Whenever we open our mouths, we access a vast reservoire of linguistic reference material – words, phrases, and idiomatic expressions - that we’ve acquired in the course of our daily lives. Some of the most colorful idioms available to us are derived from the realm of slang, defined in the OED (rather amusingly) as “The special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character.” Slang is the register of language invoked by fringe members of society (teenagers and street gangs, tramps and thieves, common soldiers/sailors, peons and low-lifes of every description) in order to mock, defy, devalue, or otherwise outmanoevre The Establishment. For this reason, slang never fails to pack a punch.
This precept holds true in fiction. When characters speak, they should communicate more than they say. I.e., their believability as characters is dependent on whether the writer can endow them with a mode of discourse which authenticates the individual’s fictional context.
If you’re writing a mainstream novel, set the real world in the present day, you won’t have to go looking for slang to enliven your character dialogue: the appropriate idiomatic expressions will come naturally to you. By contrast, in the realm of genre fiction (especially Science Fiction or Fantasy), you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Leaving aside specialist terminology associated with high-tech professions (like depth-psychology or astro-physics), real slang finds its way into popular usage in various ways:
a) as a source of creative invective;
b) as a metaphorical synonym for an existing verb or common noun; and
c) as a term of qualitative comparison.
The challenge for the SF/F writer is to simulate the above with reference to the world he/she has created.
One of the best examples of synthetic slang can be found in the British SF comedy series Red Dwarf. As a vehicle for creative invective, the characters regularly invoke the term smeghead as a synonym for asshole. Smeghead resonates alliteratively, metrically, and scatologically with the contemporary term shithead. By a further lateral extension, the term smeg can function as a verb (as in “We are totally smegged”). It also functions as a comparative: “How smeggy is this?”
The point being: if your point-of-view character is the first mate aboard a clapped-out space-freighter, he/she has got to talk like a graduate from the school of hard knocks. To invest this character with an artificial, but realistically idiomatic mode of expression, you need to explore the metaphorical possibilities based on what you know.
When it comes to terms of invective, let’s start with something like idiot. Pre-existent synonyms include bonehead, loser, and the fabulously-evocative Scots term numpty (numbnuts + dummy). Working at one remove, one option by analogy might be floozer (fool + loser). Another possibility might be gurk (geek + birk).
When it comes to tech-speak, let’s take the common noun gun. Real-world historical synonyms include heater, piece, and gat. Pre-existent SF synonyms include blaster and phaser. Ok, let’s call your world’s version of a personal sidearm a vaper (as in vaporiser) or a scorch (as in flame-thrower).
The bottom line here is that pseudo-slang is an integral aspect of SF/F world-building. If you can pull it off, you’re on the road to legitimate credibility as a writer. So exercise your imagination to descriptive effect!
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.