There are three general categories of cursing, none of which is mutually exclusive: (1) Appealing to a higher power to harm the enemy; (2) invoking a bad fate upon the enemy; and (3) comparing the enemy to something culturally taboo. By “enemy” I mean whatever has provoked the character to swear—a lost sword, a recalcitrant escape-pod hatch, or a murderous creature faced in battle.
Each of these categories will differ according to the culture of the person doing the swearing—Renaissance Italian human, medieval orc, Golden-Age superhero, contemporary Japanese vampire, futuristic Corellian, etc. The player or gamemaster must decide, for each category, what powers, fates, or taboos are relevant to his or her campaign. After deciding this, a few key curses can be developed for each category and later used in the game to pepper a character or nonplayer character’s language. Not only can this add more interest to the game (Saying “You misbegotten, muddy-faced lickspittle knave” is much more impressive than simply saying “you b**stard”), but it can give players interesting insights into the culture they’ve just encountered (“According to the translator, it just called me a small-nosed custard-eater. Do you suppose that’s bad, captain?” “Well, lieutenant, I suggest we take a second look at the dessert menu for the First Contact diplomatic dinner tonight.”).
Appealing to a Higher Power to Harm the Enemy
Into the first category fall such curses as wishing a deity to sentence the enemy to an unpleasant fate; usually an eternity of suffering in some afterlife. This may be a relatively small category of curses in monotheistic cultures, but it could, presumably, be a much more interesting category in a polytheistic culture where different deities specialize in different sorts of punishments or where there are a variety of underworlds to choose from (“May the minions of Yog-Sothoth sentence you to the hell of having your bone marrow sucked out by the starving ghoul-priests of Kadath!”). In an atheistic society, the deity can be replaced by some other power, such as Big Brother or the Computer (“Computer crash your system!”) or a mysterious organization, alien race, or phenomenon (“Elders hunt you!” … “Entropy take you!”).
Swearing by a higher power or its various parts or possessions is more an expression of emphasis than defamation (“By God!”). However, there’s nothing to stop beings from adding such emphasis to their curses, as long as the higher source is clearly identified and has the appropriate accouterments (“By Thor’s Hammer!” … “By the Computer’s All-Seeing Lens!”). For the imaginative player, specific deities and their specific parts or weapons can be selectively called upon in particular situations (e.g., when drowning, one might swear “By Neptune’s Soggy Genitals!” or, when chasing someone, “By Hermes’ Sandals!”).
Invoking a Bad Fate upon the Enemy
Into the second category fall such curses as personally wishing the person to an eternity of suffering in the underworld or to be victimized in a presumably unpleasant sexual encounter. Sometimes these wishes may not be directed specifically at the enemy, but at some relative thought to be dear to the enemy, such as the enemy’s mother. Curses in this category reflect a given culture’s values or ideas of a bad fate (“Stake you!” … “May you die in your sleep!”).
Curses in this category can also be demeaning, such as the vampire slang/curse of calling humans “food tubes.” The demeaning nickname can be used as a curse (“You? You’re nothing but an ambulatory food tube,”) and reflects the fate the vampire wishes upon that human or all humans. In this case the curse edges close to the third category, because most humans consider eating other humans to be taboo—most vampires, of course, do not consider themselves quite human anymore.
Comparing the Enemy to the Taboo
The third category is possibly the largest and depends entirely on what a culture considers taboo—that is, blasphemous or disgusting. Often this involves comparing the enemy to something a culture perceives to be a lower order of animal (e.g., dog, rat, Martian calot), person (e.g., slave, detested ethnicity or race), substance (e.g., dirt, excreted substance), or activity (e.g., engaging in incestuous relations, licking mud off a leader’s boots). Sometimes the comparison can be more amusing to the enemy than serious, especially if the values of the cultures are extremely different. For example, in many old science-fiction stories, humans were derogatively referred to by other races as “hairless monkeys”—not a label most humans would be likely to start a war over, although it might get annoying after enough repetition. Similarly, most humans would greet “You right-handed first-cousin -groomer!” with more puzzlement than offense, although a member of the species using the curse might take it as a deadly insult. Humans in Shadowrun might think calling an elf a “dandelion-eater” is silly, but if it makes the elf angry, then it works as a curse. Alternatively, in Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx books, the term “bug” moved from a mild insult to a term of affection for the insectoid race that became allies of humanity.
Sometimes curses originating in this category can stand alone as swearwords that simply invoke the taboo. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series uses the excremental curse “Shards!”—the waste product of a dragon’s hatching. Hope Mirlee’s Lud-in-the-Mist features a culture that fears and detests Faery, and therefore appropriates Faery curses as its vilest obscenities: “By the golden apples of the Sun and Moon!” Larry Niven’s Ringworld books use a concept as a curse—”Tanj!” or “There Ain’t No Justice!”—presumably, this is a state of being that is particularly feared or detested by humans in Niven’s books. Similarly, Shadowrun’s “Frag!” presumably referred to a fragmented computer drive—something nobody wants to possess.
After a culture’s terms of abuse have been described, the player or GM must then decide whether those terms are used individually or strung together in long, impressive passages. In some cultures, swearing is considered an art, and curses are drawn-out affairs rich with description and metaphor. In other cultures, swearing is perfunctory, and curses tend to be short and to the point. Take a very brief excerpt from the exchange between Prince Henry and Falstaff in Act II of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV—First Part: “…Why, thou clay-brained guts, thou nott-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, greasy tallow-keech….” Compare that to the modern U.S. obscenity, “You a–hole.”
A longer-lived race, a culture that takes things sedately, or a culture that values the oral tradition will be most likely to engage in drawn-out cursing. A short-lived race, a culture that values speed and efficiency, or a culture that has little story-telling skills left will tend to use short, relatively unimaginative curses. Thus, one can imagine that fantasy quasi-medieval elves might have extremely interesting curses, whereas space-age humans might have a very limited cursing vocabulary. This contrast of cultures can be played up within a single game to enhance the differences between them, such as having an elf’s impressive string of literary abuse met with an orc’s brief, crude, and to-the-point response.
Curses are common in any game where adventurers are faced with regular surprises, setbacks, and combat, and they are potent cultural indicators that reveal much about the values and beliefs of the society in which they originate. Not only can a player or GM use imaginative cursing to add depth to a character or culture, but, on the whole, the imaginative use of cursing can raise the overall intellectual ambience of a game from the sordid to the sublime. And maybe, just maybe, it will leak over into the real world to make our day-to-day swearing that much more interesting to experience!
Originally written October 17, 1998
Image Source: Pennefejden. Tegning af C.W. Eckersberg, stukket af Bagge 1818.