Swear Better with Literature

Insult Better with Shakespeare (from Grammarly's Facebook page)Perhaps you’ve seen the an image like the one on the right from Grammarly, suggesting that you could insult people better by quoting Shakespeare. Will was great at coming up with ways to say things in unexpected ways but he’s not the only one. I found some interesting ways to swear without running afoul of the language police while reading the books of Larry Niven.

Updated 20 March: It was brought to my attention that I had a gray moment and didn’t include a link to Grammarly’s website. I’ve used Grammarly to check my writing both here on WfaA, in web posts all over the ‘net, and even for things that aren’t completely web-based. If you do any writing in English you need to check out Grammarly and at least get the free browser plugin. You’ll wonder how you wrote without Grammarly, no matter who your English teachers were.

Earlier this year I was looking for something to read at the Jamaica Plain Branch of the Boston Public Library when I came across The Best of Larry Niven, a collection of his short stories. I knew his work from having read some of the Motie books he did with Jerry Pournelle several years back. Of course, once I finished The Best of Larry Niven I had to read more of his work and had to get books in the Ringworld series. I quickly became hooked and having finished the Ringworld series I’m working my way through his Known Space series.

One of the things I love is the way he got around the language police as he wrote Ringworld back in 1970. Back in those days a science fiction author simply couldn’t have his characters swear, and Niven found some great ways around the problem. Sometimes he’d simply write that the character made a rude comment, but he also came up with some great alternatives. (All examples are copied from ebooks of the series I have and may differ from how the text appears in print or in other ebooks.)

  • Tanj. An acronym for “There ain’t no justice,” it’s a frequent expletive in the series. As Louie Woo said in Ringworld, “Tanj for torment! You were listening!”
  • Flup. Seabottom ooze. The oceans on the Ringworld were specifically designed, just like the rest of the world, and there had to be somewhere for the sediment to go so the engineers of the Ringworld created a series of pipes to move the ooze under the ring and up over the edge to be recycled as the Spill Mountains. But Tegger in The Ringworld Throne, was amazed when he found out what it means.

    Tegger belly-laughed. “What? You mean all this time — Flup, everybody I *know* thinks he knows what flup means. Seabottom?’

  • Futz. Another frequent expletive in the series. As Louis Woo narrated in The Ringworld Engineers, “If that bump at the very limit of vision was another such mountain, it was a futz of a long way away.”
  • Finagle. This is one of my favorite words from Larry Niven. In some books he refers to Finagle’s Law. We all know Murphy’s Law, that if anything can go wrong it will, but Finagle takes it further and says it will happen at the worst possible moment. As Niven further wrote in Ringworld, “Remember the Finagle Laws. The perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum. The universe is hostile.“

There are also a number of times in the series where Finagle is used as a pseudo-deity when someone is angry or frustrated and says something like, “For Finagle’s sake, stop worrying!” A favorite example of Finagle being referring to in anger is, “Finagle’s fist!” (Both of those examples are from Ringworld.)

Niven went further to refer to Finagle as a deity in The Ringworld Engineers. Louis Wu was on their version of a radio trying to contact Nessus, a Pierson’s puppeteer who was the Hindmost, essentially the president for their home world. Nessus wasn’t answering and in his frustration Louis called out,

“Calling the Hindmost! In the names of Kdapt and Finagle and Allah I summon thee, God tanj it! Calling—“

Nessus finally answered at that point, but you can see how Finagle is thought of in the series.

I discovered one more as I was reading The Ringworld Throne: Freemother. You can probably guess word what this takes the place of especially in this context:

Mons Olympus, you freemother?

In the Ringworld series, there were several planets that were recreated on a 1:1 scale on the Ringworld, including Earth and Mars. The Map of Mars was a very inhospitable place for people who look like humans, and Mons Olympus is where the locals had set traps to try to kill humanoids.

Do you have words like this from a book you’ve read? Let us know in the comments.

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