Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Zounds! Fie! By Shiva's Trident! Making Up Cursewords in TV and Literature

So I'm reading the brilliant Prinz award winning John Green's novel An Abundance of Katherines when one of the main characters, Lindsey, asks the very question I've been wondering for most of the book:

"Hey, why the f--- do you and Hassan say fug all the time?"

Of course, in the novel, Linday actually says the expletive. This happens more than 1/2 way through the book, when this question has been burning in the reader's mind as well. She's asking the protagonist, Colin, why he and his best friend constantly use expressions like "motherfugger" and "FUG!"

Colin's answer is brilliant, if only because John Green is obviously making a conscious commentary on the use of swear words in literature itself.  (I absolutely love it when literary characters talk about literature in books. It always blows my mind - I'm always like "you're a literary character yourself, dude, don't you realize that?")

Anyhoo, to get back on point... In answer to her question, Colin tells Lindsay the story of Norman Mailer, and his book, The Naked and the Dead, which originally, according to Colin/Green, contained 'the F-word' "thirty-seven thousand times...every other word is fug, pretty much." In Colin's words,

"...he sent it to the publisher and they were like, 'This is a really excellent book you've written, Mr. Mailer. But no one here in 1948 is going to buy it because it contains even more F-bombs than it does Regular Bombs. So Norman Mailer, as a kind of fug-you to the publisher went through his 872-page book and changed every last F-word to 'fug.' "

Green's characters use other made up, or at least, non-English language curse words in the novel. Hassan, for instance, calls Colin a sitzpinkler (the German word for a man who sits down to pee, in other words, a wimp).

Green's brilliant novel, as well as this fabulous recent post on From The Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors called "Is it OK to curse in MG books?" got me thinking: what other books or TV shows do I know where made-up curses are used? And does it work? (or get silly/distracting?)

It works in Green's book, clearly. Words like "fugger," like "sitzpinkler," become a part of Hassan and Colin's characters, and their relationship. The cool kid bloggers over at Forever Young Adult throw down hilarious phrases like "Subscribe to comments, bishes" and "RSS this shizz." In my own YA WIP, I have my teenage sci-fi-watching heroine use the word "Frak" as an homage to the coinage of the term on one of my favorite sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. (Although in my novel she calls it 'Spacestar Galacticon.') How much do I love it when BSG characters say things like "frak" and "frakker" and "frak me?" A lot. Uh-huh. So say we all.

But clearly, there's different made up cursewords appropriate even for different ages. In my co-written MG WIP, my co-author Karen and I have the father of one of the protagonists, an antiquities expert, use expressions that harken to his mythologically based work. 'The Professor' uses expressions like "By Shiva's Trident!," and "On Osiris' Throne!"

Only recently, the fabulous Kristin Clark Venuti noted on FB that she wanted to bring back the use of the word "Zounds!" (which is a derivation of the Shakespearean era curse "God's Wounds" and apparently pronounced zoo-nds). I suggested that if she did, I would bring back an expression my co-author Karen and I used as children: "Gadzooks!"

Other way cool Shakespearean curses that should be brought back might be things like "by my hammer and tongs!" "Tush!" or "Fie!" (Check out this hilarious site on the Elizabethan Insult for more great words, including "whey-faced" and "Canker-blossom")

What are your favorite made up insults? Do they work or should we use the real thing? Or just avoid cursing altogether?


  1. My mother taught me that using the word "stupid" was naughty. Very very naughty. She also swore like a sailor. One day when we were out on her bike, much the way Rerun rides on his mother's bike but me without a helmet because protective head gear was not yet de rigueur, riding along in downtown Manhattan. Probably Chelsea or Greenwich Village. A woman in some vehicle cut my mother off and she was forced to nearly crash us into either a parked car or the back of this woman's moving vehicle. Somehow, we survived without crashing and my mother proceeded to shout "You stupid f***ing b**ch. Can't you watch where the he** you're going?"

    Behind her, she says, she heard a small voice say, "Oh mother. Mustn't say 'stupid.'"

  2. hah! stupid is the "S" word in my household too - once in a while one of my children will say, very loudly in some public place, "he said the S word!" and of course it's because someone (usually one of their parents!) said the word "stupid" in some grown up context!
    Classic story Satia! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Yes! So say we ALL!! And Gadzooks to boot! For a while (short while, since their mother inadvertantly introduced them to the 'regular bombs' way too early) my children liked to go around shouting "Cheese and crackers!" when they wanted to get a reaction.

    One of my favorites, though, comes from Diana Gabaldon -- Her amazing MC Claire marches through 17th century Scotland muttering Jesus F. Roosevelt Christ! or something like that. Very shocking to those highlanders. In their kilts.
    (So say we all!)

  4. I love Cheese and Crackers as a curseword! You actually use a lot of them - Jiminy Crickets! Jeez-o-Peet! I can't remember but you used to have a lot of them! (So say we all)

  5. I'd have to say sitzpinkler is my new favorite.

  6. I work with a first grader who, when she gets annoyed, likes to say, "Mayonnaise." Now I've started doing it, too.

    Thelma Z

  7. Thanks for your comments, and for visiting, Catherine and thelmaz - pull up a chair, stay a while! I absolutely adore the randomness of using "Mayonnaise" as a curse word. Unless she's somehow commenting on its cholesterol laden properties (which I don't think a first grader is, somehow!)
    And yea, Catherine, hard not to love sitzpinkler. Try out John Green's novel, even if you don't read YA normally, it's brilliantly funny and of course as a bonus the word "sitzpinkler" is used every five lines...

  8. Can I use sitzpinkler to refer to my boss??? I think I will, if only in my own head. Silently. And then I'll giggle.

  9. I hereby, by the power given me as a blogger of my own random musings (which is no power at all, of course), give you permission to call you boss sitzpinkler whenever you want. In your head only, please. Not on those days when your brain-to-mouth editor function is on the fritz (which for me is sadly too often)