If you think about it, profanity is a strange invention. Much of its context depends entirely on the listener. What is considered vulgar or offensive in one culture may not be offensive in another. When the complexities from a person’s country, region, language, or religion are added, things can get even more perplexing. As long as there has been language, there has been profanity. There has also been stories. One of fiction’s responsibilities is to be a reflection of our reality—so, when worldbuilding, us speculative-fiction writers are often tasked with inventing creative curse words for our narratives. It adds a level of authenticity and—if done well—can help ground a world. Sometimes we’re successful. Often we’re not.
The evolution of language—slang, in particular—has long been an interest of mine. From its history, to its usage, and to the subtle shifts resulting from generations building upon (or outright ignoring) the language of the previous generations. Language continually changes, and so does slang and profanity.
I thought it would be fun to explore some of the faux-profanity writers have created for their stories—to examine them and issue judgments on how effective they are within the context of the work. For this, I want to welcome you to Raunch Reviews, a series wherein I will review and rate the faux-profanity from science fiction and fantasy properties.
The Author: Brandon Sanderson
Work in Question: The Stormlight Archive
The “Profanity”: “Storm it”/”Storms”/”Storming”
In large part, I don’t think “storm” works as an expletive. On the surface, it certainly makes thematic sense within the source material: Roshar, the world of the series, is plagued by destructive “highstorms” that are part of everyday life. However, in usage, its weight as profanity starts to give. It feels derivative, almost modern, and the replacement of “storms” as a stand-in for something more offensive feels silly.
I classify foul language into three major categories—race/identity-based, vulgarities, and oaths. Race/identity-based terms are obvious, they’re slang focusing on a person’s race or identity, with the intention to dehumanize and belittle. Vulgarities reference reproductive organs, body parts, and sexual acts. Oaths are rooted in blasphemous speech, exclamations, or curses. Those are generally drawn from religious beliefs.
“Storms” and its variations don’t fall into any of these categories. “Storm” is a common enough word in the book, so it cannot be a vulgarity, nor is it a personal or racial insult. Likewise, it’s not a direct reference to a particular deity, so it fails as an impactful oath. It attempts to sit somewhere between vulgarity and oath and ends up doing neither successfully. Were Sanderson seeking a vulgarity, he could have easily drawn from his “safehand” lore (the covered left-hand of Alethi women, considered inappropriate to expose.) If he was attempting an oath, “by the Storms” or something similar would have made more logical sense. To his credit, he does occasionally use “Stormfather” (an oath referencing a former deity) and it fits the more traditional form of an oath.
But “storms” isn’t “Stormfather.” As a result, “storms” gets the distinction of being internally consistent, but is ultimately nowhere near as faux-offensive as it aspires.
There will be more to come. In the meantime, do you have a suggestion for Raunch Reviews? It can be any made up slang word from a book, television show, or movie. You can email me directly with your recommendation or leave a comment below. I’ll need to spend time with the property before I’ll feel confident reviewing it, so give me a little time. I have a lot of books to read.