On Language and Profanity in Fantasy

In any fantasy setting derived in whole or in part from a historical setting—such as Game of Thrones or my own Eschaton Cycle—the author must constantly weigh concerns of accessibility for modern readers, historical accuracy, and the needs of the story. In line with this, I have heard the question raised as to whether the inclusion of (supposedly modern) English profanity in such works is an anachronism (or even efficacious).

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

In most such settings, we must remember that the characters are not speaking English. They’re speaking their own in-world language—one being translated for the audience. Certain terms may not be translated, either because no appropriate English word exists, or because the original word does work carrying the flavor of the setting.

In my Gods of the Ragnarok Era I use the term varulfur, only occasionally translating as “werewolves,” because varulfur conveys a sense of import to the concept and at the same time reinforces the character of the world the characters inhabit.

Why, then, would I not use Old Norse profanity? Why use the English words, fuck or shit, for example instead of some untranslated Norse profanity? Just as the term varulfur is intentionally not translated to enhance its impact, profanity generally is translated for the exact same reason.

People use profanity, most often, for emphasis or expression of emotion. It’s generally associated with violation of some taboo, the very breaking of which is a pressure release valve for tensions.

This usage produces a visceral reaction in modern readers that could never be generated by any substitute. Any attempt to generate this same feeling with another word has to be so close in use and sound (“frakking cylons!”) that everyone knows exactly what you mean and you should have just fucking said it.

Since the point is to convey the character’s emotions, striping that visceral reaction between character and reader does a disservice to both.

Certainly, our ancestors used profanity. Characters in these fantasies would also use profanity. They are not speaking English, however. In order to translate the effect of these words, we must translate the words themselves into their English equivalents.

However, we have not even discussed the other question as to whether these words are, in fact, actually anachronisms.

Most English swear words have roots in Old English, German, or even Latin. To take a few:

  • Damn (Middle English from French, from Latin)
  • Bitch (Old English from German)
  • Ass (Old English arse from German)
  • Shit (derived from Old English from German)
  • Piss (Middle English from French)

Fuck: This one has uncertain origin. There is a folk etymology about it being an acronym (“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or something similar) that is almost certainly apocryphal. More likely, it appears cognate to similar Germanic words in multiple languages. In English, the earliest recorded instance appears to come from a monk inscribing a manuscript and making a note in the margins: “O d fuckin Abbot” (dated year 1528). The usage indicates it was probably commonplace slang before that.

Prior to common use of the word fuck, there was also the term sard (“copulate”). One theory I saw about sard was that it became so pervasive in usage as lose its visceral weight entirely, and thus in turn fell out of favor as any taboo around it became lost. Perhaps the word fuck then replaced it with identical usage.

But that manuscript date, 1528, is just about the time (officially about 1540) early modern English began.

In other words, every single one of the above swear words predates the English language we currently speak. We’re not talking about modern colloquialisms. These words have always been part of the English language, and many are far older than other words we might commonly use historical fiction written in English. The word trousers came into use in the late 1500s.

So basically, fucking is older than pants. Who knew?

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