An interesting piece of linguistics in these novels, that I’ve been monitoring for a while, is the use of the phrase Evil Earth. The phrase is said by almost every character that lives in the Stillness, generally in moments of frustration or anger. Something else that I found interesting was the different version of the phrase that was said by the Sylanagistine during their moments of frustration; Evil Death. The two phrases are too similar for it to be a coincidence, so I decided to do some thinkING.
The people of the Stillness, orogenes, stills, and stone eaters alike, all seem to use Evil Earth as we would a swear word. And for the Sylanagistine “Evil Death” works the same way. Similarly a word that has also been used frequently by people in the Stillness is “Earthfires.” The closest modern comparison that I have been able to make is along the lines of “Jesus Christ” or “hell.” While doing some digging I came across an article by Taylor Dennis that discusses the etymology of a few swear words. “Most swear words have to do with three things: bodily functions, God, or sex,” with that in mind, since neither sex nor bodily functions really apply in this case, I thought that “God” or a higher power may be closer to the root.
I think that the people of the Stillness curse the Earth because they fear the Earth; similarly to how it was seen as taboo or wrong to take the Lord’s name in vain. They have all learned to fear the Earth like many Christians fear Hell or God’s wrath. Dennis, in her article that I mentioned above, discusses how “the basic meaning of Hell in the Christian faith is a place or state of eternal suffering and separation from God.” Therefore telling someone to “go to hell” was once one of the worst insults to throw at someone because going to Hell was something that all Christians feared. People of the Stillness rightfully fear the Earth, and all extensions of it such as metal, because it poses a credible threat to them.
The Sylanagistine on the other hand had no reason to fear the Earth. They had no reason to fear anything, “they have shaped life to their whims; they have so explored the mysteries of the sky that they’re grown bored with it and turned their attention back toward the ground at their feet” (Jemisin, The Stone Sky, 3). They had even started manipulating the magic of the Earth to suit their wants and needs. So what do they curse? What higher power could they call upon to channel their frustrations? The only thing left they could fear, death. “Life,” after all, “is sacred in Syl Anagist” (Jemison, The Stone Sky, 4). And what the Sylanagistine had failed to recognize in all of their research was “that so much magic, so much life, might be an indicator of… awareness” (Jemison, The Stone Sky, 247).
Profanity is a really fascinating concept; why are certain words conisdered “bad” and how did they come to be seen that way? For me thinking about the explitive of Evil Earth vs. Evil Death really boiled down to why would they curse these things over anything else. In the end it’s the same reason we curse God; to take our fear of something that could end us instantly into our own hands for a short while and own it.