Monday, January 31, 2011

Fictional Slang

Lately I've been thinking a lot about period appropriate language, especially in the context of world-building. Tolkien created entire languages for Middle Earth. Though fantasy worlds probably don't have to be that fleshed out, it's true that a bunch of trolls probably wouldn't sit around talking like 21st century Americans. Sci-fi novels often do an excellent job of finding new terms. A Clockwork Orange springs to mind. You can see the author's world through the character's voice. Horror can lie beneath words we aren't even familiar with.

Swear words are often short, hard, and abrupt. They sound like coughing and can be easily spit out. That's one thing I liked about Graceling. When the lead character is upset she might burst out with a word like "rocks". It's a simple word and one we don't ascribe much menace to, but it does have that staccato violence swear words require. A soft start and a hard finish. More than that, it tells us that the speaker is from an extremely naturalistic world. She doesn't invoke the name of a deity when she's upset. It's an extremely smart choice on the part of the author.

Technologically advanced worlds are rife with buzzwords and abbreviations. Efficient and trendy.

Dystopias have language that is often wry and subversive. I love them for this. There's a reason we still use the term "Big Brother". So chilling and effective.

I'm doing some brainstorming on my next novel, which will be more sci-fi and I'm finding that focusing on creating languages for each of the characters is giving me a lot of insight into who they are and how they see the world. What do they invoke when they are mad? Do they use quick slang, or drawn-out soliloquies? What are the nicknames they give to the things around them? What elements in their lives would lead them to name the world that way? How does all of this seem natural and not showy?

All too often, slang can ring hollow. "Fetch" really isn't going to happen.

I've done some research on slang from different eras to help with my process. Well, one thing that I learned was that people don't really make up terminology for boring things. Usually it is for something annoying or something sexual. Or, alcohol. There have been a lot of different ways to describe getting drunk. Lots and lots and lots. Lots of names for women, which makes me wonder if in the past it was men driving the slang. Or, nobody bothered to record what the women were calling the men. Terms that stick around are usually a little sly. In the Victorian Age men referred to women by commenting on their monetary value. Not so far off from today, when we "shake our money makers".

There isn't really a big point to this post. Just a few of the things I've been thinking about lately. There's something fascinating about slang and the way that it evolves. I love looking at what it says about the things we value and the things we despise. I'm impressed by the creativity of it. I love when authors can come up with authentic terminology for their worlds.

What catch-phrases, labels, terms, and slang have been especially effective to you? In your reading and otherwise? What do you think makes a fictional lexicon work?

Edit: Here's a great post on dialects by the fabulous Juliette Wade. TalkToYoUniverse


  1. Battlestar Galactica! They use the term *Frac* instead of...well, it's not that difficult to figure out. The more I watched, the more often I had to hold myself back from allowing it to slip out.

  2. I am so bad at inventing new slang words. I heard Shipbreaker has ones that fit the world, but I haven't read it yet!