Stick This in Your Pipe and Smoke It

Stick This in Your Pipe and Smoke It

FridgeSwearing. Profanity. “Cussing” (as opposed to “cursing” which is entirely different).

We’ve all been told at one time or another (usually by people we’re swearing at) that using profanity is a sign of a weak vocabulary. It’s lazy, they’ll say. It’s easier to tell someone what he can do with himself than to really go to town on him, Shakespeare-style.

But that phrase “go to town on someone” makes me think of another aspect of language. Whether we call it “slang”, or “figures of speech”, or just “common expressions”, we all use these devices every day, often without being aware of them – or of where they come from.

Though there are all kinds of sources in the real world to help us with that last one.

But what about our Fantasy and SF worlds? We’d certainly better be aware of expressions when we’re writing, hadn’t we? Just think of the extent to which verbal expressions depend on existing technology.

Need an example? Say you had to blow the whistle on me, rat me out, or grass on me – maybe one of those expressions could have been used by people in, say, the 1100s, but you can be sure they didn’t say “drop a dime on me.” If it comes to that, I’m pretty sure no one was blowing a whistle on anyone until the latter part of the 18th century.

And calls from pay phones have cost more than a dime for decades, and even though pay phones are disappearing, no similar expression has arisen to take advantage of the properties of cell phones – while “he burned me” can mean he informed on you, as an expression it predates the appearance of what TV now calls burner phones.

People can use expressions without being aware of their true, or at least their original meanings. (for those of you who are taking notes, this is the difference between connotation, and denotation). There’s a world of difference between what “jellyroll” means to a jazz hep cat, and what it meant to my home ec teacher. I once had to explain that when someone “shoots his wad” for example, the expression comes from the time of hand-loaded firearms, not . . . well, never mind.

And although it is a man’s name, the word “guy” was originally gender-neutral, as the word “dude” is rapidly becoming.

Still, people in our culture – whatever you personally understand that to be – do routinely use all kinds of expressions and figures of speech. Even if we don’t routinely use certain phrases ourselves, we generally know what they mean. What we have to ask ourselves is,” Would my character know what this means?”

“Between a rock and hard place” could conceivably be used in any complex imaginary world where there are both rocks and hard places. But what about “between the devil and the deep blue sea?” Whether you’re aware of the nautical origin of this phrase or not, you’d have to have devils of one kind or another for this phrase to have meaning for your characters.

I’m rather lucky in this particular instance, in that the Spanish equivalent for this expression is “between the sword and the wall”. Perfect for Fantasy writing – and everybody gets it.

There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than someone using an expression inappropriately, or when it’s used by someone of the wrong group. Never mind people using the slang and expressions of an ethnic group not their own – we all have parents don’t we? Older or younger relatives? Then we’ve all winced a time or two . “Uh, Mom? No one says that anymore” [subtext: and moms were never allowed to it].

BuffyJoss Whedon is well known for creating slang and expressions for his work. The idea is to avoid the anachronism of present-day slang in future settings – so “cool” might become “shiny” in Firefly, for example. But it’s also to avoid dating work set in the present day. So from the Buffyverse, for example, we get expressions like “give me the wiggins,” “what’s the sitch?” and “five-by-five.” Some of these have entered the real world, but that’s not Whedon’s problem, is it?

I’m not saying that we have to invent a whole history’s worth of expressions for our Fantasy and SF worlds, let alone different expressions and slang for the different groups within those worlds. But we do have to make sure that the expressions we do use fit the worlds we’ve created. Yes, we’re back to our old friend verisimilitude.

So there are some expressions that translate without too much difficulty, or suspension of disbelief on the part of the readers. We’ve seen the rock/hard place, example, but there’s also “flat as a pancake.” It’s not too farfetched to think that the culture you’ve created includes the equivalent of pancakes – most Earth cultures do.

Other expressions will fit with very little tweaking. I’ve used “dodged the arrow” in place of “dodged a bullet”. You might make the readers hesitate, but they’ll smile before they move on. And it did work that way – at least on my editor.

I’m sure you can think of similar expressions that either work well, or disastrously, and I’d love to hear about them.

And I know I said I’d be giving you more about swearing, but wouldn’t it be lazy to do it so soon? And definitely not from the fridge, daddio.

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website


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Allen Snyder

I love Joss Whedon. BtVS is my favorite TV series ever, “Cabin in the Woods” will be one of my favorite movies of this year (I didn’t see it until this year, so that’s when I count it for my own personal lists), and I haven’t seen anything he’s made that I didn’t like at least a little (even the original movie is better than some give it credit for; certainly, I saw some mildly good reviews at the time of its release). But “five-by-five” is the worst made-up slang I’ve ever heard. I would literally cringe whenever Faith said it.

Allen Snyder

That should say, “Even the original Buffy movie is better…”

Allen Snyder

Swearing, on the other hand, never bothers me even a little bit, and I tend to discount Amazon reviewers who whinge about it (professional reviewers never seem to do so, unless they’re writing a “family-friendly” review colum, like the Family Filmgoer in the Washington Post–and she doesn’t actually whinge, and will often give positive reviews to any type of material, she just warns about it, or violence, or sexuality, … for those with younger children).


“Five by Five” predates Whedon by decades…It is old comm talk.

Hell, it was in Aliens (and starcraft).

“In the Pipe, Five by Five”

Allen Snyder

Yeah, that’s what wikipedia says, but Faith didn’t seem to be using it in a way that would indicate there was any relationship.


I find that if I’m writing in a fantasy world based on a different ethnicity, I go to their slang and translate it. Of course that doesn’t always work well. Then I have to come up with something else.

In one of my books, a favourite curse is ‘you son of two brothers!’ Tells you a lot about the culture, right there. And no one uses Christian curse words anymore. Oh, God! Sometimes that’s hard. Jeez. Damn. Unless they have a concept of a hell and being damned. Another book… the concept is there but the word is based on ‘foresaken’ not ‘damned’.

You can have a lot of fun with this, though it is hard work.

Sarah Avery

My high fantasy stuff is set in a world where the funeral rituals performed for you determine which afterlife you go to, and there are several. The magics used by the living depend on their ancestors having gone to the correct afterlife. Profanity in this world is mostly about violations of funerary ritual, or slams against the funerary practices of other ethnicities. After a few hundred pages of this running subliminally in the background, by the time my characters do something shocking to their society in violating funeral etiquette, the reader’s ready to be shocked, too.

James May

A rock is a hard place. Couldn’t be “Between a rock and gigantic octopus?”

I love the verisimilitude game. I wrote a story set on future Earth and simply used the letter “X” at the end of words to convey consistency, slang and a bridge to our time.

So there’s “the fux” and a bordello is a “sux-‘n’-fux” and drugs are “drux.” “Fraxing becomes a curse word and “fuxsy.”

Much of it is an inside joke since the future is Portuguese derived. An “x-burger” fits in with the “X” but “X” is also pronounced “Sheez” in Portuguese, therefore cheeseburger.

From there “Pow” or “sugarpow” becomes a vulgar term but one which someone from Rio would clearly relate to Sugarloaf. The story is in a far future Rio.

Sometimes I make up phrases like “Nice-‘N’-Clean” for a surveillance detector and “Ball-O’-See” for a small motion-detection sphere one can throw ahead of one’s self that gives off a 180 degree angle of view thrown onto one’s contact lenses.

I use “breezy, squeezy” and “screechy” as teen slang, so that when a teen tells her great grandfather a watch as a gift was “screechy” he asks her why she didn’t bring it back. Later, at a party on a space station “breezy” is mistaken by the host of a party for a comment about the atmospheric pressure.

At least one time I made up a nonsense term that almost seems to make sense: “Vox Yourself With Vasco” Vasco is a Rio soccer team from the name Vasco da Gama.

James May

No, until this very moment I had never heard that. I’ve been to Spain but learned Spanish in South and Central America so “joder” went right over my head. They might use that word where I learned it but I’ve never heard it and the “D” wouldn’t be pronounced with a lisp. “Pau” is a well known vulgar slang word in Brazil and perhaps Portugal too but there’s a Spanish town right across the border called “pau” I think and there’s the Laker’s Pau. “Porra” pronounced “poha” used to be a filthy expression in Brazil a woman never used and now it’s commonly added at the end of sentences. On the other hand, some people can’t even agree what “porra” means. Other languages are fun. People used to say no one knew where Mata Hari’s name came from but when I learned Indonesian it means “day-eye,” sun, and mata-mata means “spy.” Eyeballs in the sky is London Cockney rhyming slang for spy. Sometimes you can borrow slang without referencing the original language. “Makan angin” means “eating wind,” a stroll. I learned that cuz in Bali the thing they say to you in perhaps their only English isn’t “how are you” but “where are you going?” So I learned that (now out of style) eating wind and it always made them laugh. There’s more like that at the link. Since I also had spies from Indonesia in the story I used the lingo for their names. Weirdly, the Indonesian words for “butter” and “church” are Portuguese. Around and around.

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