Fictional Profanity


Mork & Mindy

Profanity in science fiction (SF) shares all of the issues of profanity in fiction in general, but has several unique aspects of its own, including the use of alien profanities (such as the alien expletive ‘shazbot!’ from ‘Mork & Mindy,’ a word that briefly enjoyed popular usage outside of that television show).

In his advice to other SF writers, Orson Scott Card states that there are no hard-and-fast rules for the use of profanity in SF stories, despite what may have been expected of writers in the past. The onus is squarely on the writer to determine how much profanity to use, to enquire as to each magazine publisher’s individual limits, and to think about the effect that the use of profanity will have on the reader, both in terms of how the reader will perceive the characters and in terms of how the reader will be offended by the story as a whole.

Card urges those writers who do decide to omit profanity from their stories to omit it completely. He regards the coinage of ‘tanj’ (‘There Ain’t No Justice’) by Larry Niven as a ‘noble experiment’ that ‘proved that euphemisms are often worse than the crudities that they replace,’ because they make the story look silly. In Card’s opinion, such nonce words (words used to meet a need that is not expected to recur) simply don’t work. Linguist Ruth Wajnryb shares this opinion, stating that the reason that ‘tanj’ or ‘flarn’ don’t work as profanities is that they are not real, and are ‘just a futile attempt to give clean-cut stories some foul-mouthed action.’

Jes Battis observes, in contrast, that the use of ‘frell’ and ‘dren’ in ‘Farscape’ allowed the television series to get away with dialogue that would normally never have made it past broadcasting and network censorship. The words translate, respectively, to ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ and are used as both interjections and nouns in the series. Battis also notes that ‘Firefly’ used a similar strategy, by using Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese for all profanities, also using the word ‘gorram’ as a replacement for ‘god damn,’ a phrase usually considered to be highly profane. Likewise, dialogue in ‘Babylon 5’ is liberally peppered with the words ‘frag’ (‘fuck’) and the alien word ‘shrock’ (‘shit’). Similarly, invented expletives are used throughout the ‘Star Wars’ novels. For example, the Alderaanian expletive ‘stang,’ was introduced in the 1978 novel ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.’ and subsequently spread to other media from the franchise.

American writer Parke Godwin opines that excessive profanity, as a part of naturalistic dialogue, ‘dulls much modern fiction and too many films’ and states it to be a pitfall for novice writers, or for writers who never grow up, to fall into. He states that it is a ‘lazy copout that no longer frightens horses in the street, merely annoys and ultimately bores an intelligent reader.’ He advises writers that ‘less is more,’ and that if it really is the right thing for a character to be salty, it should be made clear to the reader why, observing as an example that in his science fiction novel ‘Limbo Search’ the profanity used by character Janice Tyne is a symptom of her fear and tension, caused by being burned out at age 27 and afraid of the future.

English professor Wanda Raiford observes that the use of the nonce word ‘frak,’ for ‘fuck,’ in both ‘Battlestar Galactica’ series is ‘an indispensable part of the naturalistic tone that show strives to achieve,’ noting that it, and ‘toaster’ (a racial epithet for the Cylons, enemy androids), allow the show to use obscene and racialist dialogue that no real-life educated American adult would consider using the real-life equivalents of in polite company. She compares the racial hatred associated with the use of ‘nigger’ (an utterance of which she states to have preceded and accompanied ‘every lynching of a black person in America’) to the racial hatred of the Cylons, by the humans, that the use of such phrases as ‘frakking toasters’ indicates in the series. She also observes that several of the characters are ‘frakking toaster lovers.’

Profanity in SF also encompasses the idea of things that alien cultures might find profane, and the notion that what non-humans and humans find to be profane may differ markedly. Card observes that human profanity encompasses words dealing with sexual intercourse and waste excretion, which tells one something about human beings. He proceeds to suggest that what aliens might find to be profane can be a useful tool for suggesting the alienness of a culture. The first example an alien cultures might have no trouble with words about sexual intercourse, but that find words about eating to be profane. Alien cultures might also consider the idea of property ownership to be as obscene as pederasty. Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ at one point mentions that the word ‘Belgium’ is the worst profanity in the galaxy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.