Monday, August 3, 2009

Beware the Smeerps: Making up Words in SF/F

ofWho of us doesn't love a little world building? After all, that's why we read and write what we do. Imaginations, get ready to run wild! :D

However, even our imaginary worlds can be full of potholes, most of which we created ourselves in an attempt to be Overly Fancy. Oops!

Book blogger Vonda N. McIntyre over at Book View Cafe posted a helpful article on one of the traps to avoid: silly neologisms (or in layman's terms, funky made up words in your fantasy world.)

The article:

Ms. McIntyre points out that calling a rabbit a "smeerp" doesn't make it any more alien, and makes you look like a bit of a regular, earth-breed "doofus" rather than adding depth to your story.

I have to admit, I've read a few fantasy/sci fi books where someone uses a fancy-pants alien word for something I later find out is..... bread. It's disappointing. And then after that, distracting.

As we know, every fantasy has to have some made up words, but my question is this:

When is it okay to use your own terms, and when does it get goofy?

Is food/travel/time okay, or should it be reserved for names and places alone?

What is your favorite successful made up fantasy/sci fi word?

Any that drive you crazy?

My favorite made up word to date is: Frak. Fake cursewords are always fun! :D

What about you?


Lisa and Laura said...

We use the word whoredrobe in our book. I'm guessing the meaning is pretty self explanatory....

Abby said...

Funny. I just finished a conversation with my 8-year-old about who invented chickens.

I personally find world building a little annoying, but it's one of those necessary evils. :)

I think it depends on the world you've created. If it's very similar to our world, or just set in the future, I think you should try to stick with common names.

But in a completely imaginary world, where they would have no knowledge of the real world, I think it's more believable if certain things are named specifically for that world--like time and distance. And it doesn't necessarily have to be made up, but using more archaic terminology might work better, especially when the world is set in a time without the technology for measuring the passage of time, or where the characters wouldn't have access to that technology because of social class or whatever.

And as for distance, even in our world there is more than one method for this. More than anything, in fantasy especially, it can pull the reader out of the story if the terminology feels too modern day. Others may feel differently, but to me it's distracting.

Regarding animals and food, I think unless there's a specific story related reason for changing the name, it can be distracting to give it a different name.

Sorry. That got kind of long. I hope it makes sense. :)

I can't think of any specific made up words that I like or dislike, but I do enjoy trying to figure out how to pronounce new words--like the ingredients in my shampoo. I don't know. I'm a dork.

Great post, Becca!

christine said...

great post...I like some made up words - like a pensieve - that is a great word that makes sense for its purposes, right...

Of course, I write urban no real need for totally strange words, right.

Yunaleska said...

In the past I have changed words like measurements - but it didn't sound right and early readers went 'huh?' So now I stick with curse words, and a few random other ones.

ElanaJ said...

My favorite made up world is the one in UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld. I love the names he has, the way they talk, all of it. I'm okay with weird names for common things as lot as it fits the society.

Yunaleska said...

I simply ADORE the Uglies series! Yes, the names there are brilliant.

Rebecca Knight said...

L&L--this made me laugh out loud! I love it!

Abby--good point about new words/names helping to keep out anachronisms in fantasy. In Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time he actually used the word "treadmill." I was sad.

Christine--I love pensieve, too! Clever puns are great ;).

Yunaleska--that's the awesome thing about beta readers. They can tell you if something's working or funky.

Elana/Yuna--I still have to read UGLIES :D. I think I'm going to soon. Hooray!

Thanks for all of the discussion, guys!