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I've been (re)reading The Fellowship of the Ring, and it occurred to me that Tolkien doesn't use any curse words [from what I've been able to tell], although, insults & negative comments are still made; for example, Gandalf calling Pippin a "fool of a Took", of which is probably equivalent to today's "dumba**".

So, does the concept of curse words exist in Tolkien's Legendarium? If not, is there any specific reason why, or is this just the writing style of Tolkien? I unfortunately haven't read other works of his..

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    Related: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/159094/68872 – Edlothiad Oct 11 '17 at 5:20
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    2) The linked question may say that the "curse words" are an addition by Peter Jackson, but what that should reflect is that while things can be seen as curse words from adaptations Tolkien did not include curse words. Tolkien had no intention to add curse words. And while he may have added things like "fool". he never included actual "curse words" as he was writing a high fantasy about heroism and the great feats of man. – Edlothiad Oct 11 '17 at 6:12
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Null Oct 12 '17 at 13:31
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    Calling Pippin a "fool of a Took" is actually equivalent to today's... "fool". The "of a Took" part is just pointing out Pippin's family name. It's no different to saying something like "Some idiot of a customer wanted me to...": it just means "idiot who was a customer" – David Richerby Oct 13 '17 at 10:19
  • Charles, you seem to be conflating curses ("damn you!" which purports to condemn you to Hell) with foul language (shit, f@ck, etc). – RonJohn Oct 13 '17 at 14:12
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1. a profane or obscene word, especially as used in anger or for emphasis.
2. any term conceived of as offensive.
Curse words - Dictionary.com

The definition of "curse words" seems to insist on profanity, obscenity or being offensive. In which case Tolkien rarely uses curse words and if he does he does it in the Black Speech and (as far as I am aware) leaves it untranslated. As Olorin states there are examples of more negative exclamations used in Tolkien's writings - such as "dratted", "craven", "fool" or even William's "what the 'ell" in The Hobbit - however whether you deem these to be "curse words" is dependent on the reader.

Tolkien had no intention of filling his books with curse words or including them in his languages as he was writing a story about heroism and an epic mythology, by filling it or even just including curse words would break his tale down into something lesser, and would not lend itself to that sense of remoteness and noble antiquity that the stories share.

Tolkien did not require "traditional" curse words to convey anger or for emphasis, he used more creative exclamations in his characters that were more relevant to his works. Such as "may his beard wither", as exclaimed by Thorin in The Hobbit, which conveys exactly what one could convey with a curse word in a far more elegant form.

One contradiction to the above may be the orcs. However, as stated above Tolkien left most of their (supposed) curse words untranslated, and while they may have used curses and swears it would've been a stylistic choice to create a sense of evil in those characters, as even with their mild cursing (if the translations provided by Olorin are accurate) they're seen as a far greater evil than the noble and just "Free peoples" and the curses only serve to convey such purpose.


As for curses in his respective languages. A user on the "silmarillionwritersguild" called Darth Fingon has this article with possibly slightly more rude words in Tolkien's various languages (Only Gnomish or Quenya as they were the best documented) and sources the Parma Eldalamberon as his sources (which I do not have with me currently and can't check).

  • Yes. And he considered Black Speech to be a foul thing on its own. And there is a reason the Elves in Rivendell were so aghast to hear Gandalf speak Black Speech. There is also a reason that you have names like Mordor, Morannon and the like which are Elvish rather than Black Speech (though of course for Barad-dûr there is Lugbúrz and obviously Nazgûl is Black Speech too for example). – Pryftan Apr 17 '18 at 1:09
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Words that have a negative connotation are not uncommonly found in Tolkien's works.

  • The word "craven", indicating cowardice, is used many times in The Silmarillion specifically.

  • Samwise's use of "dratted" is also noted throughout the series. (Most prominently in the second and third books)

  • And yes, there's also Gandalf's favorite word.

    Fly, you fools!

    Fool of a Took!

  • Specific swear words are not as commonly found in his works. Nonetheless, in The Two Towers, we see some Orcish cursing:

    Ugluk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob bubhosh skai

    Translated, words like "filth" and "stinky" come out.


So, yes, the general concept of swear words can be found and inferred in Tolkien's works. He doesn't use words such as: (Profanity warning)

"f*ck" or "shit!" and related in his books, but the general idea of curse words is there. (A good comparison for this is the A Song of Ice and Fire series)

As to why Tolkien didn't aim for the profanity-included style of writing, I would think that he was aiming for a more elegant style of writing.

  • Orcs are known for their rudeness and evil, so it shouldn't be surprising that they would come up with their own curse words.

  • Gandalf is known for his "quick temper" as well. So it would seem necessary to highlight these personalities with a few choice "swear" words.

  • I'll try to find a citation for the Orcish cursing. – Mat Cauthon Oct 11 '17 at 5:44
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    Do you have a translation for the "swear words" in TTT, afaik they're all fan translations, using words they've invented, but am hopefully proven wrong – Edlothiad Oct 11 '17 at 6:16
  • A curse word is something much more than a word "with negative connotations". If Tillerson called Trump "a moron", that has extremely negative connotations but is not cursing; conversely, if he had called Trump "a f***cking genius", that has only positive connotations but is cursing. Of the examples you give, Samwise's "dratted" probably counts as (very mild) cursing, as do the orc words, but "craven" and "fools" aren't in any way cursing. – David Richerby Oct 13 '17 at 10:23
  • @Edlothiad I was pretty sure that some of those Orkish words were in the appendix (would be E iirc? Pretty sure appendix E is language). Though maybe not the words or all words here in question. Ah..E is pronunciation but F is translations etc. So would be F then. – Pryftan Apr 17 '18 at 1:11
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I'm sure Orcish contains such words:

But Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find. Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong.

Looks like this was from The Return of the King Appendix F, "On Translation".

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    "I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering." Guess Professor T. was wrong about that ;-) – Mike Harris Oct 12 '17 at 14:52
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The concept of a curse word (or at least a curse phrase) does exist in Tolkien's legendarium. A quote from Treebeard makes this apparent, though it does not itself use a curse word:

There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of Men bad enough for such treachery. Down with Saruman!

-Treebeard, near the end of Chapter IV of Book Three of Lord of the Rings (the first book of The Two Towers)

That doesn't appear to have stopped him from trying, though:

Curse him, root and branch!

-Treebeard, referring to Saruman, earlier in Chapter IV of Book Three.

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The concept of "curse words" certainly exists in Tolkien's legendarium, in more than one sense.

Definition of curse

1: a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one :imprecation

2: a profane or obscene oath or word

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/curse (first two definitions, examples removed for clarity and length)

Tolkien used "curse" in both senses, and thus direct or indirect examples of both kinds are found in The Lord of the Rings. For the first definition, one need look no further than the Dead Men of Dunharrow.

"Then Isildur said to their king: "Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled."

- The Return of the King, Chapter 2: The Passing of the Grey Company

Isildur's curse held for over three thousand years, until Aragorn set the Dead to rest after the battle at Pelargir.

As for the second definition, specific profanities as might be used in modern cursing are not found in Tolkien's works, though he does imply that Orcs used obscene and/or profane words.

It is said that they [Orcs] had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking; yet they made only brutal jargons, scarcely sufficient even for their own needs, unless it were for curses and abuse.

-Appendix F, Part I, The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age

In fact, Tolkien actually states that he cleaned up the Orcs' language for publication.

But Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it.

-Appendix F, part II, On Translation

Various characters throughout the story are said to have used curses in the sense of profanity, including Gollum, Bill Ferny, Sam, Elfhelm, and Shagrat, as well as groups of Men and Orcs. The dialogue in these cases is not given, making them indirect examples of profanity.

"his [Gollum's] talk was constantly interrupted by curses and threats." - The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past

Spluttering and cursing he [Gollum] rose, and without a word or a glance at the hobbits he crawled away on all fours.

-The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 2: The Passage of the Marshes

He [Bill Ferny] ducked too late, and curses came from behind the hedge.

-The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11: A Knife in the Dark

Sam leaped after him, and then hearing Frodo’s cry he ran back again, weeping and cursing.

-The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4: A Journey in the Dark

Sam ran after him, cursing, but he did not go far.

-The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1: The Tower of Cirith Ungol

A tall figure loomed up and stumbled over him [Merry], cursing the tree-roots. He recognized the voice of the Marshal, Elfhelm.

-The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5: The Ride of the Rohirrim

Shagrat's voice trailed off into a string of foul names and curses.

-The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1: The Tower of Cirith Ungol

At once there was great jostling and cursing as each troop [of Orcs] tried to get first to the gate and the ending of their march.

-The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2: The Land of Shadow

In vain men shook their fists at the pitiless foes that swarmed before the Gate. Curses they heeded not, nor understood the tongues of western men; crying with harsh voices like beasts and carrion-birds.

-The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4: The Siege of Gondor

There is also an intermediate form of cursing in The Lord of the Rings, an informal curse (sense 1) used in the context of profanity (sense 2). It usually takes the form of "Curse _____!"

'You won’t go again, you say? Curse you, Snaga, you little maggot!'

-The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1: The Tower of Cirith Ungol

'It is close on ten leagues hence to the east-shore of Anduin,' said Mablung, ’and we seldom come so far afield. But we have a new errand on this journey: we come to ambush the Men of Harad. Curse them! '

'Aye, curse the Southrons! ' said Damrod.

-The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

'Wraiths!' he [Gollum] wailed. 'Wraiths on wings! The Precious is their master. They see everything, everything. Nothing can hide from them. Curse the White Face! -The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 2: The Passage of the Marshes

'Curse the filth! ' he [Sam] said, and sprang after them into the darkness.

-The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10: The Choices of Master Samwise

So why did Tolkien depict profanity this way? Firstly, it would not have fit with the style of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien used a formal, slightly archaic style overall, and outright profanity would have been jarring. Secondly, The Fellowship of the Ring was first published in 1954, and profanity in published books was far less common than today. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, published only a few years earlier (1951) faced numerous challenges in part because of the generous use of profanity.

https://phys.org/news/2017-08-usage-words-literature-american-society.html

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/to-kill-a-mockingbird-remains-among-top-banned-classical-novels/

  • The phrase curse words refers specifically to the second part of the definition you quote. If somebody says, "I pray to god that you die horribly", they're cursing that person, but they're not using any curse words. – David Richerby Oct 13 '17 at 10:26
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Gorbag Swears Directly

The answer is unequivocally yes.

In The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10: The Choices of Master Samwise, when Sam overhears Gorbag talking to Shagrat:

...there's someone loose hereabouts as is more dangerous than any other damned rebel that ever walked since the bad old times... [emphasis added]

While some nowadays might say the word damn hardly qualifies as a curse word my elementary school teachers would disagree.

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    Do you have any evidence to support that "damned" was considered a curse word in Tolkien's time period? Exclaiming "Damn!" is not the same as the adjective "damned". – user31178 Oct 13 '17 at 3:14
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Swearing was much less acceptable in the 1950s than it is now.

Swearing is quite common these days, and is accepted in most media (although still sometimes bleeped out in broadcast radio and TV). This was not the case through most of the 20th century.

When George Bernard Shaw wanted to create a scandal, but not too big a scandal, in his 1914 "Pygmalion," he had Eliza Doolittle exclaim in her newly perfect posh accent, “Walk! Not bloody likely! I am going in a taxi.” The first night’s audience greeted the word with “a few seconds of stunned disbelieving silence and then hysterical laughter for at least a minute and a quarter,” and there were some protests from various decency leagues, but on the whole a scandal never materialized. Bloody became “the catchword of the season” and pygmalion became a popular oath itself, as in “not pygmalion likely.”

From “Holy Sh_t: A Brief History of Swearing”. Excerpt available on Salon.com

I doubt that Tolkien would have included language stronger than "hell" in his writing. If he did, I doubt that Raynor Unwin would have published it. If they had, it is even possible that they could have been prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 which was in force when The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were published. It would be a few years before the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 allowed for a defence of obscenity on the grounds of artistic merit.

  • Are you sure about the 1857 act? Wikipedia (linked in the answer) says that it superseded an 18th century royal proclamation against "profane swearing", among other things, but the description of the Act only talks about sexual obscenity (pornography, descriptions of sexual acts, etc.) and makes no mention of swearing. – David Richerby Oct 13 '17 at 10:33
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    @DavidRicherby The 1857 Act didn't define obscenity and left it to the courts to decide what was or was not obscene. I haven't been able to find any mention of a case that decided whether or not swearing was obscene. – Blackwood Oct 13 '17 at 11:51
  • But it depends on language too...and what one defines a 'curse word' also matters. – Pryftan Apr 17 '18 at 1:14

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