When I cracked open Out of the Silent Planet, I gobbled up page after page. Did the plot thrill me? Was I a C. S. Lewis fanatic?
It was a marvelous book on many fronts, but the aspect that stuck with me wasn’t the plot, the characters, or the themes. I remember the words. Words are magic and can be even more enchanting than new worlds. As the story progressed, Lewis fed me the language of his extraterrestrial race. I was addicted.
Like me, countless authors are fascinated by languages. Yet few of us have the energy to invent Elvish with its many branches. Coining a handful of phrases and ethnic names is doable, though still challenging. Also, developing a language is time consuming, and you’ll only get to feature it in one book (or perhaps a series).
Speculative authors need an easier strategy to make otherworldly experiences sound real.
The solution? Slang.
Slang is omnipresent. Many words that are commonplace now originated as slang years ago. Okay is about 150 years old, and even uptight is fairly recent, first used by drug addicts to describe withdrawal distress when denied drugs.
Distancing yourself from modern slang will be nearly impossible. (“Oops! I wrote veggies instead of vegetables.”) However, to seem authentic, all you need to do is give your characters mostly unique slang. Below I’ll explore the varieties of slang and how to effectively incorporate them into fiction. But, before I begin, I must credit “Slang” from the Encyclopedia Britannica and “The Formation of Slang Words” as my primary sources in this obscure field of study.
13 Types of Slang to Consider Including in Your Novel
Similes and Metaphors
Hopefully everyone is familiar with these. Writers concoct them frequently, like “cold as a coffin” to describe an unfriendly character. These metaphors may be adopted by the popular culture, as with “time is money,” which is debatably attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
This is when prefixes, suffixes, circumfixes, or infixes are combined with a word or root to generate a new term. Nanoboy could be a label for someone insignificant. The definition of nano is, of course, “small,” and small can figuratively imply worthlessness. If nanoboy literally meant “small boy,” that would sound obtuse. Whereas “an insignificant person” is a definition creative enough to be trendy.
Compounding and Blending
Compounding connects one whole word with another, while blending merges two words into one. (This is not the same as derivation, which involves affixes.) In my current work-in-progress, a race of swamp dwellers are called “frogmen” as a prejudicial insult. Additionally, you can spawn entirely new terms this way. Melandipity, a fusion of melancholy and serendipity, could be translated as “the surreal occurrence of bittersweet fortune.”
Abbreviations and Acronyms
In our modern world, professional is often shortened to pro, and US stands for “United States.” In a fantasy novel, dogs could refer to a class of people known as the “Doomed of Gillead.” This not only makes “Doomed of Gillead” easier to spit out, but it adds style and connotation by comparing the group to dogs.
Clipping is when a word or phrase gets trimmed, such as alligator turning into gator. In fantasy, devils could become devs, or dragon rider might be reduced to rider.
Distortion is how many of our euphemisms (gosh, darn, etc.) were formed. In a novel, governor could be distorted to govins, or dark lord distorted (and clipped) to durky.
Elevation and Degeneration
Elevation is when a word takes on a new (and more civilized) meaning. Degeneration is the opposite. The archaic definition of wench is “prostitute,” but it elevated (a long time ago) to “a girl or young woman.” However, that process could easily be reversed in fiction.
Metonymy is “a figure of speech that consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, or of which it is a part.” In the pronouncement “the sword will strike your land,” sword is a metonymy for “military raiders.” A metonymy for “witch” could be broom: “Don’t go near the broom! She’ll turn you into a toad.”
This is when a word/phrase is substituted for another one that rhymes (e.g., tomfoolery in place of jewelry). As far as I can tell, it’s a London phenomenon (see this article). Though some rhyming slang seems random, a loose connection is usually identifiable. In a sci-fi novel, you might attempt to pair spaceship with long trip (because they travel mind-boggling distances) or arrow tip (because they fly gracefully). Technically those could work, but they wouldn’t feel right. However, suppose all the spaceships resemble the Millennium Falcon. In that case, potato chip could become slang for spaceship because the imagery is obvious (and funny). I recommend employing this technique only when it sounds catchy.
The brand name Kleenex is a generalization because it’s come to be treated as a synonym for tissue. In your story world, perhaps laffiti was the name of a notorious gang but now refers to any bandit.
This is when a word of broad usage assumes a narrow definition. Grill, a method of cooking, has become specialized to mean “to subject to intense questioning.” In a sci-fi novel, alien, which means “foreign,” could be lingo for malware: “Detonate the computer! There’s a lethal alien on it!”
Some words are invented on a whim. You can do this too. Who says dufumbo can’t be a moniker for a mentor with a long, gray beard?
Five Ways to Integrate Slang
Ideally, you want to construct a whole system instead of only a few words, and understanding how slang evolves can help you achieve a stunning effect.
1. Slang normally develops in a subculture before spreading to the general culture. If you’re unsure where to start, write down a list of your world’s subcultures. Every trade and people group will likely contribute its own jargon. But keep in mind that some words won’t leave a subculture, and when one of those pops out of a character’s mouth, it can be a sign that he’s “in.”
2. Slang must be catchy. Just because a word or phrase follows the “rules” prescribed above does not guarantee the public will pick it up.
3. Three main factors will influence the slang a character speaks: rank, location, and exposure to people from other backgrounds. People of higher social standing will have more refined vernacular, and different areas of the country/world will each have distinct idioms. For instance, Westerners say “it came to me out of the blue” while Easterners say “it pigeon-dunged me.” Isolation plays a part too. A habitant of a remote mountain village might say “it came to me out of the heavens.”
4. Slang builds upon slang. The phrase “fiery as a dragon” may become a description for orators that eventually shrinks to “dragon.”
5. However, you probably shouldn’t call orators “dragons” in your story because that could confuse readers. Slang’s purpose should be to delight readers and make them feel like they belong to a secret club. Be careful to avoid obscurity, and introduce a few new terms at a time instead of a bucketful.
Sling the Slang
Inkniters, watcha hey-daddling for? Abracadabra dem words up! Your page-turners will murder you when you teach them your word-gang magic. You’re a tolkie, sure as stardust. I #faith you.
And if I kerblubbered any slang trick, share it below so all the other SE pens can know the thing.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)