I’m not one of those people who believe that swearing signifies a weak vocabulary, but today I edited eight “damns” out of a story to submit to a clean market, and I had a lot of fun figuring out alternatives. Confounded alternatives.
What if you’re writing a book for children, but you want a character to swear profusely?
In my upcoming middle grade chapter book, Pumpkin Goblins, I have a goblin character fond of “swearing.” Like so:
“Right, right.” Hobkit clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll join you. Could use a break from all this chaos and malarkey, batdarnit.”
Hobkit has a bigger role in the revision than he did in the rough draft, and the more he speaks, the more time I spend trying to think up creative new phrases…
“Dagnabbit. Of all the bat-plagued, magic-cursed rotten timing!”
…because using “bat” and “pumpkin” repeatedly was getting tiring. I wanted to come up with a bunch of options at once. So, inspired by The Terribleminds Profanity Generator, I made my own word lists to generate Halloweeny, child-safe invectives. Actually, I drew a lot of my own words from his lists, but I needed a certain number of Halloween words thrown in there also.
So get out your d20 (or your Online Dice Roller, for those that don’t have twenty-sided dice on them at the moment) and join me in some long-form, clean profanity. Which can be easily dirtied!
Noun list one:
Noun list two:
Using the formula (Noun list 1) + (Verb, -ing), (Noun list 2) + (Verb, -ed) I got:
Elf plaguing, twig-smacked
Turnip gumming, jelly-haunted
My goblin character tends to curse in adjective form, already having specific things in mind to rant about. Things like other goblins, wizards, elves, and pumpkin cars.
“You turnip gumming, jelly-haunted wizard! Are you trying to destroy Halloween?”
I could also do something like:
(Noun from either list) + (Verb, -ed) – ed
To create the compound expletive wizardspackle.
“Wizardspackle! Are you trying to kill us all?”
On the one hand, I’ve now saved time on curse creation.
On the other hand, I’m now likely to waste revision time by doing this. Gourdrustle!
Censorship breeds amusing substitutes for the common profanities we all know and love. While “fuckity fuck fuck fuck” is absolutely a phrase I over-use, I have a special place in my heart for the fill-in profanities that crop up in the TV versions of movies and in a lot of social situations involving self-censorship.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, my first exposure to swear substitutes was “shoot the boot!” I’ve heard stories about parents who swear in front of their kids, and are later embarrassed when the kid swears in public. I don’t understand why it’s embarrassing if the word isn’t being grievously misused, but whatever. This never happened to my parents, because they have an inhuman ability not to swear. Between the two of them, I’ve heard swearing maybe three times ever, and those were all from my dad. When I was little, my mom frequently used the phrase “shoot the boot,” always said in a jaunty, rhythmic manner, like it was the title of a Dr. Seuss book.
This kind of fake swearing, along with cheery, defanged expletives like “Aw, heck” and “Oh, fudge” left me unimpressed with phony curses for a long time. When I became a teenager and came into my own as a vulgar human being, entitled to the full range of hard, monosyllabic curses the English language has to offer, I eschewed the knock-offs every single time I could get away with it. And, this article argues that I was right to do so.
Until a few years ago, I saw the stand-ins as imposters. Mock swears were like a guy with a false beard conspicously saying, “No, I’m definitely not the same dude you gave the one-per-person free ice cream to a moment ago.” They’re adorably trying to be the real thing. Hearing “go fork yourself” on TV movies amused me, but it was more like a kitten playing with yarn than a Siberian tiger shredding a tapestry and roaring.
I’ve come to appreciate the fakies for their creativity.
Recently, my grandma was telling me that if she misbehaved when she was young, her mother would come after her yelling, “I’ll give you Hail Columbia.” My great-grandma didn’t come up with it herself, but wherever it came from, it’s still a lot more creative than “heck.” Actually, can we reappropriate “heck?” It doesn’t have to be wimpy. Let’s say that it’s a combination of “hell” and “fuck.”
Think of how many other possibilities there could be. “I’ll give you hailstones.” Actually, I’m blanking. I can’t think of any more possibilities. “Hail” is lodged in my head. But a number of words begin with H, no? To use George Carlin’s number, there are, what, seven good swear words? But there are a million words in the English language. What if, somehow, they could all be used as profanities?
I mean that as a swear, like a joyful “fuck yeah!” Nope, doesn’t work. But I’d bet that a large chunk of Anglo-Saxon derived words do.
From the way my grandma told it, she definitely didn’t associate “I’ll give you Hail Columbia” with wimpiness, and she didn’t think of it as a frail imitator. When she was in trouble for Whatever Shit She Pulled (my words, not hers), my great-grandma made sure her wrath was clear, no matter what the wording.
And that’s another reason I’ve grown warmer towards the substitutes. It’s not just the creativity. Said with enough vehemence, anything can be an invective.
Nerds! Oh snap!
Recently, I heard someone say, “Shut the front door.”
Say it with the rhythm of “Shut the fuck up.” Satisfying, right?
Only a hammer is a hammer. But if you’re in a pinch, you can use a rock as a hammer. You can use a steel water bottle as a hammer. And you can use a “hammer!” as a “dammit!”
P. S. The Terribleminds Profanity Generator is a fantastic resource for long-form creative swearing.
Because sometimes, muttering curses under your breath just isn’t enough.
Sometimes, I feel thirteen again and want to scribble vulgarities all over the back of my science notebook. Maybe an A for anarchy, or a doodle of an angry cow. It’s possible this is happening more lately, as I’m writing a novel about middle school outcasts thrown into an enormous nuclear disaster, but with sinister magic. Inhabiting their mind-space is kind of a mental time travel. And maybe one day, I won’t be able to come home again.
This gave me the instant gratification of pretending to draw a diagram of a mitochondria, while instead angrily writing “fuck fuck fuck” in the margins of my notebook with the kind of grip that embosses the penciled words into the paper. I always hated when teachers insisting on collecting and grading my notebooks. I nearly always had to tear out pages at the back, where I kept my secret life of comics, ranting, and doodles of demonic animals. Also, the out-of-control games of MASH I played with my best friend.
And yet, the forty-five minutes of drawing it took me to do the linework mellowed me out so that I no longer felt angry about the incident. At least, I didn’t feel angry until I went home and told the story to my partner. Am I allowed to call it linework, or is that reserved for professional illustrators? Am I putting on airs by using this term?
I covertly drew this during my break at work as a number of people passed by, and felt both juvenile and powerfully defiant doing so. But to me, this is what art and writing are all about. Taking raw emotions and persistent problems, then hacking at them with rapid typing, or drawing over them in colored pencil. Juvenile it may be, but it’s also the only way I know to actually deal with my emotions rather than allowing them to drive my life until they expire and fade away.
The fact that other artists and writers exist makes me think that, maybe, I’m not the only one.
Drawing this did end up inspiring a moment in my novel, when one of my protagonists draws a similar picture, then rips it up during an assembly so her mother won’t find it later. I’ll have to draw that one next time I have something to rage about.