Like swords, but awesomer: Made up words in science fiction and fantasy

I expect everybody has seen the xkcd cartoon I’m quoting in the title. I laughed when I saw it, and yet I love the made up words in Anathem. The word “speelycaptor” makes me happy. Yet Stephenson is breaking all the rules of making up words for science fiction. There’s a rule that says “no smeerps”. A smeerp is white and woolly and grazes on mountains, you can eat the meat and make clothes from the wool… and there’s no reason not to call it a sheep because it is a sheep. (This is different from Brust’s norska, which is exactly like a rabbit except that it eats dragons.) A speelycaptor is a video camera. Stephenson does have a reason for not calling it one, apart from the fact that it’s a videocamera but awesomer, which is to underline the fact that he isn’t talking about our world but a different world that’s like our world two thousand years in the future but awesomer. I already wrote about this.

Generally though, the argument in that cartoon is right—made up words ought to be for new things and concepts, and five per book sounds about right. You need more than that if you include names, but we’re used to remembering names. We may forget which city is the capital of which planet and need to be reminded, but we can keep track of characters pretty well. It’s words for things and concepts that are the problem—if a word is explained the first time it’s used and then just used as a normal word, the reader has to remember it every time. It’s like learning a language, and it had better be worth it.

Sometimes it really is worth it. I don’t believe in the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that you can only think about things if you have words for them. I don’t believe there’s a concept you can’t convey with a paragraph of English. But it’s much easier to talk about things with a word than an explanation. C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur books introduce the kiffish word “sfik”. Sfik means standing relative to everyone else. Kif are constantly assessing where they are and whether then can advance or retreat. We have words for standing like “authority” and “respect” and “face” (as in “losing face”) but none of them quite mean what sfik means. I used it in conversation the other day, when talking about the difference between usenet and blogs—on usenet everyone started off with the same amount of sfik, and gained or lost it by what they said. On blogs, those who can top post start off with inherently more sfik. Staying with Cherryh, in the atevi books there’s the fascinating term man’chi, which is what the atevi feel instead of love and friendship. This isn’t one we need, but it’s essential for talking about them.

Another useful term I’ve seen people using away from the book is “kalothi” from Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite. (UK title Geta.) Kalothi means evolutionary fitness to survive. The people on the planet Geta worry a lot about that as individuals, because of the harshness of their environment. It’s a useful shorthand term. And Kurt Vonnegut made up some very nice words for the way people connect to each other in Cat’s Cradle. I’ve been using “karass” and “granfalloon” for years, and clearly I’m not the only one.

It’s harder to remember the words that don’t work so well. Some writers have tin ears, and I know there are books I’ve cringed at because of the made up words. There’s Larry Niven’s ineffective fake swear word “Tanj.” It’s hard to imagine somebody really shouting that, and the fact that it stands for There Aint No Justice really doesn’t help. Acroynms aren’t your friend. Similarly there’s Doris Lessing’s SOWF in the Shikasta books, the “spirit of we feeling”. I’m embarrassed even typing it. Now this may be personal. There may be people for whom “Tanj” or “Sowf” is as delightful as “speelycaptor” is for me. People are different. One of the problems with making up words is that any made up word will alienate some readers.

It takes a lot to alienate me—as I said, I tend to actively like the funny words. If I’m reading something and there are nifty new words on the first page, I am pleased. They do have to be evocative and not irritating, but my general reaction to a funny word is a visceral pleasure that we’re not in Kansas any more. My aunt, on the other hand, can’t even read a historical novel with names she doesn’t recognise. “Speelycaptor” would be a big speedbump for her, and I think for a lot of non-genre readers.

Do you like them? Hate them? And how many of them do you think it’s reasonable for a book to contain?


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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