Friday, December 19, 2014

Slang and the Art of Authentic Discourse (or “You’re in the groove, Jackson!”)

This post was first published here on August 17, 2012.

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.


  1. Debby, what a fun and inventive post! A delight to read and think about. I have to love a sentence that reads like this:

    "Smeghead resonates alliteratively, metrically, and scatologically with the contemporary term shithead."

    You lend such a highbrow bent to your lowlife terms—well done! "Smegging"—I believe I've found my new real-life cuss word. :)

  2. I just tweeted on Twitter for follow Friday and said "smegheads need not apply". Hahaha. My new favorite put-down, too. Watch me use this on Facebook as related to politics. :D

  3. Great post. Such fun. Makes me want to come up with curse words for my characters.

  4. It might even get into the dictionary, like f-bomb!

  5. How fun! How true! Another piece in the puzzle of creating reader believability.

  6. Love the idea of these alternative words. What really makes them work is the context. I really enjoy finding these words and knowing immediately what they could be replacing by the rhythm of the line of dialogue. I think a lot of us might be using smeghead.

    Dani, is f-bomb really in the dictionary?

  7. I tried to watch the reruns of Red Dwarf some months ago and I just couldn't. I know it has cult value, but I can't believe I used to sit through that smegging awful, um, tripe. Can't think why I did - oh, right, I was a teenager ;-)

  8. It's fun to make up words, but not so much fun if an author uses too much dialect. That slows down the read.

    Smegging sounds cute!

    Morgan Mandel

  9. I love the word "Smeghead". I predict it will become part of the mainstream (on BRP at least!) Thank you, Debby. A fun post.

  10. Creative invective is my specialty; just ask any of my co-workers who've heard me denounce the induction station. Chain slang!

  11. I don't write science fiction/fantasy, but I am working on a novel set during the 1940s and there's a lot of slang used than that doesn't exist anymore. It's going to take some editing to keep the characters from sounding too modern.

  12. When worldbuilding, especially in Fantasy and SciFi, coming up with unique slang (just a few phrases, not a whole vocabulary) really makes the setting pop.

  13. This is even more relevant for me now than when it was first published. I am embarking on editing the third book in a SF trilogy, a complex story that abounds with wonderful characters and its fair share of slang and colloquialisms from a variety of planets and galaxies. Thanks for the timely reminder. :-)


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