Worldbuilding: Turns of Phrase, Aphorisms, Slang, and Metaphors

Worldbuilding is something we think about a lot when we’re writing fantasy and science fiction. Generally we mean the physical and perhaps metaphysical world when we talk about worldbuilding. On top of that, we mean society and culture — from broad questions about how society is structured to small-scale questions about how individuals behave toward one another, and how they think they should behave toward one another.

On top of all that, we have a lot of details to think about — among other things, and perhaps most important, details of the language. By “details of the language” I mean aphorisms, turns of phrase, slang, and metaphors.

Personally, I find that:

a) There are hardly any other details which are more difficult to come up with; but

b) These details add a whole lot of depth to your world.

When you’re writing a secondary world fantasy, when you don’t want it to feel like modern America, then you can’t use modern American turns of phrase. In the Death’s Lady trilogy, when the young king makes his plea for Tenai to make a public show of her allegiance to him, he doesn’t say Please. He says, Set your banner beneath mine on the tower. Let all men see that you are mine. Then their violent tongues will cleave to their teeth in fear and they will be quiet and stay in their homes. No one in modern America would say that. Just as important, no one in a historical novel would say that either. This is clearly not our world. The history that leads to Set your banner beneath mine on the tower clearly exists, but it isn’t our history. The Death’s Lady series was particularly interesting to write because it called for modern American language and tone, but it also called for high fantasy language and tone. When Tenai is in our world, she still doesn’t use American turns of phrase, though everyone around her does. When Daniel is in her world, he continues to speak and think like an American, but he’s surrounded by people who don’t. Even when the language of the secondary world is clearly distinctive, however, it has to remain easily comprehensible to the reader. When Tenai says, Let the swallows carry word of this south, she’s using an allusion, or perhaps a metaphor, that arises from history that obviously isn’t ours, while still being perfectly understandable to the reader. When worldbuilding, on a per-word basis, no other details offers more bang for the buck than turns of phrase, slang, metaphors, and aphorisms. It’s cheating to say this, of course, because aphorisms, slang, and so on are generally pithy. Still, aphorisms in particular are bits of culture-specific wisdom. If someone says, “There’s no point shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted” or “If the shoe fits, wear it,” this is clearly a saying that has history in the world. Throwing aphorisms into your secondary-world fantasy novel instantly creates a feeling of history and broad culture. Or they do as long as they fit the culture, the world, and the story.

Because they’re so dense with meaning, aphorisms can be difficult to invent. They have to encapsulate something that would be considered true by people in the culture you’re creating, and they have to fit the material culture as well as the social culture, and then you have to deploy them at a reasonable moment that fits the story. One method of creating an aphorism is to take one that already exists and rephrase it. For example, in my Tuyo series, one of the characters comments, Nothing like grabbing two hairs from your horse’s tail when it’s already away through the gate. This is exactly like saying, There’s no point shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. That’s the aphorism I had in mind, but I rephrased it enough to make it sound like it belongs to a different history, a different culture.

You can also create aphorisms from nothing. Another example from Tuyo: at one point, the protagonist comments, We say that when the tiger comes, all quarrels end. If there’s an American saying like that, I can’t think of it right now. When I wrote that line, I was just thinking of the human tendency to move closer together when nervous, something we see every time we start telling ghost stories around a campfire. I came up with a saying that both expressed that idea and fit the culture explored in that novel.

Quite a few examples of wonderful use of metaphor and slang come to mind with regard to this aspect of worldbuilding. In one of my favorite books from last year, The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard, one character comments, laughing, “Cliopher was never one to bite the nose of the dragon.” He meant, Cliopher doesn’t like food that’s too spicy. But Goddard used a wonderful phrase to express this. I immediately wanted to steal it. Another series with exceptional use of slang is the Jade Sea trilogy by L Shelby. “I’m overjoyed. Gleeful. Brighter than a bean in a bucket.” This is an aspect of worldbuilding that always catches my eye. Some authors probably have a knack for it. I don’t, particularly — but it’s something I pay attention to and work to get right, because there’s not much that makes a secondary world feel more real.

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Worldbuilding: Turns of Phrase, Aphorisms, Slang, and Metaphors — 8 Comments

  1. Remember your world-building in your idioms!

    No one has a “strong suit” without cheap paper, because without it you don’t have playing cards, and without them, you don’t have the game of bridge.

  2. In a similar vein, get very distracted by pop culture references. I start thinking about “would star wars have been written in a world where X existed?” BUT, if it’s a modern setting, even if it’s not our world, there should be some sort of pop culture the characters share. That’s another textural element of worldbuilding that seems to be easier for some authors than others.

  3. I wonder if bilingual dictionaries of proverbs and saying might be a good source of ideas for alternate versions of such idiom.

    Being comfortable in two languages means I’ve noticed that there is a lot of difference in how fairly common idioms are expressed even in such closely related languages and cultures as Dutch and English.
    I only looked online for a moment, and didn’t find any very good proverbs dictionaries – just a very limited one in a language course, and a very haphazard but long list on a pronounciation site.

    Some are influenced by the countries historical culture, jobs, clothing, landscape and so on.
    I think these are the main ones that such a dictionary could help generate ideas for.
    “Like herring in a barrel” = people packed close together in a crowded location.
    “Fish needs to swim” = an excuse for drinking a lot when eating fish.
    “Now my clog breaks” = something surprising happened.
    “Tall trees catch a lot of wind” = important people, people in the public eye, can expect a lot of (figurative) “headwind” = opposition, public opprobation etcetera.
    “When the calf is drowned one fills in the well” = closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted (both agrarian, but the Dutch one presupposes plenty of other access to water, and is based on the preponderance of dairy cows rather than horses).
    “When there’s one sheep over the dam … (more will follow)”.
    “He’s had a hit from (been hit by) the mill” = he’s not right in the head.
    “That’s the secret of the smith” = the answer to the question why something turned out extra well, tasty, neat or whatever (implying it was a special knack or skill, maybe historically a guild secret – though that doesn’t need to be at all relevant to what and who is being praised now).

    Some are related to real historical incidents; equivalents to those would probably take too much backstory in a novel unless you can make it a really universally recognisable sort of event.
    “On their eleven-and-thirtyeth” = doing things as slow as they can, based on the way the Frisian delegates (back when the Netherlands was a sort of federation of “7 united provinces”) couldn’t vote on controversial issues until they’d visited all 11 towns and 30 villages in their province to let all the local councils have their vote on it first. If preferred, the coach trip could last many weeks – by ice, the “Elfstedentocht” marathon scaters visit all 11 cities in the 200km roundtrip in one day. Now not just used for governmental filibustering, but any go-slow actions.

    Then there are those that are just strange, and generally less common nowadays, like “He fell down the stairs” = he got a very short haircut. There may have been an historical reason for that saying, but no-one now recognises it, so a saying like that can in fact be anything you want to make up that sounds cool.

    I think it would be interesting to take a look at any such dictionaries or lists for any more unusual locations that you want to use as a basis for your novel setting.

    • That would be extremely helpful, Hanneke! I’m sure I saw the proverb “strangers should not whisper” somewhere before I borrowed it for Tarashana. But where? I don’t recall.

      The “fell down the stairs” for “very short haircut” makes me think of “cheerful as a bean in a bucket” from Jade Sea — it makes no sense at all, but it sounds like it probably does in context.

      I would LOVE to see a dictionary of proverbs.

  4. I enjoyed that aspect of both the Tuyo and Death’s Lady series. Very effective in creating the feeling that here were real cultures and societies that were completely different in history and development than ours. Nothing grates on me more than having the Duke of Overholt ask Miss Etty “Are you OK?” or something like that, let alone someone in an imagined completely different world.
    I think Kit Kerr does this very effectively in her Deverry series too.

  5. There’s this Oxford dictionary of proverbs with 1100 English sayings, and a dictionary of modern proverbs (coined after 1900) from Yale.

    I know there is an Etymological dictionary of Dutch sayings but it’s in Dutch, no good to you. But a quick search for “dictionary of proverbs and sayings” also produced an English-language book of sayings from Kashmir, and one of Russian sayings on the first results page, so there are likely to be more, especially if you combine it with a language or culture you’re interested in; e.g. combining the above search with the term “Egyptian” immediately gave two results, Egyptian precepts and proverbs ( a long list, with a few useful items scattered further down), and Ancient Egyptian proverbs.
    Those might be a useful source of a few ideas for sayings in Tasmakat, if you aren’t already finished writing.

  6. Yes, this is so important and adds hugely to world depth and believability! And yes, it’s so difficult to do!

    I’m currently trying to come up with an equivalent insult to “knave,” one of Shakespeare’s favourites. I don’t even know that we have a modern equivalent, since we don’t have the same modern notion of virtuous nobility, the Chivalric ideal, to which the knave is the commoner opposite. Scoundrel isn’t modern enough or insulting enough. The virtue of integrity is clearly not valued enough in our era for us to come up with an opposite as an insult. (And for my secondary world, my mind is rather struggling with reinventing an equivalent to chivalry just to give me a great epithet!)

    • I actually think it sounds perfectly normal to invent a secondary world equivalent to the concept and attitude of chivalry in order to provide a word similar in meaning to “knave” … now I’m wondering if that sort of thing is partly how I do worldbuilding!

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