Curse words are useful tools for characterization and worldbuilding. Rather than picking or making up curse words at random, however, I find it useful to consider the characteristics of curse words first.
What Curse Words Have in Common
There are two basic types of curse words: the funny ones that are more socially acceptable and the ones that are more taboo. I’m going to focus on the second grouping today.
Phonetic Characteristics of Curse Words
Many curses, including ones I know from other languages, have specific similarities in how they sound:
- harsh consonants
- consonant emphasis
- short vowels
- short (or have shorter versions)
Since they are generally used to express anger or frustration, the words themselves tend to have a harsh, abrupt sound that flows easily (trippingly off the tongue). Many of them are also directional – they can be followed by a direct object (like “it” or “you”).
Whom characters direct their curses at can be very telling: does the person only direct curses at inanimate objects? Only at adults? At everyone including children and people who’ve done nothing aggravating? Each option makes a big difference in how the character is perceived.
Social and Moral Characteristics of Curse Words
Besides the way they sound, curse words also have similarities in meaning – they’re all related to something that’s taboo, not talked about, or generally considered bad. Things like sex, poop, or being condemned by God. Things we use euphemisms for in polite company.
What curse words a person chooses or is offended by can show a lot about his/her background and beliefs. For example, in the Bible Belt, “God d@#$!” can be more offensive than other words because “taking the Lord’s name in vain” goes against their religion. In other, less religious circles, on the other hand, it’s considered mild compared to the f-word and others.
Interestingly, society also deems it more appropriate for men to curse than women – especially with the most taboo curse words. Women are supposed to use milder oaths if they curse at all.
That’s why the curse words you choose for a specific character and world can be so important. And some situations and characters are going to require cursing to make sense or seem real.
So why pick something random when taking these two aspects of foul language into account can let you use vile oaths to build characterization and setting on purpose?