Fantasy Slang: Starting from Scratch

Last year, I wrote some posts on where slang comes from and how to make your own for a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Among other things, I said coming up with unique terms and idioms for a world was "very hard" at first.

Man, was I right.

The last couple of days I've been working on the beginnings of a glossary for my post-apocalypse world. The bad news is it's just as hard as I remember it being the first time around. The good news is, I've figured out some steps to help you (and future-me) start your own fantasy glossary.

1. Determine what feel you want. Old West slang (like Firefly) has a very different feel from pirate slang (like Air Pirates) or Mexican slang or British rhyming slang. Each will flavor your book and your world differently.

2. Research that type of slang. Write down words you like, that sound cool, that are so obscure you think you could use them without most people knowing the source. Even for words you don't like, write it down if it means something you think you'll need. In that case, pay attention to where the term came from (if possible) and see if you can use the same method to create something new.

For example, when researching pirate slang, I wrote down "grog" and "booty." The terms were too well-known for me to use them (and, in fact, their origins made it impossible for me to use them realistically), but they helped me get the right feel for my own.

3. Know your world's origins and metaphors. If your world is at all based on Earth, you'll want to think about how language might have evolved. For example, Firefly mixed Chinese phrases and swear words with English based on the idea that the two "mega-cultures" had combined.

And Earth or not, every world has its own metaphors. What is (or used to be) important in your world? An icy world might have snow and cold metaphors (like, maybe they'd say "Toasty!" instead of "Cool!"). An agricultural society might use farming or animal terms -- like "groundhog" for someone who's never flown before -- while a city-planet might not know what a groundhog is (though maybe they used to know, and it's become a dead metaphor!).

4. Make up some basic terms. Once you've collected everything above, start with some or all of the following (apologies in advance for some of the examples):
  • A greeting ("Hey!" "What's up?" "Are you well?")
  • A couple of honorifics (Mister, Miss, Your Honor, Madame, Sensei)
  • A term between friends (buddy, bro, mate)
  • One or two insults (bastard, prick, rat orphan)
  • One or two oaths (oh my God, damn it, sh-t)
  • A positive epithet (cool, awesome, rad, pure guava)
5. Play with it. Try writing a dialog-heavy scene with your new terms. Don't worry about presenting it to the reader (or about writing well at all, actually). Just try to see where the new slang feels wrong, where it might be too much, but especially where you make up even more terms or phrases (e.g. where you've used some modern cliche that wouldn't make sense in the fantasy world).

Once you've got the world in your head and a start to the language, it gets easier. You build momentum for thinking up future phrases, and the bigger your glossary (because you are writing them all down, aren't you?), the more momentum you have and the easier it gets.

At least I hope it gets easier. Otherwise I got a loooooong road ahead of me.


Matthew MacNish said...

Excellent breakdown.

Hepius said...

This is something I'd like to get better at doing. I think it really helps the reader get into the world you have created.

I'll tell you one example from Eternal Knight where a little world slang came in handy. I had one F-bomb in my novel. It was very appropriate for the character to say it given the circumstances, but I hated the way the word stood out.

I nixed the F-bomb and had the character say "Dromost!" instead. Dromost being the name of the "evil" god. I liked the change so much I found a few other places to throw in Dromost curses and the novel's world got a little richer. And I got rid of an F-bomb that would have been jarring to a lot of my readers.

Thanks for the post, Adam. I'll be using it.

linda said...

Awesome post! Love your ideas for coming up with slang. And now I want to play around with creating my own, too. Since I'm writing an Asian fantasy world, a lot of it will probably be based on what I know of Asian languages, though of course changed to reflect the culture of my fantasy world. Thanks for the tips!

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

Haha, I love "pure guava." I love when books have their own slang based on the world it's in.