I had a cute title planned out for this post that involved symbols and punctuation used to mask certain four-letter words, but the permalink didn’t like them. That’s fine. Modern idioms don’t belong in fantasy fiction, so it’s only appropriate that I can’t use one in the post title.
Nothing disrupts my sense of immersion in a fantasy story quite like reading modern language or vocabulary, especially those four-letter words our culture considers “foul.” Most of my distaste for the use of “swear” words stems from my moral and religious worldview, though a proverb (not a biblical one) my mom often repeated has stuck with me through the years: “Swearing is a sign of a limited vocabulary.” Even the appearance of a limited vocabulary is anathema to writers.
My argument against the use modern vulgarity has more to do with creativity than moral preferences, however. When you’re putting so much effort into building a fantasy world with cultures and creatures not found in our own reality, with magic that defies our natural laws, it’s a cop out to use linguistic expressions that originated outside that sphere.
There was a great thread on the Candlekeep forums a couple years ago where Ed Greenwood provided a glossary of oaths and “swear” words used in the Realms. Most involved taking one or more gods’ names in vain. I use a similar concept in Shattered Amulet. One of Logan Shadowhand’s favorite curses is “Jord’s fist.”
Of course, there are exceptions. Modern vulgarity wouldn’t be out of place in an urban fantasy, or a story where one or more characters were from our world. If the words were used with regularity by a certain class of people or in certain emotional situations, it might seem more plausible in your standard epic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery tale, but in most cases the words are thrown in by the writer once or twice for shock value. In those cases, I refer back to my mom’s proverb on limited vocabulary.
Modern vulgarity is just one example of idioms that don’t belong in fantasy fiction. I made another type of error concerning this in Maiden of Pain. While describing a scene in the epilogue, I mentioned “French doors” as a way of describing an architectural style of door. (As an interesting aside, I was using an illustration from a Dragon article about the NPC in the scene as reference and, now that I think about it, the doors pictured were actually batwing doors, aka saloon, rather than French.)
The obvious mistake here was that “France” and “French” had no connection to the Realms, linguistically or culturally. Yes, the reader would understand what I meant, but a character from the fantasy setting would never use that term to describe something. I used a modern reference as a shortcut for describing something.
As creators of worlds, it’s certainly within our prerogative to add elements from modern culture to the settings we write about. In those cases, the writer establishes the element’s origin and use, integrating it seamlessly. Unfortunately, the use of modern idioms is most often a sign of laziness or sloppiness on the part of the writer. They’re relying on the reader’s familiarity with the language to cover an inability or unwillingness to be creative.
What are some examples of modern idioms in fantasy fiction that you’ve found distracting? Do you take issue with wizards using four-letter words to trash-talk their opponents? Did an author come up with some creative vulgarity that made you smile?