Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Cursing in Latin (and Ancient Greek)

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628x471There’s a lot of fun to be had writing historical fantasy.
For instance – in my Aculeo and Amunet stories, Amunet tends to be pretty sharp-tongued.
She’s nasty, arrogant, and swears a lot – especially in the earlier stories.

Now, I’m no fan of gratuitous profanity, and yet as everything else in a story, profanity too can be used to define a character, to underscore a scene or situation.
It’s a tool, just like any other.
And because Amunet is a lady – and as somebody said, I fancy her a lot – I like to use this tool in a somewhat elegant, classy, lady-like fashion.

So, how does one go about making his female character say “F*ck!” a lot, but with class and elegance?

Now, the Aculeo & Amunet stories take place at the tail end of the Classic Era – my characters are probably talking to each other in Greek, sometimes switching to Latin*.
I actually can imagine them starting a discussion in Greek, and then shifting to Latin for emphasis, or in an aside, and spicing their speech with Aramaic, Egyptian, maybe some strange Mediterranean pidgin.http://goo.gl/h18m26
This is where the fun part begins.

But my stories of course are written in English.
So, back when I was writing Bride of the Swamp God I said to myself, what if Amunet curses in Greek or in Latin?
It would not be different from what Joss Whedon did in Firefly – his character cursing and swearing in Chinese.
Classy, and it fits with the background.

Therefore I started collecting ancient Greek and Latin profanities.
And boy is there a terrific catalog!

As usual, the web is our friend.
And it’s actually easier to find Latin swear-words and phrases than Greek ones.
Wikipedia has a nice selection of Latin bad words…
And then there’s Barry Baldwin‘s Classical Swearing: A Vade-Mecum, that certainly provides food for thought – and also provides English equivalents of pretty baroque Latin and Greek insults.
And when everything else fails, there’s always youswear.com.

Spicing up Amunet’s verbal armoury helps me define her character a lot, and shifting from some expressions to others also helps in tracing her evolution – she’ll never become a goody-two-shoes, but some of Aculeo’s Roman gravitas will probably rub on her.
She’ll still say “F*ck!” a lot, but in more complicated, “Classical” ways.

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  • a side-effect of writing Aculeo & Amunet ha been the decision to brush up my Latin – using a well-thumbed copy of Teach Yourself Latin.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

8 thoughts on “Cursing in Latin (and Ancient Greek)

  1. As someone going through an Elizabethan phase, I can relate very much to the joys of period swearing… Back in Old Bess’ time, they swore with inventive and picturesque gusto – and I agree: it makes for great fun when writing dialogue.

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  2. Greek had a lot of swearing words – often related to sex. Some pretty strange ones, too, and funny. I remember when I was 14-15 years old and I looked through our (mine and my fellow classmates) Ancient Greek dictionary and stumbled upon some of these words and expressions – it was hilarious. Lots of giggles 😀
    Many, if I recall right, where there thanks to Aristophanes’ comedy.

    Anyway, I think yours is a very nice, well played idea.

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    • Yes, Aristophanes is responsible for a wide catalog of profanities.
      And looking up dirty words is one of the first things students of any language always do, I think 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Shadufs, prodigal sons, cuckolds and other anachronisms | Karavansara

  5. I love confusing my friends with Ancient Greek swear words, but sometimes it backfires. I’d say something like “go to the crows!” and they’d think I insulted them and… Well, it’s like explaining a joke – all the fun is deflated when it’s no longer a mystery. Time to find some other dead language I can use to my advantage!

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    • I’ve been eyeing a book called Teach Yourself Babylonian… one of these days, I’ll check it out, might be fun to learn some VERY dead language.
      I don’t know if it includes a section on swear words, though 🙂

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