10 Of The Greatest SFF Curse Words, Ranked
Made-up cursing in fiction is hard, folks.
There are many reasons SFF writers avoid having their characters dropping F-bombs, ranging from appealing to the widest audience to ducking the ire of network censors to the author’s personal distaste for expletives. Even so, most books aren’t interesting unless bad things happen to the characters. If those characters never curse when frightened, scared, or hurt, it stretches credibility, because many of us would curse up a storm in the same conditions. We know we’d curse, and not cursing feels fake.
(That established, there will be no uncensored cursing in this post, just asterisks. Bring your kids!)
A number of authorial considerations go into a good made-up curse word, but to start, long curses are just the worst. “By the fiery nethers of the Blood God!” may sound cool, but try yelling it every time you stub your toe. Similarly, while “By Moloch’s Beard!” sounds appropriately high fantasy, it’s not what anyone’s going to yell when someone or something jumps out at them in a dark room.
There’s a reason we call curses “four-letter words” – they’re short, punchy, and make us uncomfortable when someone uses them in front of our parents. Real curse words are usually based on bodily functions or taboos, so the best fictional curse words also support the fiction of the writer’s world. One syllable is ideal, and two is possible after we’ve processed. Three is pushing it, and four? Just no.
Now we’ve got all that settled, let’s rate some jarking swear words!
Characters in Brandon Sanderson’s dark YA superhero novel Steelheart use this curse word occasionally, and as much as I enjoyed the book, it simply doesn’t work. It’s an actual word, but not one we associate with cursing, and there’s no reason it’s remotely objectionable. Worse yet, since Steelheart is set on a future Earth, it seems odd that a random word like “sparks” would become taboo when such a wide variety of wonderful curse words already existed. It was a fun book, but it had nonsensical curse words.
While “Light!” is probably used in multiple fantasy books, I first encountered it in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. As curses go, it’s extraordinarily tame. Yes, it’s a single syllable, which works, but when you really sit down and think about it, it seems odd to curse something so common (it’s like yelling “Sun!” or “Lamp!”). I cut this one a bit of slack because I know it was often used in the context of the characters beseeching the Gods for help when frightened (as in “Light help us!”) but it still feels fake.
Next is a curse from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, a naughty word uttered (quite often) by Zedd, an irascible wizard. It’s serviceable. It’s a single syllable, which is easy to yell in any number of stressful situations. It may also relate to the objects most often kneed in a bar fight, which could make it a societal taboo. It’s also fun to say aloud (for me, anyway) which earns it bonus points. Those, of course, are immediately deducted because it’s such a common non-curse word (paper or plastic?)
A Star Wars curse word specifically created to work in the YA context of Star Wars Rebels, this word was shouted most often by Zeb, a veteran warrior who was an integral member of the Ghost’s crew – and he shouts it a lot. While it pushes believability at three syllables, those syllables are short enough it works when spoken aloud. I also helps that veteran voice actor Steve Blum (as Zeb) delivers each cursing line perfectly, as talented voice actors can make even made up words sound good. So, points for execution.
A combination of F*** and Hell from Farscape, where it was used to curse basically everything. It’s a single syllable (good!) and quite flexible (working in “What the frell?”, “Frell you”, and other contexts). On the downside, it doesn’t land with the punch you’d expect of a real swear word, and I found it more distracting than anything. Still, it’s a solid curse given television constraints. We’re getting there.
For those unfamiliar with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series (seriously, go read them!) the dragonriders ride and work with telepathic dragons to destroy a dangerous threat to their planet: thread, worm-like rain that falls to the planet in great swarms. If the dragons and their riders don’t work together to burn it out of the sky on its way down, thread digs in and destroys all organic material.
As a curse, “thread” works because it’s so integral to the lives of the people of Pern, and something that is universally despised and feared by everyone. Even speaking of it feels like tempting fate, which is why it makes a great curse word for stressful situations. It’s also incorporated into variants such as “threadspore,” “thread warmed over” and many others, which feels realistic. It’s a solid and believable fictional curse.
A real word repurposed as a curse uttered by bonders in Jane Yolen’s excellent Pit Dragon trilogy, and a nicer way of saying “S***.” As a curse word, it works on multiple levels. The primary characters work around domesticated dragons bred to fight each other, and much of that work involves smelling, skirting, or cleaning up dragon poop (fewmets). It’s two syllables, unpleasant, works in any number of contexts, and feels like a real way these characters would curse. As YA curses go, it’s top-tier.
Used commonly in Firefly, it stands in for “godd***” and thus works great in any context where its inspiration would. When peppered into character dialogue, it makes heated exchanges flavorful without slowing them down, and it’s close enough to a modern day swear word that it’s a plausible way godd*** could mutate in the future. Also, it just sounds good rolling off the tongue. Combined with the show’s clever decision to include lots of real Chinese cursing its audience can’t understand (supporting the show’s fiction that China became dominant as humanity spread through the stars) this is SFF cursing done right: believable words used in stressful situations that don’t trip network censors. Good stuff.
Like frell, this mainstay from Battlestar Galactica is obviously based on the almighty F-word, but wins out by sounding far better in almost all contexts. Fraking cylons, frak you, frak this, frak me, or just “Frak!” when something bad happens. All of these convey exactly what’s being said without tripping up the network censors.
The only reason it’s not on the top of the list is that the same things that work for it work against it. It’s so obviously a stand in for F*** that every time someone said it, even though it sounded good, it reminded me I was watching a show written by clever writers skirting network censors.
Of all the SFF curses I’ve encountered, this hilarious and versatile word from the British comedy sci-fi series Red Dwarf beats out all others. It is simply the perfect fictional swear word. While the show’s writers swear it has nothing to do with the real word that it resembles (smegma … look it up, or seriously, don’t) even the suggestion of association is genuinely disgusting and, like frak, it works in any context. Smegger, smeg off, smegging hell, and the best SFF insult ever – smeghead – slide effortlessly past network censors while simultaneously inspiring snickering and respect, as good curse words do. It sounds believable without the distraction of standing in for an obvious real world. It’s smegging perfect.
There’s a reason this has been turned into a TV Trope. It is the quintessential curse word stand in by which all other curse word stand-ins are judged. “How much smurf could a smurfing smurf smurf” is a totally valid sentence, and it’s a word that makes adults chuckle and goes completely over children’s heads. If’s smurfing fantastic, and while it isn’t exactly SFF, I couldn’t resist smurfing it in here.
Know any frelling curse words I missed? Disagree with my gorram ranking? Feel free to lob fictional swears at me in the smegging comments. Maybe we’ll all frakking learn something.