I will get to my full and real 4th St. con report in a bit. But this year “That’s Another Panel” turned out to be a panel on swearing, and I realized I had more to say.
1. I have no idea how I managed to get through an entire panel on swearing without commending Bon Cop, Bad Cop to everyone’s attention. I do so now. The lesson in the uses of the Quebecois swear word “tabernac” is extremely instructive and amusing. Also the rest of the movie is great fun. Go thou etc.
2. I have heard people, even one otherwise very smart person, claiming that you could tell someone’s Real True Beliefs by how they swore–specifically, this otherwise-smart person told me when I was an adolescent that you could tell that atheists really believed in Christianity deep down, because they would say things like, “God damn you,” and would find it ridiculous to say, “Donald Duck damn you.” And I said to myself, “By Jove, he might have something there!” No. No, he did not have something there, and no, the late Victorian period was not filled with a resurgence in sincere devotion to the father of the Roman gods. Swearing, like all other language and proto-linguistic kipple, is highly, highly cultural. If your secondary world characters have grown up around people who say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” when they step on a rake, they too are likely to say, “Oh, Blaxnorg!” even if they think Blaxnorg is a sham, or even if they think he’s kind of a wimpy god and they’ll do much better with Blarzoosh. Conversely, if Blarzoosh is a forbidden god, they are not likely to swear by her aloud even if they believe with a deep and heartfelt faith.
You can make all sorts of arguments for how people swear in a secondary world fantasy. If you have imagined highly interventionist gods, people might be more careful, or they might mean different things by swearing than you do, since you do not expect Jesus Christ to appear and cart some household object off to hell simply because you were unwary enough to say, “Oh, Jesus Christ, what is this damn thing doing in the middle of the stairs? I could have broken my neck!” Or you might well be careful about your own god, who has been known to grant petitions of yours, but swear freely by a neighboring god, who never did a thing for you. My point here is: swearing and belief: it’s complicated. Do not oversimplify in your writing. Do not oversimplify in your reading.
3. The Biblical prohibitions on swearing are on blasphemy and oaths, not on vulgarity. Many modern Christian subcultures have the idea that good Christians ought not to say “shit,” but in fact that’s because of purity codes/laws, the more general idea that your body–including your mouth and/or typing fingers–should be a temple, not because anyone writing any book of the Bible anticipated modern English bodily function language and divided the poops from the shits, with the former as sheep and the latter goats. Elise mentioned swearing as making a crank call to the Almighty, and I love that metaphor. That’s more or less completely separate from purity codes, and replicating the “religious groups should have neither in their language” divide from this specific moment in our culture when imagining religious groups in a completely different universe is weird and limiting and probably oughtn’t to be done without a good reason.