Diable! Swear-substitutes for Sci-Fi Writers


EoDicImagine this: you are writing science fiction. Your character swears. You don’t— or don’t want to do it in your fiction. What do you do?

One method is to translate the swears into a suitable science-fictiony language. After all, English-speaking people don’t get as upset at characters exclaiming “dreck” or “merde” as they do if those same characters had used the English equivalent (sh-t).

My favorite science-fictiony language to use for this is Esperanto— an international language created in 1887 by Polish oculist L. L. Zamenhof. Back in the early days of science fiction some authors mentioned Esperanto as a language of the future. Others had a language with names like ‘Standard’ or ‘Terran Standard’ that seemed pretty Esperanto-like.

Esperanto was used in the English translation of a German sci-fi series, Perry Rhodan. The Esperanto was a source of futuristic slang. In Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series, Esperanto is the language used by many of the characters and a few Esperanto words are used— such as bastardachfiulo, a construction that’s portrayed as ‘the worst thing you can call someone in Esperanto.’

There are two ways the clean-fiction writer can use Esperanto to translate swears. One is to translate the bad word directly— ‘the devil!’ being translated as la diablo! or simply diablo!  The other way is to find a non-swear-y equivalent of the swear and translate that. So, instead of ‘the devil’ you might say ‘the enemy’— la malamiko or malamiko. You might use both methods depending on the intensity of the swear.

Swear words may be divided into 4 categories— blasphemy, near-blasphemy, crude vulgarity, and minced oath. Let’s look at what can be done in each of these categories.

1. Blasphemy swears are ones that take God’s name in vain, or uses words like ‘God!’ or ‘Jesus!’ as swear words rather than as names to be used prayerfully and respectfully. No matter what your own religious beliefs are, this usage is considered swearing of a particularly morally bad kind within the English-speaking world. A direct translation of these words would be ‘Dio!’ or ‘Jesuo!’ A less direct use is to use the word ‘heaven’ as a substitute for the name of the Ruler of heaven. In Esperanto that would be ‘ĉielo!’ but to avoid the use of the circumflex (the cap on the letter ‘c’) we can use the alternative: ‘chielo!’

2. Near-blasphemous swearing consists of words and phrases like ‘damn!’ or ‘Go to hell!’ which are semi-blasphemous in that they, in speech, usurp the right that God alone has of deciding who will, in fact, be damned to hell. These words also are extremely uncharitable. Merely mentioning the name of the devil in swearing isn’t as wicked, but it still isn’t very polite language. ‘Damnu!’ or ‘Dio damnu!’ are words/phrases in the ‘damn’ family, while ‘iru al la infero!’ (Go to hell!) ‘infero!’ (hell) and ‘infera’ (hellish) are in the ‘hell’ family. Milder versions might use the word ‘kondamnu!’  (condemn!) as a damn-substitute. For ‘hell’ we might use ‘diablujo’ (which means ‘devil’s place’ or ‘devil’s location’). Or if we want to make it still milder, we can substitute ‘malamiko’ for ‘diablo’ and we will have ‘malamikujo’ as a hell-substitute.

3. Crude vulgarity can be relatively mild terms such as bastard or bitch (when applied to a human female), or it can be the hard-core swears, sh-t and f-ck. It also includes crude slang terms for private anatomical parts. When I was young, these terms rarely appeared in books, and the hard-cores not at all— not even in pornography books! We need to be careful about how we substitute for the worst swears in this category, out of charity for people who are trying to get over a bad swearing habit. For the mild terms, bastardo means ‘bastard’ and the still-milder term malbonulo (‘bad guy’) can substitute. ‘Bitch’ translated literally yields hundino (female dog) and as the term is more usually used, inaĉo (shrew), also spelled inacho.  For the time-dishonored phrase ‘son of a bitch’ we can use the word inaĉido or inachido which would mean ‘offspring of a low-class female.’ There are Esperanto words for the ‘big 2’ swears in this category— ‘merdo’ for sh-t, ‘fiku’ for f-ck. There is good reason to avoid these terms, even translated. For myself, I might use ‘merdo’, but never the other. For a less swear-y version of merdo, use sterko, which means ‘manure’.

4. When I was middle-school-aged I went to a wonderful Christian school, San Jose Christian, and had a teacher, Mrs. Stark, who taught her pupils about the evils of the minced oath. These swears are words which sound like a type 1 or 2 swear, but are not the swear itself. It’s bad because the person using it has actually got the swearing-intention in his head, but at the last second substitutes a more civil word. Examples are ‘heck’ for ‘hell’, ‘darn’ for ‘damn’, ‘gosh’ for ‘God’, and ‘Jeez’ for ‘Jesus’. You see the problem here. By modern tastes, these substitutes are absurdly mild and often laughable. And yet it still offends. Some Evangelical publishers do not allow these minced oaths— first because they still have readers who would raise ‘heck’ over them, and second because of the laughability factor.  A similar type of swear substitute are the words used on television when they are playing a movie or cable TV show that uses class 3 swears that the network doesn’t allow— we hear ‘fricking’ or ‘froozing’ for f-ck, ‘spit’ for sh-t, and ‘mother-loving’ for mother f-king. The annoyance factor with this is high.

In Esperanto there are also 2 affixes which can be used to create swear-substitutes. The prefix fi- adds the meaning of ‘morally shameful’ to any word. The suffix -aĉ0 or –acho means ‘bad’ in a shabby, broken-down kind of sense. With an Esperanto dictionary and a little knowledge, you can use these affixes to create words to order.

To learn Esperanto:

Lernu! website provides free Esperanto lessons: http://en.lernu.net/

A good book is Teach Yourself Esperanto: http://www.amazon.com/Esperanto-Teach-Yourself-Revised-Edition/dp/0844237639

Wells’s dictionary is a good 2-way dictionary: http://www.amazon.com/English-Esperanto-English-Dictionary-Edition-Christopher-Wells/dp/1595691499

Peter Benson’s dictionary is a comprehensive English-to-Esperanto dictionary: http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-English-Esperanto-Dictionary-Peter-Benson/dp/0939785021

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3 thoughts on “Diable! Swear-substitutes for Sci-Fi Writers

  1. Fascinating topic, on which one could write many pages. Some authors use completely made-up roots for the same meanings; e.g., in John Ringo’s Looking Glass tetralogy, even the human Space Marines have picked up the cuss words of their best ET allies, to the point where one’s first chores on waking are to “maulk, shower, and shave,” spoiling the alliterative charm of the English original. Then there are the alien body functions that carry the same emotional baggage as copulation and excretion do for humans, e.g., in the Sime-Gen novels “shen” is the basic cuss word (for Simes), meaning the frustration of an interrupted transfer.

  2. In the Primary World I’ve gradually developed the habit of using ill-sounding syllables with no known particular meaning in any language I’m acquainted with: bâ yigg! yibgâz! bi’! bi’ ’i’! ugugubb! Rich in the voiced obstruents, poor in dental consonants, nasals, and liquids. Primal vocables for primal purposes. Feel free to use any of those and even to come up with alien etymologies for them!

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