaway line much of the time.  But even so, it deepens the reader’s sense that he or she is someplace different, someplace where the normal rules of our world might not apply.  The word “damn” doesn’t appear in the LonTobyn books because there is no damnation in their religious system, so it would be utterly anachronistic.  There is damnation in the worlds I’ve created since, so “damn” actually means something.

The language our characters use both in dialog and in internal thought, not only tells us much about the character him or herself, but also about the world in which he/she lives.  Just as the things we say in our day to day lives reveals much about our world.  “Thank God.”  Ah, yes.  We live in a society that is largely monotheistic.  “Go to hell!”  Not very nice, but quite revealing.  “Achoo!”  “God bless you!”  Also revealing, not only theologically, but also historically.

The worlds we create for our fiction ought to have religions, histories, social customs, cultures, as well as physical attributes, climate patterns, etc.  Much of this background is revealed to readers over the course of a book; much of it is not.  Sometimes it’s important that we as writers know this stuff, even if we don’t dump all that info onto our readers.  And sometimes things can be hinted at with expressions, adages, and, yes, curses. 

Worldbuilding is a process, but it’s also a rhetorical strategy.  Background shouldn’t always be explained; sometimes we need to breathe life into our worlds just the way we breathe life into our characters.  In fact, I like to think of my world as just another character in the story.  Does it speak?  Yes, it speaks through my characters with phrases like “Demons and fire!” and “Damn them both!”  Does it act?  Yes it does, through the histories and religions, social norms and physical terrains that shape the actions of others.  Most of all, it draws people into the book, just as a good character does.

What curses do you use in your stories?  What are their origins?  What do they mean?

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://magicalwords.net
http://www.davidbcoe.com
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29 comments to Curses!

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Nice post, David. I think curses are very important and rather difficult to do right. Sometimes they strike me as sincere, sometimes they don’t. Some of my favorite author’s curses seem off, and I couldn’t quite tell you why.

    But they certainly are fun to make up!

  • Oh, what a fun topic for a Monday! (Especially since I woke up certain today was Friday…there was much cursing happening in my shower today. 😀 )

    In Kestrel’s world, there are three gods who’ve been mentioned in the novel. Pantheus is a huge sea creature with great spines along his back, and he controls the seas and weather. He’s generally a good guy, appealing most often to sailors and farmers. Binns tends to swear by him, saying things like “By all the spines on Great Pantheus’ back!” or just “By the spines!”

    Kestrel, when she bothers to pray, prays to the goddess Bloody Grace, who’s in charge of luck. Grace is capricious, and she has a passel of demigods she uses to do her bidding. She’s armed with two whips – one of red silk and one of white, and she’ll strike at her “nephews” with both to decide on her answer to a supplicant’s prayer. Kestrel will usually just invoke the name (“Bloody Grace!”) but she might also say, “By Grace’s whips!” or “By all of Grace’s nephews!”

    There’s also a god of death and the afterlife, but he’s only known as the Nameless Lord, and everyone tries not to talk about him. He had a temple and priests, but they were sucked into the ocean when Cre’esh was destroyed. No one has bothered to rebuild. There’s a reason, but I can’t tell you right now. 😉

  • Great post and comments so far! I like Misty’s Bloody Grace myself.

    In my world, Tyra is the god of the underworld. She is not all powerful and not complete evil. She is just the ultimate manipulator to try and counter Balin’s (the good god’s) work. Her associated symbol is the twin moons for reasons now lost but will become apparant in her resurgence. Mostly any reference to her avoided even in a culture losing faith in religion. WHen they do, they say things like, “By Tyra!” or “By the Moons!”.

    For some reason that no one living knows, “By King Edmund’s ghost!” is a curse. It has just been past down stripped of its original meaning.

  • I like “Bloody Grace!” too. I also like “By the moons” and “By the spines.” And I love “By King Edmund’s Ghost” especially because no one living knows where it comes from. Usually worldbuilding demands that we be able to explain everything. That’s what readers and critics expect of us. Now I’m sure that you as the world’s creator probably know where the saying came from. But having something that is in wide use but is also deliberately opaque is wonderful and innovative. Great stuff, Mark. (I have to admit though that the first time I read it I thought immediately of Perry White and “Great Caesar’s Ghost! — a happy memory from my childhood.)

  • And thanks for the comment, Jagi. I agree that there are some curses in some books that just do not work for me, and they always bring me up short. Like you, I can’t explain why they don’t work, but I know it when I see it.

  • Liz

    I agree with Jagi, there are some curses in some books that just don’t work.

    I do however have a favourite curse: “By Odin’s beard, boy” – I forget where that is from but it almost always makes me grin.

    It is, as you say, very much part of world-building and it does reveal the type of person, their relationship to their god(s) and the crasser it gets, the more it reveals about the character or his/her situation.

    I enjoyed reading the above post, so thanks for that nugget!

  • Thanks for the comment, Liz. Glad you enjoyed the post. Can you articulate what it is about some curses that don’t work? Jagi and I couldn’t pinpoint it. Perhaps you can?

  • I like the blog. Thinking about the religious beliefs of the people in a fantasy tale does help in solidifying a story and I have quite a few in various stories I’ve started and one day hope to get back to.

    So far I haven’t put a lot of thought into the religious aspect of the story I’m working on now, mostly because I’m not 100% certain the humans of the piece really have one, though the working title for the novel is One Who Calls Gods (it’s part of a legend from a woman with the gift of prophesy). None of my characters have actively told me there is one or brought up a religion or aspect. I’ve been trying to keep curses low anyway. The other intelligent species, on the other hand does have some form of religion that has to do with the planet itself. I’m thinking of using bastardized versions of Earth curses mixed with pieces of their past history. It’d be more like saying Great Caesar’s Ghost than Oh My God. Or like in that Star Trek TNG episode with the Tamarians, “Zinda, his face black, his eyes red!”

    The humans are descended from Earth, but the original culture is long lost and forgotten to them.

    I may try an exercise today and tap into each of my character’s heads and jot down a list of random curses that they might say. Could be a fun way to smack around a minor “where do I go from here” writer’s block at least.

  • David, I loved this! You come up with the *best* ideas.

    Hmm. Curses. (twirling moustache)
    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

    In the Rogue Mage series, there are seraphs (angels) and Darkness (evil critters and dragons),and I totally loved coming up with the curses and the swear words. Many of them I based on angels, angels’ names, and many of which have a subtly sexual component.

    Curses and swears all mixed up together:

    Seraph Stones (which was my character’s favorite and still gives me a giggle)
    Angel Bones (which could be used by some mages for magical workings and thus worth of swearing)
    Crack the Stone of Ages
    Blow it out Gabriel’s horn
    Demon Bones (to curse by)
    Gabriel’s tears
    Death and plagues (plagues killed 19 of 20 humans)
    And *my* personal favorite:
    This sucks Habbiel’s pearly (or scabrous) toes.
    This last one was never explained in the books, but was, to me, a great visual image, and had a story attached.
    This was fun!
    Faith

  • Wendy

    I was so excited by this post. I’m terrible at curses. I feel like everything I come up with doesn’t roll off the tongue like it should. A good curse ought to be something uttered in a breath. Takes some of the impact from it, I think, if it takes a zillion syllables to get the curse out. …or at least the popular version of said curse should be short and (ah) sweet.

    I think what I’m most curious about is the choice of religious reference to make. What are the important pieces? This always makes me wish I had intimate knowledge of other cultures. I have little to no basis for comparison.

    My example:
    In my medieval fantasy I’ve got a creator goddess (“Nameless,” through the grapevine of ill-translated texts, she’s gone from being various versions of “The Unknowable” to the “Namless”…super self-conscious now ’cause of Misty’s Nameless Lord.) with 4 boys: Toreand, Pascha, Gamaliel, Lavrenty. She gives each of these kids a creation focus. The one who creates man (Toreand) is envied by his brothers. The brothers take to plotting, resulting in the rape of the Nameless, and the creation of woman from her blood. There follows an epic gods, mythic creatures, immortal humans sort of war in which the world is reshaped into “final” form.
    In the midst of this, the Nameless gives birth to a demi-goddess, Sakara, and she is sent as an aid to Toreand.
    Sakara gives Toreand visions before revealing herself and a great sword, forged in the sun (there’s a whole “he was too proud to see his way out before her” component here). Toreand pours out his life energy through Sakara’s sun-sword, rending the earth, to create 3 underworlds in which to trap his brothers.
    He returns, in spirit, to oneness with the Nameless, leaving Sakara with humanity…now all crazed with the vision of glory they’ve seen. Humanity believes they will never be one with this peace (being currently excessively long-lived), and there is madness and more slaying each other. Sakara stops them, promising to take their immortality if they learn to care for each other and all of creation. Humanity accepts this arrangement, and Sakara takes the immortal bit of soul.
    There is a lot of god-fire in this bit. She goes quite loony (having taken on too many souls), and goes “into hermitage.” (There are a zillion interpretations of this as well.)

    From this, I end up with:
    “Ladyfire!” “Toreand’s Sword!” “The Three take you!” “Blood of the Nameless!/ “Blood!” (seldom used, as the reference is often seen as vulgar)
    I feel like those are obvious. I’m not sure where else to go with it.

    The religion in my Victorian fantasy is still under development, but there’s a trickster/adversarial god who floods the world just for fun at one point. People like “Farnor’s flood!” as an expression of incredulous, cranky surprise.

    In related note: What’s the thought on “real world” profanity in fantasy? There’s got to be a way to make rough characters seem that way, and it’s totally a cop-out to throw in a bunch of swearing, but a word here and there might help. I feel like made up words hinder a reader here in much the same way that curses from the fantastic religion help.

    Thanks again for this post!

  • [Quote] …What’s the thought on “real world” profanity in fantasy? There’s got to be a way to make rough characters seem that way…a word here and there might help. I feel like made up words hinder a reader here…[/Quote]

    Made up, like Frak and Frell? It’s funny, that until the new Battlestar came out I’d never considered the Galactica folk using frak as fraker or motherfraking or any of the others they’ve used, but it really doesn’t sound right. But that’s falling off topic.

    Sometimes I take a note from other countries when using real world curses. In the States we’re fond of the F bomb, but I actually like the British curse of “Balls” or “Bollocks” better and it seems to fit better in a more fantasy based story. My grandmother for some reason was fond of “sh*t, fire and brimstone!” That’s become one of my favorites.

    I guess it just depends on the story, at least for me. The folks in the story I’ve got going now may very well say sh*t, because it’s a word that might’ve hung on throughout the ages. I seem to recall reading a novel once where instead of saying that as a curse the characters used “offal.”

    I actually kind of like made up words that are close enough to the original to give the reader a sense that it’s definitely a bad word, but doesn’t possibly offend a reader if they don’t like the original word. I guess that goes back to not potentially alienating or putting off a group of readers because they don’t like real world profanity.

    Just me own 2 pennies, which in today’s economy is probably worth a half a cent. 😉

  • Daniel, many thanks for the comments. I think that you’ll want to fill in those religious gaps eventually. As it happens I’m not at all religious in “real life” but there can be no denying the prevalence of religions in all sorts of disparate cultures. And there can also be no denying it’s power as a force for historical change. I LOVE that TNG episode and think that it is a fabulous example of how language reinforced culture. I’d forgotten that one — thanks!

    Glad you liked the idea, Faith. I’m currently reading the first Rogue Mage book (finally — been meaning to get to it for some time; I love it, btw) and have really enjoyed the curses, particularly the “toes” one. Great stuff. Everyone looking at this post and its replies should read it. BLOODRING, by Faith Hunter.

    Wendy, I like the curses you have thus far, and I love the theology as well. One that came to mind, if you’re looking for a crude curse that flows from the religion: “By the Mother!” Or just “Mother!” Or maybe “Mother of them all!” Since she’s nameless it works, and with the faint resonance with earth curses, it would reinforce for your reader just how angry/scared/annoyed/whatever your character is. My two cents.

  • Oh, Wendy, sorry. Forgot about your question. I think that to some degree “real world” profanity depends on what genre you’re in. Obviously urban fantasy in our world is full of the usual curses we’re used to. In my alternate world stuff there are certain things I’ve used. Having a character call someone a bastard always works for me. SOB can work. And I have to admit to being partial to “shit” as a curse — and, of course, shit is ubiquitous and thus never anachronistic. The key is to make certain that whatever you use doesn’t yank your reader out of your world back into our own.

  • Wendy said, “…super self-conscious now ’cause of Misty’s Nameless Lord.”

    No, Wendy, you go right on with what you’re writing! Remember, my Nameless Lord is never mentioned. Anyway I seriously doubt they’ll be enough like each other to make a problem for us. 😀

  • Lol, that one made me think about curses in my NiPs and I noticed I have very little. Maybe because I rarely curse or swear myself, thought I can do it in several languages.

    In the historical fiction, it’s simply the Graeco-Romano-Celtic-Germanic pantheon: Jupiter Greatest, Proserpina’s Tits, Wodanas’ Ravens, ‘may the Morrigan get you at night,’ etc., and in the sequel also Mithras’ Bloody Bull.

    My Fantasy world is an alternate Medieaval Europe but I admit I haven’t thought about the religion in much detail. What I know is that the old religions survived. The gods may be real but they are for sure remote. There is a sect that wants to ban the worship of the darker gods and only accept the God of Light (call him MIthras, Apoll, Baldur or Lugh), but it’s not a driving force for the plot right now.

    So the curses haven’t changed much. 🙂

    The Roman soldiers use Latin swear words because I can get away with more that way, and people who want to know what mentulam caco means can look it up. 😛

  • Curses are an important part of fantasy books, in my opinion. I have a few that are related to the overall light and dark structure of my second world creation. I also have specific cultural ones, and planetary ones.

    The most commonly used one however is: Cast! and Cast me!, which has historical, and divine origins from the universe I created. Besides being killed, someone could be cast out of existence. When this happens the body ceases to exist at all. I came up with this at a very young age so I’m sure I co-opted it to some degree from Michael casting Lucifer out of heaven and changed that concept into what I use.

    And this happens to a god-like character, which leads to a complete restructuring of how human life is created.

  • Wow, Gabriele! That’s a vicious one! I like it…. 🙂

    I like “Cast!” CE. And I don’t think of that kind of derivation being “co-optation”. Before writing my Forelands books I did a tremendous amount of reading in Greek, Celtic, Nordic, and even Basque mythology, in order to get a feel for how I wanted to write my own myths for the worldbuilding. There are recurring themes in human mythologies that seem to transcend great distances. That’s not coincidental. I think certain stories or story-archetypes are universal. So drawing on such tales and then adapting them to your own world makes tons of sense.

  • Lol David, a few choice ones work better than f-bombs in every other sentence. 😉

    At least that’s my way to go. Simon Scarrow who also writes books with a Roman military setting has his characters use f-bombs all over the place, and I have to admit it throws me a bit out of the story – the way the word is used is too modern and irks me, much as I else enjoy Scarrow’s books.

    I think overuse of modern swear words won’t work well in Fantasy, either. And why should you use the f-word if you can call someone ‘misbegotten son of a klabauterman’ and other fun. 😀

  • Wendy

    Thanks for the feedback and remarks on the whole profanity thing. I have to say, David, your world-building rocks my socks, so it kind of makes my day to have positive feedback from you.
    Daniel: I was thinking exactly of Battlestar. I hear people using frak when I’m out shopping. It’s pervasive!

    I love this topic, and I love me some universal archetypes. Religion fascinates me. (If I had gone on in school for one of those degrees that only leads to teaching, it would have been in religion.)
    I think that’s part of my love of fantasy. The world’s religions are plenty and varied, but fantasy gives me even more to wrap my mind around.

  • You’re right, Gabriele. We can come up with better insults in our fantasy worlds than most people can imagine!

    Thanks for the kind words about my worldbuilding, Wendy. I’m flattered. I have a degree in history, but really didn’t fall in love with history until I began to make up my own. Much more fun than studying the stuff that’s already happened in our world….

  • In my Fantasy, I have one character of the shocking, “Blood of the Gods!” Very sacriligious, especially as she was practically raised in a temple. Most people use “Oh, rot.” Sometimes they shorten Blood of the Gods to Bloody. Bloody Fists of the Gods is used occationally, but hat is REALLY bad. And accurate.

    In my UF I used more common curses/cussing, though not a lot. Not sure I’ve used the F bomb at all, mostly sh*t and Damn and Hell.

    “Sh*t! You bit me. Go to Hell you damn abomination.”

  • “Affectionate cobras!”

    “Loose boweled pixies with levitating poop!”

    “Trolls!”

    “Unoccupied goblins.”

    “Fungus infested ogre toenails in mint glaze.”

    (Just trying to inspire folks. 🙂 )

  • “Loose boweled pixies….” is DEFINITELY my favorite.

  • Tom, does your world have a “hell”, a place of eternal damnation that goes by that exact name? If not, you should reconsider using the word. Otherwise, I like those.

  • In the UF, Hell is our Hell. But in the Fantasy…it’s complicated. Suffice to say, if your God of choice judges you worthy, your soul dwells with that God/Goddess for eternity. If you are not worthy, then your soul is taken by the God of the Dead, Banen. So they do have the curse, “Banen take you.”

  • Banen take you is good. And so long as there is a hell in the Urban, then sure, the hell curses work fine. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Intersting topic. I can’t say that in my fantasy of consciously tried to come up with any curses while I was world building, though some did come out as I wrote the story, but I can’t for the life me recall offhand what they are specifically. The deity in my world is named Taloria, and I know some of the seedier sorts use the term, “Taloria’s tits,” as a kind of ‘god damn!” phrase. A woman’s genitalia is called a ‘nuchae,’ which gets used in a deragatory fashion a couple of times, and there are some evil creatures called “Hordelings” that get referenced as a kind of, “damn you to hell,” sort of phrase. I wish I could remember them, but ah well. They are rather fun to come up with the moments in the story come, but I must say they didn’t occur to me in the building process.

  • I think those sound like great curses, Jim! I don’t necessarily plan the curses as I worldbuild. Many times they come out as I’m writing. But it’s best if they can reinforce what I’ve already done with the worldbuilding, and it sounds like that’s exactly what you’ve done here.

  • “Cads and bounders and elves with expense accounts!”

    “By the leaky pens of the bureaucrats of Dis!”

    “Dragons in the opium harvest.”

    A few more for your amusement. 🙂