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Brave New Words: Expletives & Profanity

Do you know that a ramscoop is “an electromagnetic field at the front of a spaceship that captures interstellar hydrogen to be used as fuel for a fusion-powered space drive?” Or that a timecop is “a time-traveler who attempts to prevent the past from being changed, typically as an agent of an organization?” These words, and many more, can be found in the Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction edited by Jeff Prucher. Prucher’s entertaining entries are a window to the entire science fiction genre, through the words invented and passed along throughout the years. Below we excerpt a sidebar entry on Expletives and Profanity.

The use of swear words in science fiction has a complex history. Until the 1960’s, many publishers would not print actual swear words, so writers were required to use their ingenuity if they wanted to use the full range of expression. Perhaps influenced by Normanbrave-new-words.jpg Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead, in which the word “fug” was famously substituted for “fuck,” Francis Towner Laney coined the fannish slur fugghead around 1950. In the 1960s, Norman Spinrad’s novel Bug Jack Barron was considered so profane that the bookseller W.H. Smith banned sales of the magazine in which it had been serialized. And no doubt as a commentary on this state of affairs, Larry Niven wrote a series of stories in the 1970s in which the words “censored” and “bleep” had themselves become curses.

Although print standards have relaxed since the 1960s, those in television have been slower to do so, and writers have had to create new, futuristic curses to get past the censors. Some of these terms have even caught on off the air. The BBC’s Red Dwarf has been by far the most successful – in terms of propagating its made-up invective, anyway – gracing us with the versatile and evocative verb smeg (a shortening of “smegma”) and its derivatives smeghead, smegging, and smeggy. The Sci Fi Channel’s Farscape has also managed to spread the words frell and frelling, which are used exactly as one would use “fuck” (in its figurative senses). Joss Whedon’s Firefly is notable both for its coinage gorram and for the innovation of having any particularly colorful curses said in Chinese. Battlestar Galactice gave us frak in the 1970s, but it never caught on; it remains to be seen whether its recent revival will have more success (linguistically speaking, that is).

That these TV profanities have proved so successful in the real world, while curses coined in print have not caught on, is attributable to the fact that TV reaches a much larger audience, including people who may not read SF. But surely the success of these particular terms can also be attributed simply to the fact that they’re fun to say, with the added bonus that, since they’re not “real” swear words, you (probably) won’t get in trouble for it. (And if you don’t smegging believe me, just give it a frelling try, gorram it!)

Recent Comments

  1. Pamela Benjamin

    Help! I’m surrounded by fuggheads!!

  2. Mike Glyer

    By Klono’s brazen balls, whatever you do, don’t lesnerize!

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