New Worlds: Idioms and Slang

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Slang is an incredibly tricky topic in fiction, including stuff set in the real world. Used correctly, it can be powerful tool for vividly evoking a sense of place, time, and class: a common Brooklyn laborer in 1950 and a rich California teenager in 1980 are going to use wildly different idioms in their casual speech. But used incorrectly . . . I once bounced right out of a Regency-set fantasy novel whose heroine talked like a character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because it kept undermining my sense of the setting. Not every novel has to precisely replicate the speech of its era, of course; that’s a very specific game, and not one every story is interested in playing. Like the movie A Knight’s Tale opening with its medieval peasants singing “We Will Rock You” at a joust, you can advertise up front that your goal is to create a different effect entirely. But not everyone has the chops to pull it off, and when they fail, it falls very flat indeed.

But what about secondary-world fiction? The game there is even more complicated. Most of us tend to write “neutral” prose, avoiding obvious markers of our time period. Nobody in a 1980s Tolkien clone ever said “radical, dude.” (At least not that I’m aware of, and now I find myself really wanting to know if that does exist. Portal fantasies don’t count.) Of course, the illusion of neutrality is just that: an illusion. Everything about how we talk and write is tinged with the flavor of one era or another, and if you don’t make a concerted effort to ensure the era in question is a different one, it will probably be identifiable decades later as belonging very much to the 1980s or the early 2000s or whenever. This pervades the text on a level down to the sentence structure and punctuation: after five years of writing the Memoirs of Lady Trent, I’m still in the process of scrubbing the Victorian influence out of my prose, and if you look at these blog posts you’ll still find them peppered with colons and semicolons and other markers of nineteenth-century diction. (Seriously, I can’t get rid of them. I’ve tried.)

Let’s leave behind the nitty-gritty bits like punctuation, though, and look at idioms more generally. What kinds of speech do we put in the mouths of our characters, and how can that help (or hinder) the worldbuilding?

Going back to Tolkien clones for a moment . . . the use of cod-medieval English in a certain type of epic fantasy used to be so widespread that we even have a slang term for that, saying the characters are speaking “forsoothly.” Most of the writers who attempted to do this lacked Tolkien’s ear for the rhythms of such speech, or even basic knowledge of its rules, which is why this is so easily parodied. If you’re going to imitate the diction of a historical period, you need to immerse yourself in real examples, or else stick with that “neutral” prose; the latter is way less distracting than a bad attempt at the former. As a result, you find very little “forsoothly” speech in most modern fantasy, even when the setting is meant to be more or less European-medieval. In fact, you’re more likely to see the opposite: a certain flavor of “gritty,” profanity-laden, modern-style language, meant to strip away the nostalgic haze that used to overlay such depictions. As a corrective I see why it happened, and it can be done well; on the other hand, after a while it becomes just as predictable and open to parody as its predecessor.

So maybe you look at your options and think, I don’t want to write in Ye Olde Englisshe, but I also don’t want it to sound like I’ve dropped the cast of The Wire into a fantasy world. Can I invent some slang?

Sure!

. . . good luck with that.

It can be done. And the people who pull it off well are brilliant. It’s easy to forget, but the slang of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sounds realistic less because it imitated its period than because lots of people started talking like the show. The novel and film of A Clockwork Orange use Nadsat, a Russian-influenced argot that strongly contributes to the three-dimensionality of its invented future subculture. Russell Hoban took things even further with Riddley Walker, where the entire novel is written in an imaginary future dialect of English.

But most of us aren’t going to go that far, and would face-plant if we tried. Instead we just salt in a few terms here and there, as suits the story we’re telling. Robin McKinley does such a good job with this in Sunshine that I curse myself for not thinking of it first; in that urban fantasy setting, much of the slang is mythological in origin, with the narrator saying she’s “thor as hell” when she wants to describe her strength, or talking about charms “going kali” when they become unstable. “Spartan” is an all-purpose word in the vein of “cool” or “great.” Even if your story isn’t set in a variant on the real world, you can look for things in the religion or history or environment of the characters that might give rise to equivalent terms.

It’s possible to fall down a rabbit-hole when you try to do this. If I recall correctly, Marissa Lingen has described this as the “moss-troll ichor” problem. You want to describe something as being the exact shade of green found in Nyquil, but there’s no Nyquil in your world, so instead you say it’s the green of moss-troll ichor — but your reader doesn’t know what shade of green that is, and furthermore now you’ve added moss-trolls to your setting just for the sake of a description, and maybe you need to put some onstage so that the reader will understand what color their ichor is, and for crying out loud, all you wanted to do was say something was a very deep blue-tinged green color . . . which is why most writers will only put in a few touches of invented slang, where it will be the most useful.

Readers’ mileage on this varies. Some find invented slang incredibly distracting, and would prefer you just use “normal” English. Others will be kicked right out of a secondary-world fantasy if anyone says “okay,” because to them that is too specifically modern. Some people feel you shouldn’t use words like “galvanize” in a setting where there was never any Luigi Galvani, while others have no idea that’s the etymology, or wouldn’t care if they did. There’s no pleasing everyone, and the more you try, the more bland and flavorless your prose is likely to become. So by all means, stop and look at the metaphors your characters use to describe things, the touchstones they use for praise or condemnation, and ask whether changing those up can add depth to your world.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Idioms and Slang — 16 Comments

  1. I’m all for salting. A single phrase can anchor your reader in the mindset of the characters better than an entire invented vocabulary.

    In the Pixie Chronicles when a couple become amorous in public, my POV character mutters: “Find a tree,”–mating flights start at the top of a very tall tree–just as a modern teenager would tell an older sibling to “get a room.”

    Or in a world where glass is precious and rare (impurities in the sand) the gift of a stained glass window for the home is akin to a bag full of fine jewels.

    Taking slang and metaphors from the world you build can only immerse the writer deeper in the story and make the work shine.

  2. As I recall, Terry Brooks’ first Shanarra Tolkien clone had a lot of American idiom in it. A selling point for many readers. There are so many branches in the fantasy river!

    • When you get down to it, there’s absolutely no reason American idiom is any more or less out of place in a secondary world than British. And yet, thanks to the history of the genre, we have this subconscious assumption that fantasy world are all British (including in their accents, as a blog post I saw a few years ago pointed out).

      • That’s interesting, because from the Australian perspective we hear a lot of fantasy worlds as US in idiom. I think dialects creep through. Add that we also suspect that fantasy can’t be written in Australian English and it becomes about the way we see our own dialects as much as about how we write.

        • They definitely creep through. Even people who try to imitate British prose often wind up sounding more American than otherwise, unless they really have an ear for it. (I know I’ve slipped up in places: “in the future,” for example.)

          I’d love to see more fantasy written in all dialects of English. I had fun in With Fate Conspire trying to get the dialogue of two characters to sound properly cockney and Irish; I’ve long been tempted to expand my horizons in that regard again.

  3. I was nodding along with everything you were saying but then I got terribly distracted by the mental image of the cast of The Wire being dropped into a fantasy realm.

      • Every time I see a book review that says something like “‘the wire’ meets ‘lord of the rings'” or something like that, it turns out the book got that because of all the cursing and everyone getting stabbed. (LOTR because of the fantasy world)
        …and I get disappointed.

        Everyone I know who has seen ‘the Wire’ has talked of its plots and character development, and how it neither makes my home state into an overly simplistic saint or hellhole of a place. (i know thats not too much to ask for in a book)

  4. I hadn’t come across this discussion. The one I remember was – I think – Jo Walton, who saw it as a great opportunity to immerse the reader in the secondary world and to sneak in two pieces of world-boiling for the price of one.

    The problem with ‘the colour of NyQuil’ runs actually deeper than that. If you say ‘moss-troll ichor’ then you KNOW that your readers haven’t seen the colour. If you say NyQuil and you _assume_ that ‘everybody knows’ you’re dividing your readers into the domestic Americans who do, and everybody else who don’t, but who get no further hints and who feel left out (particularly if this is repeated across the board) because you so clearly did not write the book for them.
    That, I think, is actually the greater problem.

    My mental image of moss-troll ichor was very heavily influenced by the deep green of moss, which happens to be – I googled – more or less the shade of NyQuil. ‘Moss’ very much IS a real-world referent; and one that will translate (spare a thought for translators!) better than NyQuil.

    • If it’s a story set in the U.S. or with a viewpoint character from there, I don’t have a big issue with referencing Nyquil, any more than I would with culture-specific references for other parts of the world — that’s part of how you show their American-ness. But when we’re talking secondary-world fiction, of course the matter is very different.

  5. Not too long ago, I was working out a dialog between two characters when I ground to a halt over a very common, very worn metaphor. One of my characters wished to describe something that progressed very slowly, and the word I first gave him was “glacial”. It took me a few minutes to see the problem. Living in a land where even the tallest mountains are only snowcapped in the winter, and where knowledge of greater world is, by our standards, very limited, my characters would never have heard of glaciers and their rate of expansion. Actually, it runs even deeper than that – I don’t think any of my characters could be aware of any natural processes that take place over spans of time that dwarf the human lifespan. The historic sciences, like almost all sciences, have yet to be invented there. I still don’t know what expression to substitute.

    I’m one of those readers who frowns at “okay” in fantasy. (I frown rather more deeply at “alright”, which has all of the problems of “okay” and in addition suggests a lack of basic orthographic knowledge. “All right” is more acceptable to me as a reader, but I don’t like to write it.) It isn’t so easy to find a good substitute, though, or rather I can find plenty of substitutes for the adjective but not for the discourse marker. The use of “fine” to indicate assent or agreement is also relatively new (along with “fine” meaning “acceptable” rather than “of high quality”). “Very well” usually works, at least to indicate a character’s willingness to do something, but I’m wary of over-using it.

    One idea I was originally quite pleased with was the idiom my fictional society uses to indicate an individual’s sexual preference. The metaphor is the load carried by a beast of burden – think of a donkey carrying a panniers, one on either side – which may be loaded evenly (symmetrically) or unevenly. This has the benefit of capturing this society’s ambivalence to romantic love/sexual desire (they tend to conflate the two) which are seen as both a divine gift and a divine curse. (A person described as “unburdened” may be aromantic, asexual, or both.) This is turning out to be more difficult to implement in practice than it was to work out in principle, though.

    • Yeah, I hit that one in the Memoirs of Lady Trent, when I wanted to say someone was “inching along” — but I’d long since established that their measurements were all metric. And saying “centimetering along” . . . yeah, no.

      This is turning out to be more difficult to implement in practice than it was to work out in principle, though.

      As is so often the case with such things. 🙂 Coming up with slang is easy; getting it to fit naturally into your sentences is harder.

        • In Norwegian inchworms are called measurers, because they look like they’re measuring what they move over. But saying ‘they measured along’ is not okay.

          We don’t use glacial slowness nor inching along as idioms, but I’m stumped to remember what we actually use for those concepts..’The hours crawled by.’ maybe, as opposed to when they fly. ‘they moved slowly’ conveys the meaning well enough, I think, but I’m no writer.