Fantasy Slang: Origins of Slang, Part II

Language evolves in interesting ways, often without its speakers being aware of it. Last time I talked about how slang comes from euphemisms, metaphors, and reverse meaning. Today, let's talk about jargon, shortening, and swearing.

Technically, jargon isn't slang. The purpose of jargon is to allow its users to speak more precisely about technical issues in a given field (usually). Slang, on the other hand, is often used to exclude non-members from a group. But the two are closely related, and jargon can become slang over time as knowledge of a field becomes more widespread (e.g. everyone knows what it means to download something now, but in 1980 the word was as obscure as "SNMP" is today).

Jargon can also take the form of a thieves' cant or rhyming slang, where the intent is to exclude. As languages evolves, and these code langauges become more generally known, they can become slang for a whole culture.

Just like their real-world, seaborne brethen, air pirates have their own jargon, some of which has passed to the public. A ship's brig is called the klack (though this meaning now means any prison). Crewmen might be navvies, turners, swabbers, stokers, machinists, gunners, or just plain skylers. And any of those terms have passed into the language as metaphors; for example, a swabber is a generally derogatory term for someone with a crap job.

Language often evolves to make things quicker and easier to say, to the point of obscuring the origin of the phrase in question. "Goodbye" was once "God be with ye". Internet acronyms occasionally find their way into spoken speech. And no one knows what the heck "okay" used to mean, but nearly every language uses it now.

Almost everything is shortened in the Air Pirates' world. I mentioned the term "baron" last time. And hardly anyone actually says "spot of blue in the dark;" they're more likely to say "a spot in the dark," "a spot of blue," or even just "a spot." Likewise, mercenaries are mercs, anchors are anchs, and centimeters are cents. (That last one actually comes from the Thai language, where shortening words is practically a national sport).

Making up swear words is really, really, really hard. That's because swearing is only effective because we decide it is so (or have been taught so). There is nothing inherent about swear words that make them worse than any other word -- only the meaning we assign to them. Most made-up swear words sound silly to new readers because they have assigned no meaning to the word.

If you decide to make up swear words, imagine what kinds of things would offend members of your culture. References to sexuality, feces, or blasphemy work for almost any culture. But if your culture is particularly fantastic, you might decide other things (i.e. things that are normal to us) are vulgar to them.

I didn't get too creative with the swearing in Air Pirates, preferring instead to choose words that sounded like swear words but weren't. Words like flack and tullit. I also borrowed words from British slang like sod and bleeding, once again giving a feel of swearing without actually being offensive to the (American) ear.

Using euphemisms, metaphors, reverse meaning, jargon, shortening, and swearing, you should be able to come up with a number of phrases to make your made-up culture feel more real. It is a lot of work, but you don't have to do it all at once. I'll talk more about that next time.

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fairyhedgehog said...

Sod and bleeding are pretty mild even to a British ear!

Adam Heine said...

Good to know. Thanks, fairy!

One thing I forgot to mention: I also picked some British slang just because it sounds piratey :-)

L. T. Host said...

Thanks for this! I've yet to need to make up my own, but now I know where to go when I do :)

writtenwyrdd said...

Another excellent post, Adam. I think if you look at the foul language of most cultures it is based on what is considered taboo. Taboo in the sense of what is Just Not Discussed In Polite Company. So back in Elizabethan(?) days, Zounds was really filthy beccause anything churchy or about god was a filthy thing to say. Likewise bodily excretions and sex--at least in Western cultures.

So when I am creating a world for myself and need a swear word, I spend some time considering what is it that is a touchy topic, a taboo. That's the basis for my culture's foul language.

And when determining new words in a world, I also consider first the differences between the fictional world and the one in which I (and therefore my readers) live. It's in the differences that I like to find places to create words. (but it sure is difficult to get ones that fit, that sound and feel right when you say them!)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Love these posts! I have an offensive term in my current WIP (offensive in that fantasy world) and struggled with how to make it something that would imply offense, but still be understandable. It is akin to the word "retard" which is an offensive slang for "mentally retarded" - which even that is considered moderately offensive now. I came up with "zero," but I'm still not sure if it works. Mostly I infer the offensiveness of it by context, and hope for that to be obvious to the reader.

Adam Heine said...

Susan: Tune in next Wednesday. I plan to address exactly that.

Also I like "zero" as offensive slang for retard. Presented right, it could work really well.

India Drummond said...

Robert Jordon did a great job of creating a whole host of swear phrases, mostly revolving around light and fire imagery. "Light!", "Blood and ashes!" and "Burn me!" are a few. The thing that's great about it is the way it's so deeply ingrained in the culture he's created, and it all makes perfect sense in context.

Adam Heine said...

Those are cool, India. I regret I've never read the Wheel of Time books. Maybe some day.

I'm reading Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy now. In the first book, the protagonists are up against a god-man, apparently immortal, known as the Lord Ruler. Even those who are trying to kill him will swear, "Lord Ruler!" simply because it's so ingrained in their culture.

Myrna Foster said...

Oh, this has given me a great idea. Thanks, Adam!