Worldbuilding and Language: Idioms and Slang

As I’ve said before, I’m not too keen on doing the nuts and bolts of a constructed language as part of my worldbuilding.  Well, more correctly, I think it’s a great thing to do, I just don’t have the skill or patience to do it. 

However, playing with idioms and slang?  That’s always fun.  And, I think, an important thing to do.  It seems like it was the underlying structure behind Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves, even to the point of bringing up the details of his Thieves Cant in the foreword.  (I especially like how he admits that he combined historically accurate slang with stuff he just plain made up.  I approve.)

I made up plenty of slang for Thorn of Dentonhill and the other books set in Maradaine.  I even made a point of tweaking it a bit so that slang from the gangs in the Aventil neighborhood would be different from the slang of street kids over in Seleth and Keller Cove (in Holver Alley Crew).  Some of the things came from wanting a slang word for something, and wanting to avoid our own word.  Street kids and gang members would have a term for constabulary officers, and I didn’t want “cop”.  I tried to think of what they might call them.  Since patrol officers are all armed with handsticks (and might use them a little too freely on some street kids), the term “sticks” made perfect sense to me.

That, I think, is the key to doing this sort of thing: does it feel like a term or phrase that evolved naturally?  Can someone reading it parse it a figure out the term from context?  If so, then you’ve got a winner.

Idioms are a bit different.  I wanted Druthal to have idioms that didn’t necessarily apply in English, or meant something that the idiom in our language was too modern or culturally specific.  Sometimes I look to idioms in other languages (though usually Spanish, for obvious reasons) and translate them literally into English.  Case in point, one of my favorites in Spanish is one common response to ¿Cómo te va? (“How’s it going?”, or more literally, “How to you does it go?”), which is Va a la patada.  Idiomatically, you’re saying, “It’s going badly”, but literally you’re saying, “It goes of the kick.”  In other words, “Life is kicking my ass.”  Thus, “the kick” could become slang for any kind of ill fortune.

A brief political aside, for those interested: I’m all for donating to Planned Parenthood, and if I had something I could offer as an incentive to get others to do it as well, I’d do it.  But I don’t.  (At least, I don’t think I do.  Open to suggestions.) Thus, I’ll just point you toward some writers who are.  Buy John Scalzi’s eBooks this week, and his profits go to Planned Parenthood.  Also, Amanda Downum is offering signed copies of her highly-anticipated (by me, anyway) Kingdoms of Dust to the first 15 qualifying PP donators.  Have at either one, if you are so inclined.


  1. Don’t you think non-standard language of any kind, including slang, is really a double-edged sword? Case in point, I love Hemingway but find his thee-and-thou in Bell Tolls grating (if you speak Spanish at least you know what he’s doing but it doesn’t matter). In Clockwork Orange you’re quite alienated by the heavy slang, but that’s half the point of the thing. I often think that when I’m reading something that takes place in ancient times and someone stubs their toe and says “By Enlil’s hammer!” or something, that the scene would be better if they just went “Aw Christ” and got past it. Yes, we know that’s not literally what they said, but it conveys the same punch and stops drawing attention to itself after the first or second time. Most of the time we can assume that these things aren’t even taking place in English so we’re already assuming we’re effectively reading something that’s been translated.

    A fun, but maybe not readable, experiment would be to have non-English-speaking good guys and literally translate them, and English-speaking bad guys. I think people would have difficulty cheering on the good guys, regardless how clearly the moral lines were drawn.

  2. Okay, I approve of “sticks.” It works properly according to real-world language examples… in this case, it is a metonym (using an obvious characteristic of a thing to stand in for the thing itself).

    The thing about slang is that it doesn’t always have to make sense. Often, slang happens simply because an interpretive community just decided to use a word in a specific way. The modern use of “sick” to mean something that is interesting, compelling, and cool is an example: there is no reason to use “sick” for something you approve of. But it happened, and it stuck.

    Idioms similarly don’t have to make sense. They just hit a cultural nerve. “The apple of my eye,” for example. I know what the figure of speech means, but… what? Really? They just “feel” right.

    One of my former students (long story… for an assignment) came up with the phrase “steal the weasel’s tooth” to mean succeeding at something really hard. No one actually steals weasel’s teeth, but it made sense. Another student, however, came up with the phrase “throwing the cat.” And it just didn’t work. I can’t even remember what it was supposed to mean. But it just didn’t sit well.

    I’m showing my Chomskian roots here, but we have deep structures in our cognitive faculties that have simply internalized characteristics of our interpretive communities. Sometimes, word combinations “feel” right.

  3. True, it doesn’t always make sense. Or the sense is roundabout. I’m fascinated with Cockney Rhyming Slang, for example, in which every slang term has a logical A-B-C, but that “B” part in the middle isn’t necessarily obvious to someone who hasn’t grown up with it.

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