Naughty words

The always fascinating Stephanie Thornton sent me a link to this brilliant article on ancient swearing.

I'm not a fan of lots of naughty words in books.  My usual reaction when I see a lot of fucks and cunts in a story is that it's probably badly written.  Unless there's good evidence to the contrary, I assume the author either didn't take the trouble, or didn't have the ability, to find something better.  I can freak you out using only words that are perfectly acceptable in any kindergarten.  In fact, in some ways, that's more powerful.  Some characters must swear a lot, because that's their character, but I doubt that accounts for more than about 5% of the naughty words in books, and like I said, it just dulls the writing.

Across my first three novels, there is precisely one use of the word fuck.  Its appearance is all the stronger for that, and it's used as a verb in its correct Anglo-Saxon sense.  (Yes, I know books 2 & 3 aren't released yet.  I'm sort of cheating by mentioning them, but the thing is, they're already written and I know what's there.)

I find that to write ancient swearing is a surprisingly tough problem.  They really did swear by the Olympian Gods, but that can come across as sort of fake to a modern reader.  "It's a dead body, by Zeus!"  Also, it can look rather contrived if you replace Zeus with another valid deity.  "It's a dead body, by Hephaestus!"

Conversely, since I am translating into modern English what was spoken in Attic Greek, you'd think I could get away with inserting a modern equivalent, but that instantly destroys the ancient atmosphere.  "It's a dead body, by God!"

So what I do, mostly, is make up something that sounds ancient but isn't, but which sounds right to a modern ear.  "Dear Gods, it's a dead body!"

I'm rather fond of "Dear Gods".  The plural Gods instantly takes you back in time, it's not particularly offensive, and it gets across the idea without becoming a speed hump for the reader.  I do use the occasional "by Zeus", but it's almost always for subsidiary characters in contexts where it makes sense.  I don't tend to use other deities  for Greek characters swearing because it might pause the reader if they hit a name in a figure of speech with which they're not totally familiar.  The same rules do not apply to barbarians, such as Persians and Egyptians.  They can be as exotic as they like because they're unfamiliar to Nico too, and it's fine for him to take special notice of all the odd sounding gods.

I'd be interested to know, what do you think might make good swear phrases for a novel in the ancient world?

10 comments:

Peter Cooper said...

"By all the tits of Artemis, it's a dead body!"

Gary Corby said...

That's really very good!

I wish I'd used that one in the second book. I should have written this post earlier.

Peter Cooper said...

You have my permission to use it anytime you like ;-)

Gary Corby said...

I'd credit it in the acks, or the author note. Fair's fair. :-)

Stephanie Thornton said...

All the tits of Artemis-ha!

Glad you liked the article, Gary.

I rather like the Byzantine idea of stringing together as many epithets as possible. I'm not sure how/if I'll work it into my story, but it could make for a great comic moment.

Asmoday said...

In a translation I had to make for an old comic series, I used 'by the horned devils of Hecate!' to appropriate effect. Good post!

Gary Corby said...

Glad you liked the post. Did Hecate have horned devils? I like the alliteration.

Amalia T. said...

I have been known to insert a "by the gods!" here or there, in a moment of exasperation. I think it works as well as your Dear Gods!

dipylon said...

There is one ancient curse I know, which goes "ΕΡΡΕΤΩ ΕΣ ΚΟΡΑΚΑ" (erreto es koraka, "may it perish with the raven").

Gary Corby said...

I like that one! I might just use that, if only because my surname in Middle English means raven.