In the Pern novels, characters use words that would normally be innocuous as profanity. Some prominent examples are "shards" and "shells". There's a list of in-universe curse words that I found at the back of Dragonflight:


By the Egg
By the first Egg
By the Egg of Faranth
Scorch it
By the shards of my dragon's egg
Through Fall, Fog, and Fire
In the "Dragondex" under "SOME TERMS OF INTEREST"

These words are used in the place of "normal" curse words. Words that would be interpreted as swearing in a real-world conversation are not used. Is there a reason why these regular words are used as profanity in the books, in the place of normal curse words?

  • Also of note: these people left their old worlds in search of a fresh beginning. Their language would have changed over the many years since Landing naturally, doubly so since they hid away all of their old-world tools/records and much was lost to deaths during Thread fall.
    – DxDark
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 19:50
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    I don't think it is exactly made clear how bad these 'curse words' are. They might just be the equivalent of "By my beard" or "On my honour". Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 21:29

5 Answers 5


Minced oaths, from well-known ones like "gosh" and "darn" and "heck" and "fricking", to more obscure ones, are common in the real world, but even more so in fiction and especially fantasy. I've read children's stories, set in versions of the real world with some fantasy elements, where characters say "ruddy" or "bliddy" instead of the mild swear-word "bloody". In fully imaginary worlds, it's even more plausible to have completely invented curses.

The usual reason for this, I think, is to keep the book family-friendly while still having a realistic amount of characters swearing. This particularly applies to the cases like "ruddy" and "bliddy" mentioned above, but can also apply to fantasy like The Dragonriders of Pern set in entirely imaginary worlds.

Another reason is to increase immersion in the imaginary world. You wouldn't expect people in Pern to utter oaths like "oh Christ!", because Jesus Christ is a religious figure in our world. Creating some invented curses, especially those which have some theme related to that imaginary world (like dragon eggs in Pern), helps to remind the reader that this is an imaginary world and make them feel more immersed in it.

Specifically, many real-world oaths, especially older ones, are ultimately based on something religious, ranging from "goddamn" to "hell" and many others. Swearing by the legendary Faranth could be seen as the Pern equivalent of swearing by Jesus Christ in real-life Europe or America.

Cf., for example, the Wheel of Time series, another work of fantasy set in an entirely imaginary world, where we see a lot of characters using various curses like "oh Light" (the Light being a sort of mystic source of goodness from the Creator, often used metaphorically) or "blood and ashes" (an invented curse but similar enough to some real ones like "bloody" that it's clearly a curse). Some of them reflect facets of particular cultures: e.g. Shienarans use "peace" as a general blessing, even in odd contexts like "peace favour your sword", because they're Borderland people who've never known peace.

  • 18
    "Increase immersion in the fantasy world" <= this. All those curses have something to do with the awesome dragons, fearsome, yet necessary-for-life: dragon fire, dragon eggs. Except the last which is not a curse as much as an oath, similar to "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall keep me from my appointed rounds ...".
    – davidbak
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 1:56
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    The last oath mentioned — through fall, fog, and fire — also contributes to the world-building: it shows how fall is remembered in the language, even in periods when the reality of threadfall has been forgotten. Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 11:23
  • Note that ruddy isn't a made up swearword like bliddy. It is a standard minced oath like the others you mention with its own dictionary entry and everything.
    – terdon
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 18:37

There are two issues here.

  1. Using real world profanity may make books fall afoul of censors. This was even more of an issue back in the 60s and 70s when the first books were published, especially given that minors might take them out of libraries.
  2. Real world profanity can break suspension of disbelief. Religious in particular, for Pern, since it is depicted without religion, but even sexual and scatological may make a person think it sounds modern. (I have known readers who were thrown out of historical novels by use of profanity that was actually period, because they didn't realize it was.)
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    The note about time period is very interesting - I had never thought about when the books were released!
    – bobble
    Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 18:40

As others have suggested in their answers, English language curses and profane expressions also routinely use regular words. To understand this we have to ask why we call them "curse words" and "profanities".

To curse literally means to "call down evil" either on another person or on oneself. It is a prayer or wish that some divine power will punish the person named. Self cursing is conditional. An example would be "May God strike me dead here where I stand if I am lying!" This is also an example of "swearing" since to swear means to make a solemn statement or promise. The word "damn" is a word for cursing because it means to condemn to punishment, especially to hell. So someone might swear "May I be damned if I have touched anything that belongs to you!" To the extent such curses are a genuine attempt to assert one's position and accept the consequences of deception they are not considered profanity.

The words "profanity" comes from the idea of profaning. To profane is to take something that is holy (highly respected, reserved for a very special purpose) and to use it for something ordinary or frivolous. Cursing becomes profanity when the curse is pronounced without solemn intent. For example if in response to the question "When does the store open?" one were to respond "Damned if I know!", that would be profanity. It is not the use of the word "damn" which makes it profane, it is the inappropriateness of invoking God's judgement in this circumstance which renders it disrespectful.

Invocations can also be profane. An invocation is an appeal to the hearer to remember some high person or principle and act accordingly. Examples would be "Stop in the name of the law!", "Open in the name of the king!", "I charge you in the name of all you hold holy to tell us what you have done!", "No! In the name of Heaven, No!" Invocations involving religious figures and concepts are considered profane when used frivolously. So if someone expresses surprise at seeing an unusual object by asking "What in the name of God is that?!", that is profanity.

So it is perfectly normal that in the Pern novels profane expressions consist of normal words referring to respected figures, objects, and concepts or to punishment.

  • 1
    It's worth mentioning that profanity varies greatly by culture. If you told someone "typhus off", "get cancer", or called someone a "pig dog" in English, you'd have a similar disconnect as 'By the Egg", but they're actual curses in Dutch (optyfussen, krijg de kanker) and German (schweinhund), where cleanliness is important.
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 20:32
  • @Joe Yes, it does vary by culture. Another example is that, at least according to one article I read, the most offensive expression in French is "O Tabernacle" which I found surprising. I should note that in my answer I use "profanity" in the strictly literal sense: an expression which derives its offensiveness from its disrespectful invocation of something deserving of reverence. The examples supplied in the question seem to be in this category whereas telling an enemy you hope he gets a horrible disease is a different kind of offense.
    – David42
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 21:45
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    @Joe I have heard "get cancer" used as an insult in English, but of course your point still stands. Another example is that "bastard" is considered a much stronger insult in Arabic than in (modern) English, since Arabic culture tends to place stronger value on family bonds and a literally illegitimate child is much more unusual there.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 14:20

Many realworld curses are ordinary words that we have endowed with particular significance. There's a whole set of words, unknown in American English, and stripped of all their original connotations in British English, that were originally used as cursewords in Shakespearian times because they were blasphemous references to holy attributes of Jesus Christ. Thus "bloody" was "God's blood." "Zounds" was "God's wounds." And "Odd's bodkins" was "God's little body." To an American, however, "bloody" sounds like an ordinary word that the British inexplicably find offensive (and the substitute curse "ruddy" is even harder to understand).

In the world of Pern, the Dragons have a sacred significance because they are the only real defense against the life-threatening catastrophe of "Thread." Therefore, referring casually to their attributes is mildly taboo, and thus appropriate for generating cursewords such as "by the Egg."


A point not made in the other answers is that oaths did not appear in the first five books in the series, being first introduced in The White Dragon (1978). The question quotes a list of oaths from an appendix to Dragonflight (1968), but these appendices were not added until after the publication of The White Dragon. In the case of Dragonflight, the Internet Archive has has a 1974 printing and a 1984 printing and you can check for yourself that the later printing adds seventeen pages of appendices copied from The White Dragon.

So this is the first appearance of an oath in the series:

“Shells!” Jaxom kicked rebelliously at a stone, watching the ripples it caused when it skittered across the surface of the lake and finally sank.

Anne McCaffrey (1978). The White Dragon, p. 51. New York: Ballantine.

The quote indicates, I think, why McCaffrey introduced oaths at this point. The White Dragon is a bildungsroman in which the hero Jaxom starts out as a frustrated and rebellious teenager, and swearing is a quick and effective way to emphasize this aspect of his character.

As for the choice of oaths, two considerations have been mentioned in other answers. First, real-world profanity was not considered suitable in the 1970s for the intended audience of teenagers. Second, invented profanity was an item of world-building that could in theory contribute to the believability of the setting. But if this latter was the intention I am not sure that The White Dragon succeeds. The problem is that in order to have an effect, profanity needs to be “profane” in this sense:

profane, adj. 1. Of persons or things: unholy, or desecrating what is holy or sacred; unhallowed; ritually unclean or polluted

Oxford English Dictionary.

McCaffrey never gave us any hints that the shells and shards of dragons’ eggs are considered either sacred or unclean in Pernese culture, so that when swearing on them is introduced in The White Dragon it falls flat in world-building terms. So a third possibility is that “shells” and “shards” are simply minced versions of “shit”.

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