Monday, August 21, 2006

Holy _______!

Go ahead. Fill in the blank in the title above. Or here: Holy _____!

What you choose tells you (and me) a lot about what you--personally and culturally--value and what you don't. It also tells you one of the things I use when creating aliens and alien societies in my novels.

Profanity is just one more way of experiencing another galactic species. After all, it's pretty dang common here on this planet. And it appears in frikkin' so many ways. And so many--if you've already caught on--styles.

How we swear and what we choose as an insult would tell an interplanetary visitor quite a lot about us Terrans. The same is true in reverse--we Terrans (sorry, but I have an allergy to the word "earthling") can learn a lot about our galactic heroes and heroines.

I first really noticed this concept in CJ Cherryh's CHANUR series, where her felinoid Hani had less concern for paternal lineage than for ear condition. To the Hani--like to my cats--ears were revered. So calling another Hani an "earless bastard" was a terrific insult--less for the bastardy. "Earless" alone was guaranteed to provoke a fight.

I like that.

In my Gabriel's Ghost, the human element denigrates a furred sentient species, the Taka, by demeaningly referring them as "furries". Not coincidentally, getting drunk is referred to as "getting furred." Takas are not looked highly upon, you see... and that bigotry has translated itself into the slang of the culture.

Consider our own culture. What do we use to insult, to denigrate? Excrement, fornication (odd, that, when you
really think about it), lack of parentage and genitalia are the most common in English epithets. But an insult in Jacksonville might not be one in Rio de Janeiro. Take the ubiquitous "OK" sign in the USA: thumb and forefinger making a circle. In Rio, they could get your lights punched out. It refers to a lower body orifice...

So it's not just words but gestures that become part of alien culture experiences. As my intrepid heroine, Commander Jorie Mikkalah, finds out in my upcoming Bantam release, The Down Home Zombie Blues

Jorie and her team have arrived on our planet and, after stealing a car, are not too successfully negotiating traffic on a busy Florida street...

[snip ]

“Another religious custom,” Jorie told Herryck, who sank down in her seat and planted her boots against the front console. “Their vehicles play music as they pass. And they’re blessing us.”

“Blessing us?”

Jorie nodded as she negotiated her vehicle between two others that seemed to want to travel at an unreasonably slow rate of speed. “They put one hand out the window, middle finger pointing upward. Wain’s reports stated many natives worship a god they believe lives in the sky. So I think that raised finger is a gesture of blessing.”

“How kind of them. We need to go that way again, sir.” [end snip]

A gesture of blessing to otherworlder Jorie. But a clear insult to us here in Florida. Sometimes it's not only fun to visit another galaxy but to have someone from that other galaxy visit here...

Hugs all, ~Linnea


  1. Where do Hannah and Smoke and Cow fit into the human poo/sex continuum?



  2. Hilarious excerpt!

    The Chanur series was the best example of alien cursing I've ever come across. "May you have sons" indeed!

    I'm working on a story where the hero was raised by predators. "Carrion eater" is a grave insult, as is "killthief." "Toothless" and "clawless" would no doubt be fighting words as well.

  3. Hm, I can see I need to put some more thought into this subject.

  4. Smoke and Cow? LOL! Hannah I haven't heard that much. But that's a whole 'nuther subject--why we are embarassed by our own colloquialisms. But it also goes to the fact that culture isn't worldwide and that epithets--and what we hold dear and how we insult--are regional things. Which is why the whole galaxy might not say Holy _____! with equal gusto. :-) ~Linnea

  5. Elaine wrote: I'm working on a story where the hero was raised by predators. "Carrion eater" is a grave insult, as is "killthief."

    Sloppy seconds? ;-) Knowing you, the world building will be very well done. But my two cents: in a predator-based culture, insults or epithets would also come from pack hierarchy (the follower relegated to stare at the back of the leader's head, or his/her butt), the attributes of their usual prey (likening the insulted one to the prey), perhaps--if scenting is important--"dead nose" could be grounds for a fight... then you can get in to whether or not they worship a deity (or more than one). Fun stuff! ~Linnea

  6. Oh, I'm just getting started. ;-)

  7. In Jacqueline's Sime~Gen series, Simelan profanity refers to the worst experience Simes can suffer, transfer interruption and its ultimate form, death by attrition. One nice touch is that the words most used -- "shen" and "shid" -- SOUND like English "four-letter words." My favorite fictional instance of cursing in an "alien" tongue occurs in WATERSHIP DOWN. The author does such an excellent job of immersing us in rabbit culture that when the story's big climax arrives, we experience the full force of the hero's defiant reply to the villain's offer, even though it isn't translated: "Silflay hraka, embleer rah." (can't vouch for the spelling) In case you haven't read the book, it means roughly, "Eat s---, stinking prince."