Thoughts on Sayings, Expression, Curses

Something I would like to do more often is respond to other bloggers, via my own blog, in the interests of discussion. Today’s post is in response to JMD’s post about culturally specific dialogue, like what you would find in certain types of speculative fiction.

The inhabitants of your fantasy/science fiction world world are going to naturally develop their own methods of cursing. Fans of Animorphs will be familiar with the Yeerk word “Dapsen”, that we learn is an impolite term in Book 9: The Secret. The Yeerks cleverly use the term to name their fake logging company, which is a source of amusement and speculation to fans of the series.

Wizards and Witches in Harry Potter are fond of shouting out, “Merlin’s Beard”. Star Wars has it’s own litany of foul language delivered in the form of in-universe references and colloquialisms. And who can forget one of the cleverest mechanisms for delivering curse words utilized (but not necessarily invented) by Tim Minear and Joss Whedon: Cursing in a well established foreign language like Chinese?

Whatever language you speak now is going to be completely different from what they spoke over a thousand years ago. How much more will it progress as the future unfolds?

Back to the Future and other time travel stories are full of miscommunications between the time traveler, and the citizens of whatever era he has found himself in when his own modern use of the language causes confusion.

“Can I have a Tab?” The 80’s-raised Marty asks of the diner owner in the 50’s.

“I can’t give you the tab until you order something,” the diner replies.

It’s true that the writers didn’t create the 1950’s. But they did have to remember that the dialogue would have been radically different. They probably did a combination of research involving combing old newspapers, as well as talking to people who actually grew up in that time.

That becomes a bit more difficult when you’re setting a story in the 13th century. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s vampire novels introduced me to a whole range of historical curses and sayings that would make the resistant high school students sit up and pay attention in class.

When writing speculative fiction, developing the unique terminology and vernacular of the world that your characters inhabit is certainly important. But I find the same to be the case in just about any writing, of any genre, where dialogue is present.


Even non-fiction sometimes feature exchanges of dialogue as the writer recollects moments where they had to go into the field to research their subject. The better the writer is at depicting the conversation – even if they are simply repeating it word for word from real events – the more sound the rest of their research appears to be, because of the attention to detail.


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