You gragdok! The evolution of setting-based swear words in RPGs

While reorganizing Athenaeum content into a forthcoming post index, this writer happened upon this post, which dealt with creating a unique flavor in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign by developing slang words for the common tongue.

One area of language that post didn’t explore, though, was the evolution of campaign-specific curse or “swear” words to express increased emotional intensity, anger or severity of insult. While most heroes would jump at the chance never resort to using such language during a game, this post discusses how such words may develop in a campaign setting, so that villains may use them to reveal their dastardly, irreverent personalities.

After some research – which was not verified for historical accuracy, since the only intended fruit of this labor was to add color to a fictional game setting, making reality moot for the moment – it appears that words tended to travel four different routes to “cursehood,” routes that could be easily exploited by a Dungeon Master (DM) to set a campaign apart.

These routes include:

Origins in the language of conquered peoples or current enemies. Naturally, being called by a name reserved for, say, the anus is offensive enough in any case, but being called an anus in the language of a recently conquered, “uncivilized” culture or the language of a culture against which a war is currently being fought is even worse. One online source suggested that those four-letter words of Anglo-Saxon origin which account for most cursing in English only became vulgar words after the Norman conquest of Britain. The Normans, the Gentle Reader will remember, spoke French, so the indigenous language was considered vulgar by definition, and words about bodily functions, especially those involving excrement, genitalia and reproduction, became the basest terms imaginable.

In much the same manner, in a D&D game which featured a recent or current war against goblins, referring to someone as an “anus” may not be as severe as calling them a “gragdok,” which serves as the goblin word for anus in the campaign. Without going into great elaboration, many would consider a goblin anus to be even less appealing than a human one, so using the goblin term can magnify the intended insult.

Irreverent ‘prayers’ and blasphemy. Given the importance of religion in Medieval history, it not surprising to learn that many current and former curse words are related to not giving the Divine the reverence He is due. For example, gadzooks was a contraction of “God’s hooks,” which constituted a swearing upon the nails which held Christ to the Cross. Another online source credited the British use of the word bloody to be a contraction of “By Our Lady,” a swearing upon the Virgin Mary, which is sacrilegious enough without subsequently adding hell to the expression, thereby creating the phrase  often considered to be the queen mother of all blasphemies.

In a D&D game, a villain uttering a blasphemous phrase against one or more campaign religions might provide enough provocation to affect the way divine heroes like clerics and paladins conduct themselves in combat.

Origins from lower social classes. By definition, any society with a class structure has lines of demarkation between classes, and one such line is language. This path is different from using foreign language terms (as described under conquered peoples and enemies, above); rather, it encompasses terms from the same language used by different classes. Often, the connotations of these terms are connected with degrees of education or social sophistication. There is no difference in meaning between a podiatrist or a foot-doctor, for example, but not using the former term could communicate that the speaker has limited education or experience. In a society with mobility between classes, few curse words would probably develop through this path, but in societies with strict caste structures, using language from a different class could go beyond producing insults to actually inducing civil or criminal penalties.

Words that violate social norms. A prime example of this path traces to the Victorian Era of English history, which is well-known for repressed sexual energy for the sake of propriety. It was during that period that leg or thigh meat from cooked fowl was first referred to as “dark meat,” and meat from the breast was called ”White meat,” since no polite conversation would ever make mention of legs, thighs and breasts. In that case, there was nothing vulgar about the words themselves; rather, the issue at hand was what other parties to a conversation (or those overhearing it) might think about the people speaking.

In a D&D game, there is an array of subjects that could be considered vulgar based on norms, particularly in noble or aristocratic circles. Early editions of the D&D game addressed such social concerns with the etiquette proficiency; to a less specific extent, the diplomacy skill covers those situations in later editions.

Have you ever used campaign-specific curse words in your game? If you have, please consider sharing how they were used in the game in the comments section below.

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2 comments on “You gragdok! The evolution of setting-based swear words in RPGs

  1. Svafa says:

    Bit old, but it’s still on the front page, so I don’t feel so bad.

    We rarely use cursing in our games, likely because those in our group rarely curse in their regular lives. However, we did have it creep into a campaign at one point as a long-standing joke.

    One of our more whimsical players decided he wanted to flirt with the Gnoll “chicks”, in a homebrew campaign where Gnolls served as a lower class almost on par with slaves. So, he went about trying to learn pick-up lines from the Gnoll street cleaners, thugs, farmhands, etc.

    This led to much amusement as he never managed to actually learn a pick-up line, but did learn a long list of expletives, swears, insults, and antisocial remarks (“leave me alone”, etc.).

    That’s the only time I can remember it ever featuring in a campaign. Occasionally you get one made up on the spot for a particular situation, but they’re usually just one-shots in our group.

  2. Sasha says:

    Playing as a cleric of Procan (who’s divine enemies were the rival sea gods Xerbo and Osprem), my favourite swears were “Osprem’s saggy tits” and “Xerbo’s hairy balls”. A bit vulgar, yes, but my cleric was, also, a sailor. :)

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