Fantasy Slang: Building a Lexicon

Using the origins of slang I talked about last week, I came up with 120 slang terms and over 50 different idioms for the Air Pirates world. Sound like a lot of work? Well, it was and it wasn't. I didn't do it all at once, but over a long period of time (actually all 19 months I drafted the novel).

It was very hard at first, but once I got some patterns down and got a feel for the air pirates' language it became easier. Here are some things that helped:

Many of the methods I outlined last week require an understanding of the culture involved. Metaphors arise from what a culture is most familiar with: a farming culture will use farming metaphors, an underwater civilization will use ocean metaphors, etc. Jargon that has transitioned to mainstream slang will be dependent on the subculture from which it came (in my case, pirate culture).

The Air Pirates' world is one of airships, pirates, and the ever-present fear of dark water. Sam talked about this some in his Talk Like a Pirate Day post. Knowing the foundations of their metaphors made it easier to come up with them. Then I often evolved or shortened them (thus obscuring my sources), but not always. Modern slang is a mix of phrases whose origins are immediately apparent and phrases whose origins have been forgotten. I wanted the Air Pirates' language to be similarly mixed.

Don't try to come up with 100 idioms at once. That'll drive you nuts, and you won't even use half of them.

While writing Air Pirates, I mostly came up with slang words as I needed them. Sometimes I thought, "I feel like they'd have a special word for this. But what?" But mostly I came up with my own slang whenever I found myself using modern idioms and cliches. This had the added benefit of wiping my manuscript (relatively) clean of cliches.

Every time I made up a new slang term or idiom, even if I didn't end up using it, I wrote it down in a separate document. Sometimes I'd make up an idiom only to cut it as part of a larger revision. But I still had the idiom saved in my "Pirate Slang" document for use later.

Then every time I needed a slang term or idiom, I'd skim through the existing ones to see if anything fit. Sometimes I'd use a word I already came up with, sometimes not. If nothing else, skimming the old words made it easier to come up with something new that fit the existing pirate lexicon.

And that's pretty much it. Next time I'll talk about how to introduce all this odd slang to the reader without overwhelming them.

Meanwhile, have you ever made up slang for a story? How did you do it?

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...

These are some great suggestions! I find I have to keep a list of names, placenames and all the "foreign" phrases and concepts I use in my paranormal stories as well.

L. T. Host said...

I have a book on my hard drive somewhere that I might dig up someday. I went all Tolkien on it and tried to create an entire language just for it. No clue if that worked out or not, I only got a few chapters in. But I kept track much the same way-- just had a glossary in another doc. Thank goodness, too, or I'd never remember what the heck everything meant.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Love, love this series of posts. I especially like the idea of basing slang on the culture of your story and swapping out idioms and cliches where they pop up naturally in the draft. In my current WIP, I'm near the end of the first draft. I usually don't have a complete feel for the culture/world building until I've at least finished the first draft. But as I go through on the second, or possibly third, draft, I think I'll start looking for ways to fold some more slang in, or beef up the slang I have. I tend toward "obvious" words, so they don't require explanation to the reader, but now I'm inspired to dig a little deeper on this!

dolorah said...

Love the new look Adam.

Damn, I have to go back to work, but I'll be back later to read Pawn's Gambit. Sounds very interesting.

I like the way you avoid cliches by making up your own slang. That's a cool idea.


kanishk said...

I agree that These are some great suggestions!
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