Fantasy Slang: Origins of Slang, Part I

A while ago, I talked about a method to make up fantasy languages that don't sound made-up. Today I want to talk about slang, where it comes from, and ways to make up your own. If you've read Pawn's Gambit (or this old post), you know the Air Pirates' world has tons of slang. These posts are a taste of how that evolved.

Slang is a bit harder to come up with than fantasy languages. A foreign word can be completely made up and still work, but slang often uses recognizable words in unusual ways. Done wrong, it makes the world feel silly. But done right, it not only makes a fantasy culture feel deeper, it can provide clues to the culture itself.

Slang often arises as a roundabout way of discussing harsh or taboo topics. For example, English has a thousand euphemisms for sex and death. Kicked the bucket. Knocked her up. Sleeping with the fishes. Sleeping with each other. And so on.

In the Air Pirates' world, a pirate might "rack" a girl, especially a "woman of easy virtue" (prostitute). Knockers don't kill people, they pack them (why don't they knock them? I don't know. Language is funny like that).

Metaphors -- idioms, really -- are slang's cultured cousin. "Bite the bullet" used to be quite literal, but became a metaphor for doing anything painful or difficult. Criminals want to stay "under the radar," even if they've never flown a plane in their lives.

Metaphor is a powerful tool to make up slang unique to a fantasy culture. There's no radar in the Air Pirates' world, but a good pirate knows to stay "in the clouds" even if they're not in an airship. A "spot of blue in the dark" literally refers to ocean without dark water, but mostly means hope in the midst of trouble.

Remember when "bad" meant cool? How about sick or phat? Sometimes slang is not a new word, but an altered meaning of an old one.

I didn't use this method very often in the Air Pirates' world -- I tried, but the results often sounded contrived. One that worked (for me, anyway) was the term "baron" for a shopkeeper. The idea was that "robber baron" used to be a derogatory term for a merchant who cheated you. Over time it came to be a common title for all merchants, good or bad. When it was shortened to simply "baron", it became almost a term of respect, like a title.

That's enough for now. Next time I'll talk about jargon, shortening, and swearing. Meanwhile, you tell me: where have you seen slang done well? Done poorly? Do you think they used any of these methods, or something else?

DON'T FORGET! There's still a contest going on for a free book. Link to the contest post for a chance to win. Read Pawn's Gambit to improve your chances. Contest ends May 6th!


India Drummond said...

I agree! This is such an important part of writing any type of fantasy. It would jerk a reader out of the immersive world if characters went around saying things were 'cool'.

Great post!

Michelle Scott said...

Great post! I've been searching for a euphemism that could replace 'bite me!' or 'kiss my a**', neither of which would be appropriate in my work. I'm glad to know that other people ponder this kind of thing, too!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I am so loving this series of posts! :) Thanks!

Unknown said...

Oh great post - I'm in the process of creating a culture, civilisation, religion and language so any help is much appreciated. This was a great post. I write down lists of word verification words - some are quite useful. :)

Myrna Foster said...

I've used euphemisms and metaphors, and sometimes I substitute a word in a phrase we would use to create a similar meaning. For instance, "playing with fire" became "playing with sarki" in the novel I'm working on. The meaning is a little different, but it's close enough that I think it works.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who has to work at it. Thanks for answering my question so thoroughly.

Lola Sharp said...

Love this post!