@#$%!*! and Other Problems

So I was struggling with something for the book and not getting anywhere, and I remembered that it’s been months since I made you freeloaders work (remember naming all the Demon Island businesses?  That was in December 2016.  Put down those umbrella drinks and cowgirl (or cowboy) up.  It’s time to earn your keep.

So here’s the problem.  People swear.  Demons are people, so demons undoubtedly swear, too.  But would they use our swear words?  Obviously different demons speak different Earth languages beside their native tongue of Demonaic, but for our purposes they’re speaking English because they’re in New Jersey.  I’m assuming “damn” is probably universal, but after that . . . 

So I have three questions.  

  1. Since demon agents are required to have advance knowledge of Earth languages, they’d have knowledge of Earth slang (that’s actually stipulated in the book) and so would know Earth curses and obscenities.*.  Would they just use those, or under pressure would they use their own?  

2. If they use their own, what would they be? 

3. According to the (very brief) research I did, some societies do not swear.  Would it make sense that demons didn’t?

[*I wasn’t sure what the difference between a curse and an obscenity was, so I looked it up.  A curse invokes the name of God (you stipulate the god), and an obscenity is an offensive word or expression (you determine the offensiveness).  None of this matters that much, I’m just flashing my research.] 

I have no idea if I want demonbad words, but I know you’ll have opinions.  Let me hear them, damn it.



94 thoughts on “@#$%!*! and Other Problems

  1. I rather like the idea that they have their own curses and swearwords. “Burn it”, or “Scorch it” leap to mind as possible mild ones.

  2. Mrs Meers, in Thoroughly Modern Millie, employs the word, “Pook”. Which is hugely satisfying to say.
    The problem with inventing specific demon swear words has got to be that the reader won’t know how intense the swearing is – so, does “by Satan’s silk socks” equate to “bother” or “bugger”?

  3. If they’re swearing out of frustration, anger or pain that’s almost an involuntary sound; so they’d use their native tongue, unless they were showing off their knowledge of English. (I’m trying to think if I’d ever say ‘Merde’ when speaking French, but I don’t think so. I’m not that fluent, plus wouldn’t want to offend. On the other hand, I did pick up my friend’s exclamation of pain, ‘Yeow!’, when I stayed in Yugoslavia as a teenager.)

    They’ll need some way to express their feelings. I’m not up to inventing demon swearwords right now: I’m wrestling with late diagrams for a book I’m editing. Sorry.

  4. Having just been through the book clean out, I found my Asterix and it reminded me of “By Toutatis” or “By Jupiter.” So God’s names might be the worst thing you’d say in hell.

    I would think that if hell is suitably hot and hellish, then maybe curses could be pleasantly beautiful places or those that are physically cold. “By the height of the Himalayas!” I’m sure you can write something more lyrical!

    As my lil ole human self, I like, “crap” “damn”,” and “bloody hell” and when things are worse “shite” and when things go from sugar to shit, I use “shit”, “f*ck” and various swear words in my second and third languages.

    1. Wouldn’t they take Satan’s name in vain??

      Maybe just swapping out devil for deity in a few choice phrases would work…

  5. Oooo this is fun. Demon swear words. I always think Shakespeare has the best curses and insults – it doesn’t get any better than ‘thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.’ Calling someone a Wanker, just doesn’t go the whole distance.

    1) Nonsense words that just sound rude: Flartz or Phonk or Gleeking (which I stole from Shakespeare and might be a real word).
    2) Real words that just sound demonically rude: Akashite (some kind of mineral) or kumquat or masticate.
    2) Curses: By the [body part or significant characteristic] of [whomever Demons worship]: ie By the eye of Demongod. By the black heart of Demongod.
    3) Invert all swears, so that things we think embody goodness are bad and used as swears: Angels, Kissing, butterflies, unicorns, rainbows, kittens etc. Angel Breath! or that Kissing annoyance.
    4) Demoniac words that sound enough like an English word to offend people – like when my brother called my sister a Sloth and she thought he said Slut. (Long ago, but not forgotten. Good times). Klunt, for example or Funck.
    4) Demons could be amusingly offended by swear words. Bad in every other way but self-righteous and pious about not swearing.
    5) Or maybe they have gone all elaborate and Shakespearean in their curses and oaths. I just randomly consulted one of many Shakespearean curse generators online: (https://trevorstone.org/curse/curselist.html) and found a list of swear words. Some sound rather Demonic: fustilarian, foot-licker, earth-vexing, dread-bolted, mammering moldwort, shrill-gorged skantling skainsmate, unchin snouted.
    6) Demons could make a sound that is not a word to express disgust, annoyance or any time we might swear. A whinny sound, for example or a low rumble.

    Of these I kind of love the Shakespearean option, although I am a geek.

    1. I like kumquat as a swearword, and like the general usage of innocuous words that take on a bit of a sinister shade when used darkly and as demon swearing. unicorn! kittens! (fluffy kittens would be worse).

      I also like the Shakespeare swears, too.

      Or, if the demons have spent time on Earth before, perhaps they have a favourite time period which reflects on their choice of curses? This might also be a lot of work.

    2. I very much dislike Shakespeare, but I love fustilarian, foot-licker, earth-vexing, dread-bolted, mammering moldwort, shrill-gorged skantling skainsmate, unchin snouted.

      I don’t think they would use our curse words. I think they’d have their own. Bad words without meaning…for us anyway. But to them, they would be very bad. They are, after all Demons and have their own guttural language. At least that’s the way I see it.

    3. For some reason ‘footlicker’ really rolls off the tongue. For me to say but not demons so much. Or toe sucker. But then I would be offending those who enjoy doing such things -so no.

  6. There was a long (and relatively hard to read, but totally worth it) thread on Tumblr about making insults by calling someone “you utter ____,” frex: you utter floorboard, you utter walnut, you utter doorknob…

    The comments went on to distinguish between “you utter ____” and “utterly [noun]ed” which implied very drunk.

    the discussion is here:

    the implications being that you could have the form, but insert whatever was handy for comic effect.

  7. English is my second language. I do all of my swearing in English, not Spanish, my first language. And even when talking to my brothers, all of our obscene words are in English.

    On the other hand, my parents who are not fluent in English do their swearing in Spanish. And they have some excellent phrases.

    So I would say it would depend on their age or grasp of the language or the situation.

    1. I grew up hearing almost no English swearing, even though my family were speaking English, they’d swear in Welsh. I had to learn English swearing as a teenager. And even now, while I swear just like everyone else, if I’m genuinely shocked or hurt or upset, it’ll be Welsh that comes out of my mouth. But oddly, the three Welsh swears I actually use mean “Yuck” and “You should be ashamed of yourself” and “The Devil”. Their importance has less to do with the meaning than the visceral significance. If I step on something slimy, “Ach y fi” literally “Yuck on me” is going to come out of my mouth before I think.

        1. The ch is hard like in “loch” which is a sound that isn’t really in English, but it’s U as in “ugh” “that ch, then the y is “uh” as in “uh… look out” and “fi” is “vee” U-ch uh vee.

          Welsh is actually phonetic, except that we pronounce most of the letters differently from English and there are seven vowels, so w and y are vowels, oo and uh. But once you learn the new alphabet, it’s easy. I’ve often argued, especially when I was a smartass teenager, that it would be easier to write Welsh with the Greek alphabet, and less confusing for English speakers.

  8. This is one of the problems writing SF and fantasy, and the real problem is that cursing is charged, and made up curses look cutesy and coy and have no charge for the reader. There’s a moment in the movie Spartan where a Swedish journalist who does speak very precise English the way Swedish people do, but who has just been speaking unsubtitled Swedish, sees something shocking and says, in English, slowly. “Oh my God” — because the script wanted viewer comprehension of her reaction more than it wanted authenticity. And while that is a niggle in the film for me, it’s often the right decision. If you have people swearing “By Satan, we’re fallen” and “The devil on a coal scuttle” it’s funny and cute, and if you have them swearing “bedgiswkl” it’s realistic but doesn’t connect at all, and if you have them say “Shit, we’re totally fucked” the reader isn’t jerked out of context at all. If you do want to use fake swearing, you need to set it up all through so that by the time it matters the reader is utterly used to it — and it can still be a buzzkill and has to be used very very carefully not to totally break the mood.

    There’s a thought provoking idea in Samuel Delany’s Empire Star that people’s curse words reflect the most important thing in the culture. So as religion has given way to sex as the most important thing culturally, there’s less swearing by God and the Virgin and a lot more fucking — and what that says about excremental swearing is interesting! But I’ve found that useful for made up worlds, to think what is central and most important culturally and use that in terms of what they say when they drop a kettle on their foot.

    (An office my husband worked in once recorded him saying “Oh dear” to use instead of the beep the computers made when there’s something really wrong.)

    1. I had the same thoughts. If it’s mild, “scorch it” works. “Fracking” worked in Battlestar Galactica, but it was so closely coded, it couldn’t miss. Otherwise, it gets really tricky. Or even worse, cutesy.
      Although McCaffrey’s Pern books uses”Shards!” (as in dragon egg pieces) very effectively.

  9. Since they are quite old, it seems like they would also use old fashioned swear words from times past. Might be particularly good for Nick as he regresses.

  10. I think you should steal words from Georgette Heyer because those words are so good that they really deserve to be brought back to life. And I’m sure demons would agree with me!

  11. I loved Caro’s idea “4) Demons could be amusingly offended by swear words. Bad in every other way but self-righteous and pious about not swearing.” but if swear words must be had, I like the idea of Shakespearian curses and swearing. It fits with Nick, and the story.

  12. In Red Dwarf they use the made up swear word “smeg”, presumably because they couldn’t use actual swear words on television. It works because they just do it straight, no winking.

    1. There’s “frack” Battlestar Galatica and “frell” from Farscape. I don’t think either of them were ever completely defined as anything other than a swear word.

      1. The Good Place has excellent swear words:







        1. The Good Place swearing is what instantly came to mind when I read this post; it’s very clever.

          As for your actual question, I like the idea mentioned earlier of the demons being offended by swearing.

        2. I sometimes swear with bird names. Not useful for demons, but it’s fun to call someone a buffel head or a yellow-bellied sap sucker.

    2. And I can never buy Smeg appliances. The concept of cooking with Smeg is just…. Nope.

      1. I just got a chance to read it. It is a great read Allison, thank you for taking the time to read it. Very interesting.

        Upon further half-ass research I discovered that the Germans had quite a hand in swear words.

        What a fun assignment on a snow day.

  13. I don’t think they would use gods’ names because gods have reality for them. Would they want to attract the attention of the gods? I don’t think so. I thought of using a person in power plus a physical attribute, e. g.: Putin’s earwax, Trump’s hairy butt. But that is just disgusting and would throw the person out of the story. And you wouldn’t want to use the Devil’s name because what if he overheard you?

  14. What leapt to my mind was “Brimstone!” I guess because I think I would recognize it as swearing, not because it actually makes any particular sense as a swear word for a demon.

    When I worked for Dutch people, they told me that they swear in English because there weren’t good Dutch swear words. They liked that English ones were short and punchy. I am more likely to use short ones if startled, so long descriptive ones are more appropriate for things like cursing slow drivers, rather than exclaiming at the idiot who cut me off unexpectedly. Apparently my swearing needs are driven by situation.

    1. No good Dutch swear words!?! That would make ours a very unique language. Maybe your employers had a very restricted upbringing?
      I’m afraid we swear like anyone else. But our worst swearing is still taking the Lord’s name in vain, which doesn’t really resonate if you’ve been brought up an atheist, I expect. Another speciality is horrible diseases, that still works for everyone.
      It is true that younger generations have rather been seduced by the English adjectival way of swearing, as we’ve been flooded by American films and TV.

  15. Ha ha. Your post reminds me of a Patricia Veryan romance I read many years ago (90’s I think) where our hero uses “Mephistopheles” in a sentence and his buddy exclaims “who the devil is Mephistopheles?!!” It was the funniest thing ever!

    I looked thru my Veryan books (I liked her books a lot – must reread to see if they hold up) but can’t find that one. It had an orphan in it, but maybe she had lots of orphans in her books (probably a very long bibliography out there of romances and mysteries featuring orphans :)).

    Comic book character exclamations and curses might be a good source too, especially the ones written back in the days before you could use 4-letter and other unimaginative curses.

    I can’t imagine any society not having curses or obscenities. They (Satan, demons, et al) are the source of curses and obscenities to some of the Earthly Pious (ahem), aren’t they? Besides, everyone stubs their toes, yes? Even demons? Or maybe they leave behind a limb or 2 when walking through walls, doors, etc. Holy Mephistopheles! Blast and damn fracking angels!

    1. Follow-up: I found these, which might give us some ideas for some creative Nita-World curses and exclamations:


      This blog post (Oxford Dictionaries) is particularly interesting as it talks about the use of catchphrases to create reader community recognition. The post is written in the context of comic books, but certainly applies to all fiction and I would argue non-fiction, too.



      Now the real question is, can we combine this post and the poetry one and create a Holy Mephistopheles haiku? 🙂

  16. I like kumquat as a swearword, and like the general usage of innocuous words that take on a bit of a sinister shade when used darkly and as demon swearing. unicorn! kittens! (fluffy kittens would be worse).

    I also like the Shakespeare swears, too.

    Or, if the demons have spent time on Earth before, perhaps they have a favourite time period which reflects on their choice of curses? This might also be a lot of work.

  17. Since Nick is from another time, and since some of the old Shakespearian language SOUNDS like swear words: “Tup it!”; “Bollocks!” etc. are possibilities.

    On the topic of curses in a foreign language: Many years ago my Aunt Nuzzli ran away from an arranged betrothal and her conservative family, who lived in the US but spoke Arabic in the home. 10 years later her sister tracked Nuzzli down and asked her get in contact with her parents. Nuzzli sent her best friend (who spoke only English), and taught her friend to speak an Arabic phrase explaining that it meant “please” and “thank you”. So at the celebratory dinner with the friend, the friend repeatedly thought she was saying “please” and “thank you” — but she actually was saying “kiss my ass” with a smile on her face, over and over again. Some curses are universal! (and my dad who was about 13 at the time never forgot that dinner!)

    1. I know a teeny bit of Urdu, including maybe 1 impolite word, you *know* I am now going to search if the Arabic words are the same.

    2. Report-back. They’re not. Lol.

      Your Aunt Nuzzli sounds awesome. I’d love to know more of her story. I appreciate the spelling of her name, too many here are spelled Nazli or Nasreen, changing the sound from ‘u’ as in umbrella to ‘a’ as in apple.

  18. I haven’t seen the show but Fox Network has a series called ‘Lucifer’. It might be worth it to see what Hollywood has given the character for swear words.

        1. No, no, it’s always good to help. The problem is that my book is so far from Lucifer now that there’s almost no connection at all. It was just the place I started.

  19. Well you give us all the fun assignments.

    There are curses – damn you!
    There are oaths – by God’s fleas!
    There are obscenities – you c**ks**ker!

    My reflexive thought is that:

    when the demons are among humans they are passing as human, and so they would tend to express themselves as humans do; and for maximum camouflage, they would use the local argot.

    The demons who spend time among humans would tend to bring that argot back to Hell.

    The demons who more or less stay put in Hell would have a more conservative (i.e. demon-originated) mode of expression. BUT some of those demons may well have spent time among humans at different points in human history, so naturally they would have brought language back with them.

    And the demon society is, being very long-lived and not seeing a whole lot of new blood as it were, likely to amuse itself with modes of insult and invective that would not precipitate mutually assured destruction, so I’d think that out of sheer self-protection their Hell-speak would veer to the intentionally funny. Shakespearean, in fact. Ornate, grandiose, and ridiculous insults combining every curse, oath, and/or obscenity they could muster.

    Thus the Hell scenes have the potential for all kinds of hilarious verbal mayhem (quite beyond what we already got a hint of). And if there’s somebody down there who just has no sense of humor, its consistent failure to deliver a good line could itself be a running gag.

    In the Demon Island scenes, though, I would expect the demons to use non-standard cusswords only when they are 100% positive they are private.

    1. I like the idea of them travelling and picking up local languages. Then they use it to get by in other situations but sometimes they get it wrong or are decades behind the times. Then layered under this is their own slang they use when they’re really upset. And under that their original language if they came from earth like Nick.

      1. Well, Nick’s been out of Italy for five hundred years, so . . .
        I think the time lag would be key. Ten years pass for one year in hell (so it’s more like fifty years have passed for Nick), so if they’re dropping in during 2011, their slang would be from 2001. Must research that, although Rab keeps up his studies. Jeo is just a more careful speaker.

  20. I also like the idea of demons not using swearwords, for two reasons: (I) our most common words, such as “damn” and “hell” wouldn’t have the same connotation for a demon; and (2) for me, swearing is a small, satisfying way of behaving badly. Demons don’t/shouldn’t need that catharsis.

    And I guess I’ll add a third reason: anyone that old shouldn’t need swear words to get their point across. Their command of the English language should be exceptional (does Nero Wolf swear? Other than “pfui!” (?)

  21. You will be unsurprised to learn that I’ve spent some time thinking about this over the past few years.

    One of the funniest lines in Good Omens is when it says of Crowley “He blessed under his breath.”

    When I wrote The Demon Always Wins, I just reversed things, e.g.. “Damn it all to heaven.”

  22. I would be amused if the demons used concepts that were awful to them as swear words…
    “Oh, holy doves!”
    But I am not sure if this makes sense.
    “Go bless yourself”? “To heaven with you” “If you misbehave, the nuns will get you…” (Oh, wait, that was scary during my childhood. Opps.)
    Holy Water.

    1. This kind of reminds me of the French Catholic swears of my family, they’re all church related (tabernacle for instance).

  23. When was demon island established? Maybe the demons would use swear words that are somewhat anachronistic, from the last time they went to Earth? Maybe the time difference between Hell and Earth might come into play? I can imagine a big scary demon getting peeved and shouting something like “Gee willikers!” Or something. Also, “By Jove” might also be universal.

  24. Could be like Quebecers and swear by church things (Catholic specifically) so there’s Tabernac and such.

  25. Please don’t use rainbows and teddy bears as curse words. Cutesy-ness would kick me right out of the book.
    There are plenty of good Shakespearean ones for a weak-hinged, paper-faced, fly-bitten, hedge-pig!

  26. Short, punchy, visceral. But I think some of that also has to do with what is forbidden/ awe inspiring. In the fantastic Mr. Fox, they replace cusswords with “cuss”. At first it’s funny, until your brain gets used to it. And there’s this point where a character goes “well this is a cluster-cuss” and every adult in the theater gasped, before realizing that actually they hadn’t said anything bad. Just the word cuss. But the act of cursing in a kids movie is as worse than the curse itself, outside of that setting, would be. Which is a long way of saying – what do demons consider forbidden / awe inspiring?

  27. I became fluent in French as a second language as an adult, and I teach English as a second language. In my experience, when people are speaking a second/foreign language they swear either 1) in their native language (it just comes out) if they don’t speak the second language well, or 2) in the second language (the same as everyone else around) if they speak it well. People don’t generally translate their native swear words/phrases into the second language except to be funny. If they learned a regional version of the second language, or like some commenters are suggesting, an older version, they would swear (and generally speak) in that version, and later, with more exposure to a different region (or era), a hybrid of the two, until the language of the region/era they were living in took over.

    If there was a situation in which demons were speaking their own language, and we understood that the English on the page was a translation, it might make sense to include translations of their swear words/phrases. But if they are speaking English fluently, they would be swearing in English too.

    1. Unless they didn’t want their audience to understand. A friend’s mother would always switch to Yiddish whenever she and her friends were discussing anything they didn’t want the kids to understand. Which may be why my friend took a Yiddish class as soon as she started college.

  28. I would be put off by the sci-fi versions of swearing. Reverse swearing make no sense for me because I don’t remember animus between the devils and the god that appointed them for their job. It also doesn’t make sense to me to swear using any of the normal parts of hell. I’m a statistician and my emotionally charged swear word would never be “calculator!”

    Nick is a sort of old school gentleman so it makes sense he wouldn’t swear to me. The young devil – I forget his name- would probably swear in English although perhaps he might mess it up

    I would think people from hell would do more cursing than swearing. As in curse someone or something into something unpleasant. Or to an unpleasant action. Something specific to the offense.

  29. I’m a native Russian speaker. As you probably know, in Russia, they have a special swearing lingo called ‘Mat.’ It has only several original words (I think 5 in all), mostly having to do with sex organs or sex acts. But people use those words creatively. They combine them with common verbs and adjectives to a great impact. Once, when I was a schoolgirl, I heard a folk song at a village wedding in Russia, which was an adventure of one male sex organ. It went up a mountain, sailed to America, made love to different women, etc. It was fascinating to listen, very colorful, very crude.
    Perhaps than should be your approach. Make up 3 to 5 words with special ‘hellish’ meaning and apply them to any sentence or directive.
    Just a thought.

  30. I have a couple of thoughts that are a bit “adjacent” to answering your questions directly.

    The first is that it would be fun to see Nick adopt Nita’s favorite curse word (and vice versa) since picking up one another’s verbal tics is a natural part of team formation.

    The second is that it could also be fun to see the demon-firsters being very particular about deliberately not using human curse words. This implies that there are words/phrases that are seen as obscenities among demon-kind which aren’t typically human. I like the notion mentioned above about curse words being related to what’s most important to the society using them – I think this is something most people can grasp intuitively when seen in context, so it offers the freedom to just go for it on creating or using something demonically unique which readers won’t need to have explained.

    1. …and to completely contradict myself on demons cursing, it also occurs to me that humans use obscenities when expressing a lot of emotion and/or when trying to emphasize a point and/or when attempting to shock.

      Would demons allow themselves to admit they feel emotions, or to admit they’ve been taken by surprise, or that they can be shocked, or that they can’t make a big impression without using certain taboo words? Thinking of it from that angle, it would seem that things would need to be dire indeed for a demon to allow himself to succumb to the weakness of using an obscenity since it implies he’s lost control of himself or a situation.

      Ok, I’ll stop playing devil’s advocate (so to speak) and stop confusing the issue now…

  31. Whilst I seriously hate made up swear words – it throws me out of the story every time – I agree with Jo’s comment about swearing being based on the most important thing in the culture. This is what Anne McCaffrey did in her Killashandra (sp?) series. Shards was the swear word, which is apropos as Shards when mining crystal is not what you want.

    The other option, which Anne Bishop has done (I’m just working through her Others series again) is to have a line that “Humans have the best swearwords” or words to that effect. I have seen that in other SF books as well from other authors.

    I really like the idea of swearing being based on the reverse of what we would do. But that is predicated on the idea that everyone in hell was never human initially – I think that people involuntarily swear in their original language/ variant as swearing is often reactive rather than planned.

    1. Shards is from Pern (eggshells) but Killashandra had herown words, too, if I could just remember them… McCaffrey was good at coming up with those, since she was writing at a time when cursing wasn’t as prevalent.
      Got me thinking. May have to dig out the
      Killashandra books.

      1. Right well that will teach me from using very bad memory of a book I read some 20 years ago 🙂 (eek, more like 30 years ago)

        Strangely enough I never picked up on using different swear words in the Pern books, but definitely did in Killashandra.

        And now I’m also going to have to find (hah) my Crystal Singer books just to find out what she did use…

  32. When I was studying Russian in college (101 level, two semesters, surrounded by adept Russian majors, all very difficult & soon abandoned) I remember thinking that the phrase “garyochi chai” sounded like a very effective curse phrase, although it just means “hot tea.” There might be some innocent phrases in a language associated with each of the demons that, when muttered with exclamation marks, come across as sinister & profane. And you would end up with an in-group of fluent multilingual readers who might find them amusing. 🙂

  33. Maybe their swear words would be around being non-eternal? Only the best people are immortal, so swear words might be “short-lived”, “rotting”, “Decomposing pile of carbon”…..

  34. 1) I think it depends on the agent: the very best ones will maintain character/training.
    2) What’s offensive in demon society? “Bless you!”? “F-ing human!”?
    3) Uh, how do those societies vent then?

    Helpful, I know.

    1. See, “bless you” implies that “damn you” is a good thing, but they’re parallel to us.
      There are many ways to vent that do not involve obscenities. Again, I give you my mother.

      1. Wait, what? I must have missed the story about your mother? *Must know*

        My mom’s favorite swear word was “God damn it!” (a very religious woman, and unfettered by inconsistency) and my God-mother (a lapsed Catholic French woman who swore like a sailor) loved to call things “horseshit” (while waving a lit cigarette for emphasis). I can’t hear either swear without it making me feel kinda warm and happy and nostalgic.

  35. Please, please no fake/ invented words! It takes me right out of the story and makes me feel the author is feeling all too smug and clever.

    Mayybee, inverting our curses. I saw Satan’s Balls somewhere and kinda liked it.


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