Hell Is a Company Town

You know how it is with world-building: One damn thing leads to another.

So the swearing question led me back to a world I’d sketched in as different parts of it rose up in the story: Hell is a company town.  That is, everybody there works for the Afterlife and the CEO is Satan.  They see themselves almost as zookeepers: there’s this huge preserve called Earth full of animals left to their own devices in their natural habitat  until they die, and then Hell sorts out what happens next.  If things go wrong, they send in agents to clean up the problem and then leave the humans to their lives again.  Demons aren’t intrinsically evil, they’re just like humans.  Some are terrible, some are great, most are just trying to lead full lives and have a good time after a good day’s work.  

So some of them work in Niflheim for Thanatos, where the dead sort out the consequences of their lives, and some work in the Elysian Fields, which is where the dead who decide they’re done with life go, and some of them work in Reassignment which is where the dead who choose reincarnation go, and some work in government, keeping the peace and enforcing the law both in Hell and on Earth and generally making the trains run on time (that would be Nick, Rab, and Jeo), and some run restaurants and groceries and sporting goods stores and all the other things needed for the support of a population that lives hundreds of years.  So you have demon doctors, and lawyers, and accountants, and teachers (low birth rate so small classes), and barbers and probably mimes.   It’s a parallel Earth with a much smaller population, dedicated to single goal–keep Earth free of its dead so it can keep evolving–and answering only to the Higher Power of the head office, known as Corporate, where God and the angels work, overseeing Nick’s Hell and all the other Hells for all the other inhabited worlds in the universe.  

But our Hell would have a real interest in Earth since that’s where their clientele comes from.  I could see them having a McDemon’s theme restaurant, making fun of McDonald’s.  Maybe looking at Earth fashions the way we look at folk dress, but co-opting the better stuff like jeans.  And the agents who go to Earth would need to know the languages–both Rab and Jeo have Earth Science degrees and they and Belia still take classes to stay current since Earth history whizzes by them ten times as fast as their own.  

Which made me wonder if demons wouldn;t adopt Earth curses and maybe screw them up, given the passage of time.  If it’s been five Hell years since they’ve been to Earth, “groovy” would seem like a reasonable thing to say.  And there’s translations screw-ups.   I come from Ohio, a state that pronounces Lima “Lye-mah” and Bellefontaine as “Bell FOUNtain” and Tibet as “TIB et” (street in Columbus),  so I know how a native population can screw up an original word.  The problem is, I don’t want anything cute or labored.  It has to be recognized as a swear word.  So “damnation” could be sounded out as “Dam Gnat Yon,” I suppose, but that seems a stretch.  I kind of like “dam nat,” though.  The other problem with that approach is that all the best bad words are one syllable: damn, crap, fuck, hell, etc. 

So I experimented:


     “Well, fruck,” Nick said, looking at his chair.  “Why didn’t we order these assembled?”
     Jeo frowned.  “What?”
     Rab kept working on his chair.  “That’s ‘fuck,’ sir, and it’s considered obscene here, so best not to use it.”
     “That can’t be right,” Nick set his chair upright and stared at it in disapproval.  “You need the ‘r’ or it doesn’t roll off the tongue.  Frucking chair.”
     “That’s the point.”  Rab put his finished chair upright.  “It’s supposed to strike the listener, not roll over him.  Or her.  That’s why it’s short with a hard vowel.” 
     Nick shook his head at his chair.  “From now on, we buy things assembled.”
     “You really put that much thought into ‘fuck’?” Max said to Rab. 
     “Earth linguistics.  English obscenities are often short with hard vowels.  Fuck.  Prick. Skank.  Cock.  Cocksuck–”
     “Got it,” Max said.  “That must have been some class.”
     “I still say that makes no sense,” Nick said.  “You want to get a fluid stream of curses going, and you can’t do that with all hard vowels—“
      The door opened and Nita came in.  “Let me tell you what a goddamned, sonovabitch clusterfuck of a day I have had,” she said, dropping her bag on the new chair.
     “Fine,” Nick said.  “Fuck this chair.”
     “I don’t know, I kind of like ‘fruck,’” Max said.
     “Suck-up,” Rab said.
     “That’s frucking suck-up to you, crocksucker,” Max said.
     “Fruck?” Nita said.
     “It rolls off the tongue,” Max said.  “Which also sounds dirty.”
     “This is what you guys do all day while I’m fighting crime?” Nita said. “Assemble chairs and make up dirty words?”

See, that’s trying way too hard, verging on cute (stop trying to make “fruck” happen, Jenny) although the possibilities for using “fruck” from then on in the book appeal to me, especially as an indication of team identification:

     “I don’t think–” Rab began, and then they heard Jeo yell, followed by a loud thump and then silence. 
     “That’s not good,” Max said, and followed Rab as he ran for the stairs, waiting for him at the bottom as Rab took the steps two at a time.
     Ten seconds later there was another loud thump.
     “Rab?” Max called up.
     Don’t go up there, he told himself. Whatever that is, it has nothing to do with you.  If something horrible has happened to them, that’s points to Team Mammon.  It’s us versus them.  I said I wouldn’t betray them, I never said I’d rescue them.  They’re probably fine. 
     The silence stretched on.
     “Fruck,” Max said, and started up the stairs.

Yeah,  I don’t think “Fruck” is gonna happen.

So maybe I just co-opt lesser known Earth curses, with the idea that demons who visited Earth used them and they caught on in small pockets of humans?  The father of my best friend in high school,, a genial guy, used to use “Hell’s bells,” as in “Hell’s bells, Hazel, when’s dinner?”  I have a great fondness for “Hell’s bells” because I remember Mr. McKenzie so fondly.  Plus people make up curses all the time.  My butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth mama used “Cheese, pie, and crust” in place of “Jesus Christ.”  Yeah, that wouldn’t work, but I bet “Hell’s bells,” might.

And then there’s that “most significant cultural thing” idea, which led me to “smite,” the worst that could happen.  As in “Well, smite me, I did not see that coming.”  “Smite you, asshat.”  “Mothersmiter.”  Uh, no.  Although come to think of it, I have Max thinking, “Get smote, Ashtaroth” in the first act already, and that’s staying.  So there’s that.

As you can see, this still needs work so I’m still cogitating, but I gained much from the discussion on Tuesday, so thank you all very much.


76 thoughts on “Hell Is a Company Town

  1. I really like this though. Nita giving a grand demonstration of a point Nick is having problems with.

    There’s “cheese and sprinkles” from Rio. Linda is from Minnesota. I’m in Wisconsin and I’ve never heard that one. I’m still not sure it’s real.

  2. I had to stop here, ““Assemble chairs and make up dirty words?”” I just loved it. My mind made it “Assemble chairs and dirty words?”

    Going back to read the rest now.

  3. I like fruck. Might use it in real life.

    I don’t think fruck is cute per say, it’s not like a kid trying to use a swear word but not get in trouble. It’s not like saying sugar when you mean shit, it’s almost like using merde instead because you like it better.

    Max saying Fruck sounds very world-weary and resigned and gets the point across, borrowing from the idea that it’s a team word. I would 100% keep it there because it says so much more than just fuck.

    Watch an episode of The Good Place. Eleanor swears like crazy, it probably has the most realistic swearing patterns on network tv, but they get away with it because they use fork and shirt but she doesn’t sound ridiculous. I think the context is more important than the actual words. Mothersmiter is silly but smite me and get smote both work, so does smite my life.

    In the Dresden Files books, Jim Butcher has Harry say “stars and stones” a lot and it works in so many different contexts. His vampires use “empty night” and it also works because Butcher doesn’t try to make either of them a substitute, they are oaths/swears/bad words in their own right.

    It’s all about context. Fruck.

    1. There was a recent phase where people used frick-frack and its variations (fricketty frack, fricky-fracken, etc.) as a comedic euphemism for sex, combined with an ironic use of dissonant phrasings. So things like “looks like the characters are down with the frick-frack”, “you just want them to do the frick-frack”, “what the frick-frack is going on” and so on.

      Fruck isn’t too far away from that.

      1. I use “freaking” a lot when I’m not mad enough to use “fucking.” “What the freaking hell?” “Freaking winter.” Doesn’t work without the “ing” for me, though. And when it comes to politics lately, it’s definitely “fucking Trump,” “fucking Pruitt,” etc.

    2. I think Nick’s right: it rolls off the tongue better. But Rab’s right, too: rolling off the tongue is not the goal.
      Smite my life works. Hmmm.
      I must sit down and watch The Good Place. I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about it. I’m way behind on Legends of Tomorrow, too, and I love that show. I haven’t watched TV in weeks–that’s not me being cool, I just haven’t gotten around to it–unless you count streaming Rachel clip and A Closer Look on YouTube, so it’s time for a binge.

      1. Good Place is on Netflix and since it’s a 1/2 hour comedy an episode takes like we minutes to watch. I binged season 1 in an evening waiting for TB to get home from a football game.

          1. It’s the redesigned keyboard. I’m forever typing Ikve for I’ve, etc – you have to be quite vicious to pull down the alternate character on a key.

      2. WHAT. You definitely have to watch it! We missed parts of the second season and are now waiting for it to show up on Netflix so we can binge.

      3. The Good Place is pure gold. You must watch it. Everything about that show is wonderful.

        Legends is something I will watch properly when Constantine becomes a regular. Although, they’ve hooked me with John Noble.

        Errr…none of this helps with your mission. Sorry about that.

        1. The first season of Legends is a mix of awful and wonderful, the wonderful being the Sara/Snart/Rory axis. Then the second season, the show evidently said, “Screw this, we can do anything” and it’s the most batshit show on TV. Just wonderful.

      4. I love The Good Place and was going to mention it too. They aren’t allowed to swear there so every time Kristin Bell’s character swears, the word changes to Fork, Shirt and just about anything else they come up with. It’s a cute show. And I like Fruck too.

      5. The Legends season finale is this coming Monday, so if you wait 8 days after that you can just stream it all on Netflix in a binge.

        1. Oh, please, I bought the series on Amazon. I can binge it Tuesday.
          I really love that show and I don’t want it disappearing on me; stuff evaporates on Netflix.

      6. I highly, HIGHLY recommend The Good Place. I binged it once alone, then again with husband (who enjoyed it reluctantly at first and devoured it eventually) and started on Round 3 with my mom. It rewards multiple viewings, too. Can’t wait for season 2 to hit Netflix and season 3 to air!

        The show runner has had some interesting interviews about the show’s plot and pacing but they’re heavily dependent on spoilers, so watch first!

  4. When I was a kid my parents knew a guy who’s wife was very against sweating or cursing. He compromised by semi-swearing.

    Son of a sea cook.

    H E double toothpicks.

    That sort of thing.

  5. Did he say “Hell’s Bells” when he backed the car over a kid’s toy? And did she say “Cheese, pie and crust” when she caught the hem of her favorite dress on the rose bush and tore a bad snag in it? Those are the kind of things you say when you are annoyed but not when you need a serious fuck.

    1. He was always laughing when he said “Hells bells.” Big wheezy chuckle. He was a great dad. He probably did say it when he backed the car over something; not much ruffled him, as I remember.

      I think the worst thing my mother ever said was “Oh, poop.” If she was really angry, regular words did just fine; that woman could flay with her tongue.

    2. When language was more policed, because it was still considered rude the word “darn” worked as “shit” does now. (It was the late 50s and I still hate the taste of Dial soap.)

  6. There was this crass Japanese show that used English swear words for shock value amidst the original Japanese script. When it got licensed for an English dub, the creators told the American script adaptors to please teach them the curses they adapted, so the Americans took the opportunity to go to town with creating new curses.

    Application 1 here is as someone pointed out in the last thread of Firefly, how the incongruity of a sudden foreign language curse getting thrown in the mix. It would be funny if Nick and Rab are busting out archaic Korean curses they’ve picked up from Jeo. And let me tell you, a string of Korean cursing can be hella satisfying to hear or say, because it’s all hard syllables, so the spittle flies.

    An offshoot of this is saying english curse words, but spelled the way they’re pronounced in a different accent. Shit becomes shart or shite or shee-yit, damn could be demn or daaaayum or dahmitall. Especially, they might not realized that a curse word they’ve picked up is actually one bastardized from another language such as how Asians would say it madafakka.

    Application 2 is that made-up curses are usually more about combining words in new ways, than changing their spelling. Shit-titties, shit-pickle, motherfuckery, fuck me in the keister, assburger with extra ass, douchcanoe, asswagon, etc.

    (Said show was about two angels that are crasser than demons. Such resulting exclamations included “Holy Mary mother of shit” and “what the shit-hell”)

  7. My mother was a fan of muttering “rass-em, sass-em, frass-em” under her breathe, as well as “rats and phooey, and shucks and darn”. I don’t know if those are old timey substitutes for real swears or if she’s just crazy (I’m leaning toward the latter).

  8. I love smite!

    And as to the Good Place, I really didn’t think I’d like it — don’t like much tv (or movie) comedy as a rule, tend to prefer it via written word — but I was totally hooked, binged the first season in a day or two. And then I was sure I’d hate the second season, but I figured I’d give it a try, and I would have binged if I could, but I ended up seeing them as they came out, and I kept thinking they couldn’t possibly keep the quality going, and yet they did.

  9. I disagree–I found that hilarious, not cute.

    Speaking of curses that get mispronounced: I apparently mutter “Jesus Christ” quite a bit. So the other day, the day before Easter, when my 4yo got annoyed, I heard him muttering under his breath, “Jesus Crisis!” That is now how I shall pronounce it.

  10. I used to say “hells bells and buckets of blood” it had people looking askance at me, so I stopped

  11. When my granddaughter was small, I was taking her someplace in the car. I stopped for a flashing school bus, but the driver behind me elected to whip around both me and the bus.

    So I was yelling at the driver for being an idiot when this little voice from the backseat said, “Are you pissed out, Grandma?”

    So I had to decide: should I simply correct her grammar, or explain that I shouldn’t have been saying what I was saying and please don’t repeat that to your mother?

    To buy some time, I said, “What?”

    And she said, “Did that man piss you out?”

    (I decided the mea culpa route was in order.)

    Maybe they get the words right, but the usage wrong.

  12. Jenny, something niggled. So I went back and re-read it.

    I know that the last post of the WiP is the truck draft and there will be many changes. There might already be many, many changes. 😉

    However, in chapter 5, Nick says, “Fuck” when he makes the connection between Nita and Hell. Since the scene you posted with the furniture has Max working with the gang to help, it occurs after Nick uses “Fuck” for the first time, suggesting he is already aware of the correct application! “Die, asshat” is different because he learned it from Nita who calls him an “early asshat” and Mort who describes Jason as an asshat.

    In other news, I had bought one new shelf a few weeks ago and had to assemble it, so I’m with Nick, thinking of ordering the next one already assembled.

    1. Yeah, I’ll have to go back through in a final edit and look at all the repeated expressions to make sure everybody isn’t saying the same thing. “Fuck” and “hell” are generally lazy writing anyway, although I’ll have to take a good close look at how I use Hell in this one. The humans can use it without problem, but probably not the demons. I had thought about them saying “Earth” instead but it doesn’t work since it’s not a curse (as in “damn it to hell”).

      1. Could there be another dimension, that’s mentioned briefly, like “smite/damn me to Golgotha”? (No, I know that wouldn’t be the actual word.)

        1. Well, there are a lot of Hells in the universe, but I don’t think they’d reference them.

  13. Smite me, I did not see that coming – I like a lot
    Smite me sideways
    go smite yourself
    get smote

    I like all of these. Also that scrap of dialog is GOLD, thank you. You brightened an otherwise dull afternoon.

  14. Also, there are curses that don’t have an obvious origin, because they were probably inside jokes from millenia ago. E.g., Odin’s beard. So while smite is the worst that could happen, there might be some ancient incident that produced an exclamation that makes little sense today. “Oh man, I just got Scully’d!” And it’s a subtle way of inserting Noodle Incidents (as TvTropes calls them), which are always great.

    Oh, and there was a great post I saw that said “you absolute ___!” is pretty devastating no matter what noun you put in the blank. You absolute coathanger, you absolute curly fry, you absolute pen nib, you absolute jean jacket.

      1. Whoresome zed?
        Well, it gets lonely at the end of the alphabet.
        I kind of like “zed” as an insult. Ashtaroth is an utter zed.

  15. On a related note, I was just listening to Writing Excuses and Brandon Sanderson was talking about Mormon swearing, where they say things like “oh my heck” and “scrud.”

      1. Does this mean you are prepared for a bunch of wing nuts accusing you of religious intolerance by implying demons are Mormons? It is sounds ridiculous but people are capable of the most bizarre logic….

        1. I am now visualizing what a furor there will be and how we will all show up when they interview you on some talk show in a showing of solidarity. The air fare to the east coast to the west coast isn’t too bad. But think about the Arghers from other countries. It would be really expensive for them. Although perhaps we could get some airline to offer a Jenny Crusie special and special room rates at hotels. Although since you don’t drive too far, your limo or taxi costs would be exorbitant. Still, the media attention could be major. I am just exhausted thinking about it.

  16. My grandmother used to say “ooh, shit in boxes!” when we played cards. Sometimes it was in little boxes. I’m not sure why but it always made me laugh.

  17. Sometimes when I’m really upset, I revert to what my parents say. The other day someone I dislike was being a hypocrite, and when my friend told me about it I blurted “well that’s rich” with the exact same inflection my mom and grandma use. And I swear all the time, but there was something about how angry I was that completely made me revert to the language I grew up around. Time and language and emotions do wonky things when combined.

  18. I tend to revert to the classics like fuck when truly peeved, but otherwise I use a few odd ones and have done for so long, I have no idea where I got them. “Ye gods and Byzantines” for instance. (I don’t even know what that means.) And oh fff…(sounds like it is going to be bad) fish fingers!

  19. My mother has a strong opposition to swearing, so I didn’t really do it at all until I was over 18. Even now, I know better than to do it front of her. Her go to word for irritation is “shucks,” which has always struck me as insufficiently cathartic. My work environment has contributed to and increased my swearing. It mostly comes out while driving during rush hour.

    Sorry to have missed the cursing post on Tuesday; that sounds like it was fun. I went back to skim the blog post, and I think swearing would be in the demons’ native language. It’s just the most satisfying in one’s native tongue – and in a stressful situation, that would be the default. Unless demons are truly bilingual/multilingual as opposed to learning English later in life? In that case, English would probably be equally satisfying.

    The fruck thing might be bordering on cute, but Max using it as team identification was really good. It doesn’t really have to be fruck, but people who spend a lot of time together and bond develop shared references that become a kind of language, and sharing invented curse words seems like a good way to show that Max is bonding with the team. Kind of like how the Dempsey siblings spoke to each other in movie quotes.

  20. I didn’t think it was cute, but I’ll buy a lot if I like what’s going on otherwise in a book. I also like made-up swear words. I think if the cadence and hard consonants are right then anything can be a satisfying swear.

  21. Is there a human invention or idea that is considered to be so overwhelmingly bad and/ or stupid that demons would use it as profanity?

    As a side note, I’ve always enjoyed calling someone an utter muppet, or telling them to go blow a goat. Could you bring Baphomets into it somehow?

  22. The scene works, but I’m not sure about repeated uses of Fruck. Unless Nita picks up on it? OTOH, it would be funny too reverse that, too – have a demon get shocked when someone says “crock” because they honk it’s obscene…
    Smite in all its fashions works. It’s great, and makes sense, and it’s got a sharpness to it. Please keep it.

  23. The British comedian Andy Hamilton made a comedy radio series about Hell, called Old Harry’s Game, which was a hoot. I second the love for The Good Place; I never imagined they could keep the quality up over two seasons, but it was consistently good.

    I love smite. It makes me think of the great Alan Sherman who, in his parody of Greensleeves, “Sir Greenbaum’s madrigal”, sings:

    “All day with the slaying and slewing
    And smiting and smoting like Robin Hood
    Oh, woulds’t I could kick the habit
    And give up smoting for good”

  24. I was quite surprised by the use of the word ‘smote’ as a past participle, I thought it was ‘smitten’. So I looked it up and it turns out there are three possible forms: smitten, smote and even smit.

    1. Smitten always reads to me as “has a crush on.” Also, smote has that one syllable, hard ending thing going for it.

  25. Hell’s Bells was used by my mother and grandmother, but not by any of my aunts, which I never understood. Unless my grandmother learned if from my mother – which is quite possible. I have been known to say Hell’s Bells – my children look at me like I’m cracked.

    I liked that passage. Of course, I always love writing that makes me laugh.

    One of my characters uses b something on a biscuit. But I can’t remember what the b word was. Oh my god. I’m getting old and can’t remember anything. Just shoot me now.

    I had to go look it up, it was bothering me that much. Bananas on a buiscuit, which I now think is just lame. I should never go back and look at what I’ve written – it makes me cringe. Balls on a biscuit would be better. Bang on a biscuit, butter, balloons, but no, I chose bananas. Sigh.

    1. Well, if you’re British, ‘bananas on a biscuit’ is exotically surreal, because they’d never fit/stay on, even if they were cut up.

  26. Anyone who also reads Jim Butcher will recognize “Hell’s bells” as the particular curse used frequently by one wizard, Harry Dresden. If you don’t read Jim Butcher, you should.

  27. I like the idea of telling someone to go smite themselves. That has quite a satisfying ring to it.

  28. I often say ‘expletive’ or ‘swearword’ when I’m frustrated but trying had not to swear. All swearing including ‘bloody’ was a no no when growing up. Now everyone’s at it, although not often.

    ‘Smite’ is fecking great.

  29. It could very possibly be that I am not picky enough or not reading everything with my critique-glasses on, but I absolutely loved that scene. Wish I could write something like that.

    I’m with the others on the smite-thing. It’s brilliant. Frucking has its charm, too. The scene feels real to me, at least. Especially with Nita waltzing in and throwing the entire discussion upside-down.

    Since I never got my thumb out of my butt (read: dared to comment) on the last post, I’ll try to write now what I wanted to write then.

    The topic then was the various ways swearing and cursing reflects the culture and what’s important to the people swearing. If this is true, the Dutchies must have had serious issues with sicknesses for they swear/curse by wishing each other various diseases. Like this: “Get the typhus!”, “Get the plague!” “Get cancer!” (I have a particular dislike for the latter, since I know or have known a lot of people whom are suffering from, or have died from, cancer.) In Sweden, it’s all about satan, hell, the devil etc. Not very exciting things, but interesting regarding the fact that Sweden is (said to be) the most, or one of the most, secularized countries in the world.

    Just like the English-speaking countries however, both Sweden and The Netherlands are also fond of using swearwords referring to sex or gender, sexual orientation a.s.o. One would think we’d be done with that in 2018, but alas.

    I think there is definitely something true about the swearing/cursing being more dependent on the context rather than common usage. I’ve been writing a lot of sort-of-middle-ages-ish-fantasy together with a friend of mine for some 13 years now (nothing published, and most likely won’t ever be), and since our world does not include any “common religion” and is inhabited by various creatures of questionable heritage, we try to not use too commonly used curses or swearwords, and words or phrases get a whole new meaning through our different races’ beliefs and prejudices. For instance, her characters are of a race regarding themselves as superior to all others, and to humans in particular. One of their most cutting insults is simply scornfully proclaiming someone to be a human. And it works, somehow. The message is easily carried across though it wouldn’t be an insult for any of us. It’s so clear being a human, or behaving like one, is one of the most disgusting things imaginable to them. Perhaps this is true for demons, too? Or calling someone an angel might be of similar gravity, what do I know. 🙂
    (It MIGHT be possible that this way of swearing works for me because I know the stories/races/characters, but as much as people calling on their deities feels natural for us when we read it, even though their deities don’t exist in our world, different swearing feels natural when put into context.)

    Swearing or cursing is, in my opinion, a natural part of humanity and society. We need expletives to put emphasis to our feelings – be it joy, pain or anger, we use them to put weight TO it. What the words mean to someone else is less relevant (though I must admit I can’t really wrap my head around people whom shouts “Chips!” instead of “Shit!”, but all right…) – what counts is getting your message across. I think you’re on the right track, Jenny. This will be a kickass frucking story and I’m SO looking forward to reading it!


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