A Bucketload of Felgercarb

I remember loving the original Battlestar Galactica TV series back when I was a kid.  I even read Glen A. Larson’s novelization of the pilot episode.  One of the things I remembered even years later was the euphemistic expletive “felgercarb.” I thought it was funny.  Years later, as I looked back on it, I realized the word didn’t really feel like an expletive.  They call expletives “four-letter words” for a reason: they tend to be short, Anglo-Saxonish words (although they will often be expanded for emphasis), and “felgercarb” just doesn’t have the right feel.  (That’s probably why it never caught on as a euphemism among Latter-Day Saint youth, unlike a couple of shorter words beginning with F: “flip” and “fetch.”)

The new Battlestar Galactica series figured that out, and Felgercarb appears in it only as a brand of toothpaste.

There was another euphemism used in the original series, and that one got more use in the new series.  They shortened the spelling from “frack” to “frak,” presumably to give it that four-letter cachet. The way in which it was used changed, too: while in the original series it was used in situations where it might be considered analogous to “crap,” in the new series it was used the same way as the actual F-word in American culture.  And “frak” has caught on within SF fandom in a way that “felgercarb” and “frack” never did.

All that’s merely a roundabout way of getting to my topic: fictional swear words and/or swear words in fiction.

It may surprise you (if you’ve led an extremely sheltered life), but there are some authors who choose to use swear words in their fiction.  I’m not going to argue with that choice.  If a book contains more swearing than I want to read, I just won’t read it.

However, some authors with whom I have discussed the issue of swearing insist that the use of swear words in fiction is necessary, because that’s how people really talk, and therefore realism demands that characters use swear words, too.  They take the position that authors who do not write swear words into dialogue when a character would swear are not accurately portraying their characters.

In my opinion, that’s a bucketload of felgercarb.

First, let’s dispose of the realism argument.  Dialogue in fiction is almost never an accurate portrayal of how people actually talk. Unless an author is including all the hems and haws, the ums and ers, the likes and you-knows and all the other verbal tics that real people litter throughout their speech, then they cannot justify requiring swear words on that basis.

Second, no one has the right to tell me that I’m inaccurately portraying my own characters if they do not swear. For all anyone else knows, I’ve given my characters electroshock treatment, zapping them with high voltages every time they swear, so that by the time I’m ready to start writing about them, they know better than to swear in print.  They are my characters, in my story, so I get to decide whether they use swear words in their dialogue.

Just to be clear, I’m not condemning anyone for including swear words in their fiction.  I’m just providing a counterpoint to those who claim it is somehow required.

Even if you have a character who swears, if you as the author do not wish to include the actual swear words in your fiction, there are ways around it.  For example, “He swore” or “She let out a stream of profanities that would make a sailor blush.”

As a more sophisticated example, when Spencer Ellsworth’s story “The Devil’s Rematch” was accepted at Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, it included a certain racial epithet which characters in a Southern setting quite realistically might have used.  After agreeing to remove it, Spencer eliminated it by doing things like this:

Bill sucked in a deep breath with the tang of that moonshine and set down the cup. “Ain’t this just like a –” well, I ain’t gonna repeat where he went after that for a bit. Used a few words that ain’t fit for polite company no more.

Science fiction and fantasy authors also have the option of making up their own euphemistic swear words.  If you choose that route, though, just be sure you come up with something that works better than “felgercarb.”

(Hat tip to the Battlestar Galactic Wiki as a research source.)

About Eric James Stone

A Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominee, and winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, Eric James Stone has had stories published in Year’s Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and Kevin J. Anderson’s Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues. One of Eric’s earliest memories is of seeing an Apollo moon-shot launch on television. That might explain his fascination with space travel. His father’s collection of old science fiction ensured that Eric grew up on a full diet of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. While getting his political science degree at Brigham Young University, Eric took creative writing classes. He wrote several short stories, and even submitted one for publication, but after it was rejected he gave up on creative writing for a decade. During those years Eric graduated from Baylor Law School, worked on a congressional campaign, and took a job in Washington, DC, with one of those special interest groups politicians always complain that other politicians are influenced by. He quit the political scene in 1999 to work as a web developer in Utah. In 2002 he started writing fiction again, and in 2003 he attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. In 2007 Eric got laid off from his day job just in time to go to the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He has since found a new web development job. In 2009 Eric became an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. Eric lives in Eagle Mountain, Utah.
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17 Responses to A Bucketload of Felgercarb

  1. I applaud your stance, Eric. I feel that there are few cases where my characters will need any very strong expletive. (And probably none where they will say “felgercarb”), but when they do it will be done however *I* feel is appropriate.

  2. Well, there are longer euphemisms. They’re usually made up of multiple words, but in common usage they tend to run together. So felgercarb might be multiple words merged together.

    My characters swear sometimes. It’s rare, but it happens. Unlike common usage today, it’s never casual, it’s always moments of intense anger or shock.

  3. Ivan Wolfe says:

    I actually missed felgercarb in the new series because they used “frak” too much, to mean any swear word (the worst was an episode where Pres. Roslyn said “it means frak.” It didn’t work – they needed another faux swear word, if felgercarb wasn’t going to cut it (but I liked felgercarb, so y’know – whatever).

  4. Nihonjoe says:

    I always thought it was “feldercarb”. Maybe I just remember it wrong…or perhaps not. Looks like one of them was just misheard. ~~~~

  5. Jonathon says:

    Stick it to the golldurn man, Eric! Right on.

  6. Mark Penny says:

    When I was in elementary and high school, my favourite cuss word was fuzz. As an adult, I gravitated toward crap. As a temporary resident of Utah, I picked up gall. As a resurrected just-man-made-perfect, I’ll probably say something like “Woe be unto you.”

    Personally, I think we need cuss words of some kind, but I’d rather they not be crude or sacrilegious—or stand in for actual thought.

    How about fesh? Oh, fesh, I nearly spelled sacrilegious wrong again! What the fesh is the problem with a little swearing now and then? Fesh, Heber! I can’t read this feshing thing!

    Maybe we could have fesh, shesh and desh. Also besh and hesh. What the beshy hesh is this? I can’t eat this shesh! I’ll be deshed if I come this sheshy restaurant again!

    Kind of makes you cringe, doesn’t it?

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    One of my favorite fake swear words from an sf source is “Shards!” (courtesy of the recently departed Anne McCaffrey). It’s utterly inoffensive in English, it’s short enough to be real (although I recall five-syllable real swear terms in Italian, so that doesn’t necessarily signify), and it provided a clever insight into the values and priorities of her dragonriders universe.

    • You might want to explain why, Jonathan.

      As I understood it, “shards” refers to the pieces of dragon-eggshells left after a Hatching (which was extremely important to the survival of the humans living on McCaffrey’s planet, Pern).

      • Added note: Samuel R. Delany (also an SF writer) posited in one of his stories the idea that people use as swear words things that refer to what is important to them. He supported that by pointing out that one of our Angl0-Saxon swear words refers to what’s left when we’re finished with food and another refers to sex, and so those things must be very important to us.

        It wouldn’t hurt to consider what’s important to your created culture if you are going to make up swear words for them.

  8. Ronn! Blankenship says:

    So, what do all of you do if one of your characters is a drug dealer? Or a sailor? Or anyone else who actually talks like the late Elder Paul Dunn’s [possibly apocryphal] sergeant . . . like one otherwise-normal-seeming neighbor lady when I was growing up? How do you make such a character “real” — particularly when you are writing for a general audience instead of specifically for an LDS publisher — and still never include actual cuss words? Or do you compromise and keep your vocabulary suitable for prime-time broadcast TV . . . which nowadays allows at least two or three of the seven words on George Carlin’s famous list, so it’s really not all that much of a compromise . . .

    (By the way, for a long time I thought they were saying “felgercarp” with a “p,” not a “b” . . . )

    • Here’s the thing: for the most part, I don’t think readers (and viewers) actually notice the absence of swearing unless attention is called to it. That’s why fake swear words can sometimes be a distraction — they remind the reader that the character is not using real swear words.

      People have been swearing for a long, long time. The F-word and the S-word have been around (and considered vulgar) since at least the 1500s. And yet somehow, great novelists in the 18th and 19th centuries managed to create interesting, compelling, real characters without using those words. Film-makers through the first half of the 20th century were able to do the same. Even now, the writers of television shows are finding ways to do it. If you’re engaged by interesting characters involved in a fascinating plot, you aren’t going to notice that they’re not using the stronger swear words.

      Let me repeat, I am not condemning authors who choose to include swear words in their stories. I am merely saying that authors should not feel compelled to do so, nor condemned as bad authors for not doing so.

      • Mark Penny says:

        I was actually several minutes into some flick about some pretty nasty people before I realized they weren’t vituperating to beat the band. After that, it was sheer joy.

      • D. Michael Martindale says:

        If an author feels compelled to do something that he doesn’t think is right to do, the problem is with the author’s approach to writing.

        But I also strenuously reject the notion that every author who decides to use swear words is doing it against his will because he feels compelled to do so. I sure as hell don’t. [Oops!] I use them by choice, because I think they’re right to use in that situation.

        And because I think it’s silly to allow words to have such power over us. Being offended over a word is a choice, not a law of physics.

  9. Jonathon says:

    Jonathan:

    ma parli pure tu l’italiano? Hai visto? E’ ‘na [inserire parolaccia] coincidenza? Od un [inserire parolaccia] destino?

    JP

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I can still read it, and once could speak fairly well, but it’s been 30 years, so I’m not going to try to respond in kind. And yes, it is both a coincidence and fate, so far as I’m concerned…

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