Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for August 16th, 2010

Words, Meanings, and Change

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Every writer knows that the meaning of words changes over time.  Sometimes it’ll be a really small shift, while other times, the word “bad” might mean good but retain its original meaning for most practical purposes.

But how are you supposed to be accurate while writing fantasy or science fiction, as for the most part fantasy tends to deal with times gone by or “the present, but with magic” or additional characters such as vampires, werewolves, or Elves, while science fiction is futuristic and up-to-the-minute?

Mostly, I try to stick with one approach whenever I’m dealing with a story — I tend to write in contemporary vocabulary unless the fantasy world I’m dealing with is obviously based on our past (but with magic, or a different religion, or whatever), in which case, my characters will speak in longer sentences and with more formality.  This is because in some ways, contemporary American English is used by most in our culture and society in a casual fashion — not just our slang terms, but our idiomatic turns of speech are far more casual than, say, the Victorian English used by our predecessors.  Or the English used in Regency-era England.

In ELFY, as well as in AN ELFY ABROAD and to an extent in KEISHA’S VOW, Michael and I came up with a language, Bilre, for the Elfys.  (Bilre is also the term they use to describe themselves “when they’re at home,” or among their own people.  There’s precedence enough for this in our own history that it shouldn’t draw any comment.)  We came up with rules for how it works, with various terms and even a few regional variant slang terms (as in our own world, where some words are used more frequently in the Midwest than on the West Coast, for example); there is an Elfy Lexicon.  All of this was done for the sake of consistency, and while Michael was by far better at this than I, I learned enough from him that I’ve been able to make up a few terms on my own since his untimely passing.

As for science fiction, noted writer Connie Willis came up with two words for her near-future “Doomsday Book” — they were “apocalyptic” for something great, fantastic, and awesome, and “necrotic” for something awful, bad and disgusting.  They were used by one of her pre-teen characters — pre-teens in books are generally the ones who use the most slang terms, though not always — and helped add to the illusion that we readers were in a slightly different place.  In a much tougher and far more comprehensive vein, eluki bes shahar came up with a whole new language, idioms and all, for her “Hellflower” trilogy; other authors have done similar things with regards to adding a few additional words (Marge Piercy comes to mind in Woman on the Edge of Time in her far-future sections) or a whole, new, comprehensively thought out language — from J.R.R. Tolkien to the more contemporary Robert Jordan (Jordan in particular had to come up with a number of languages, not an easy feat).

At any rate, in science fiction, the main thing is to be consistent and to stay consistent in your usage — readers will pick up on the idioms used if given time, and if it helps the reader to open a dictionary and look up a word while reading, say, a Gene Wolfe story, all the better.

Some examples of contemporary words in transition are “vacay,” which is a shortened form of the word “vacation” — I’ve seen this show up in a few articles lately and it reads oddly but sounds OK in actual speech — and “efforting,” as in, “I’m efforting Chris Capuano” — this particular turn of phrase annoys me, and takes some explanation if you’ve never heard it before.  Basically, instead of “I’m trying to get Chris Capuano on the phone” or “I’m making the effort to speak with Chris Capuano,” our local sportscaster Bill Michaels may say the shorthand “I’m efforting Chris Capuano” and hopes we’ll understand him.

Granted, Michaels wasn’t the first person to say this in the sports world — I’ve also heard sportscasters Dan Patrick and Jim Rome say the same thing, probably several months to perhaps a full year before Michaels.  But this is how a changed meaning to a word gets into the language — slowly, bit by bit, until it’s accepted.  Until it’s understood, graceless though it may be.

My brother, who is a teaching assistant, said recently that a word that annoys him is “flustrated,” which is a combination of “flustered” and “frustrated.”  He says he hears this all the time in Indiana, where he lives and works — so the rest of us may as well be warned, as this appears to be another word creeping into the language — something like “ginormous,” I suppose (a contraction of “gigantic” and “enormous,” though those two words mean exactly the same thing, while “flustered” and “frustrated” are not the same — just similar).

Other words I’ve noticed that have contracted are baseball terms.  For example, when I was a teenager in the 80s, it was common for a broadcaster to use the term “fouled out,” as in a baseball player hit a foul ball for an out.  But now, that’s been contracted into one word — “foulout” — though broadcasters in general do not use this.  (Instead, you see this on scoreboards or perhaps on TV.)  This is similar to the other contracted words “strikeout” instead of “struck out,” a two word, more active phrase (note that a pitcher getting a strikeout was already in the language; this particular contraction adds an additional meaning rather than a brand new word to our vocabulary); “popup,’ which may be seen also as “pop-up,” instead of “popped up” or “popped it up,” which is hitting the ball high and straight into the air rather than for any sort of distance, so an infielder might catch it; “popout,” which is the same thing as a “popup;” “lineout,” instead of “lined out” or “hit the ball hard, but right at someone for an out.”

At any rate, language changes over time, as these few examples show — we as writers need to be observant as new words enter the language, even if we think they’re silly or stupid or unnecessary (as, quite frankly, I find the word “efforting” to be).

What are some of the “new” words you can’t stand?  Or those you really like?

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 16, 2010 at 11:45 am