Saturday, September 29, 2007

Naughty Words

Someone (I think it was Heinlein, but I can't find the quote) once described the process of writing for children as, "you write a book for adults, and then take out all the sex and the bad language." These days, if you write a YA kid's book, you can actually leave in the sex and the bad language provided that you don't actually get completely graphic with the sex. (Despite the fact that nearly everyone I know seems to have read Jean Auel and V.C. Andrews at about age 12, they weren't marketed as YA, and that makes all the difference.)

Anyway, my current project is intended as a middle grade book (something that would be shelved with the children's fiction at the library, rather than off in the YA or Teen section). So bad language is out. (And even not-really-all-that-bad language will outrage some people, like the ones who freaked out over the word "scrotum" on the first page of The Higher Power of Lucky.)

But kids do use strong language. Some kids, when in need of an expletive, just go ahead and swear. Others use some substitute -- fudge, sugar, etc. But "fudge" sounds ridiculous enough when said out loud as an expletive; it's even sillier when it's written on a page, at least if the kid is really supposed to be upset.

Since this book is also SF and set several hundred years in the future, they could also just use made-up futuristic swear words. Maybe in the 25th century, "shuzbot" is the nastiest, vilest word you could possibly say. Except made-up swear words also tend to sound really silly to me -- especially, again, when they're written down.

Battlestar Galactica uses the word "frak" and swaps it in 1:1 for the f-word. I read a blog post somewhere recently complaining about made-up swear words in which they complained specifically about that one (and also "shards!" from Anne McCaffrey's Dragon books). I actually quite like frak; it sounds right for a swear word to me. Plus I read a comment from someone involved with the show who was positively gleeful about the fact that for all intents and purposes they were using the f-word freely on broadcast TV and no one was complaining. (That in itself probably sold me on the word.)

But even if you love the word "frak," you have to admit most of the fictional expletives out there sound pretty silly. (I should note that insults are much easier than expletives. I never find myself flailing around because I need an equivalent to "sh*thead." It's "sh*t" I find myself thinking, "yeah, but even if he's ten, it's what I'd have said when I was ten.")

Now, these characters are not only living hundreds of years in the future, they're also speaking a Spanish-English creole. So another possibility is to swap in a foreign language swear word. But while it's easy to find out how to suggest in Spanish that someone engage in carnal relations with a close relative, it's harder to get a list of the things a Mexican person might say after dropping a heavy object on their foot. Also, Spanish is not exactly an obscure dialect spoken by a tiny handful of tribesmen; if I throw the phrase "chinga tu madre" into my novel, it's highly unlikely to slip past a New York based editorial staff without anyone noticing.

At the moment, these characters don't use any expletives, because I haven't thought of one. They say things like "oh, no!" instead. It's straightforward enough, but I really think there are times in a good adventure story that an "oh, sh*t!" is called for. I'm going to have to keep thinking. In the meantime, if anyone happens to know what the Mexican equivalent is of saying "oh, sugar!" or "oh, fudge!" let me know. Maybe it'll sound less silly if it's in another language.


Anonymous said...

I have way too fun with

Profanity is a weird thing for me. I don't have a crazy puritanical family or anything, but me and mine are some of the only people I know who swear uber rarely. :)

It weirds out my friends, actually, once in a while, and they're /astonished/ on the one? two? times I've actually said the f-bomb.

I like 'frell' myself. It's almost tempting to use in my writings sometimes. x.x

Kelly Swails said...

I curse with abandon. Not as much as I used too, but I just find it catartic at times to really lay something out there.

As for your book, Naomi, I agree there comes a time in an adventure when nothing but "Oh shit" will suffice. Think The Goonies. You could try the old interruption trick:

The wall wobbled. Toby saw the bricks crumble. "Oh, sh--"

Marly yanked his arm. "Never mind that," he said, pointing to the middle-distance. "What's that?"

You get the implication of the curse without the actual word. I think you could only use it a few times though before the reader started rolling their eyes.