Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Words, Meanings, and Change

with 12 comments

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

12 Responses

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  1. Can I gripe about “decimate”?


    August 16, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    • Or about how when I’m logged in to WordPress, it deletes my capital “J”?


      August 16, 2010 at 11:26 pm

      • Now that’s just impolite of WordPress. I’ll have to speak to the designers about that. 😉

        Seriously, Betsy, I don’t know what to do about that, but I’m sorry it keeps happening.

        Barb Caffrey

        August 17, 2010 at 4:11 am

    • Certainly. That was one of Michael’s pet peeves, too . . . said it was often “used inaccurately” (using quotes because that’s his exact phrase, _not_ to demean the exact phrase) and was irate regarding the ways he often _saw_ it used in novels. Decimate means to kill one out of every ten — that’s what the deci- prefix is for, as I’m sure you know, Betsy. So if someone is using the term “decimated” simply to mean “killed a lot of (whatever),” that is annoying, and in Michael’s view, offensive to readers because they deserve a more accurate word than that.

      Barb Caffrey

      August 17, 2010 at 4:11 am

      • Well, the paronomasiac in me would see that as being “have sex with one in ten”, but that’s neither here nor there.

        I think people who use decimate to mean “Killed a lot” are using to to mean “killed all but 1 part in 10”, which makes sense if taken that way, but doesn’t play true to the original decimare in Classical Latin.

        One of the phrases that drives me wild is people saying “very unique”. Unique is an absolute. Saying very unique is like saying very best. What they mean to say, I believe, is “very unusual”, but they don’t. And these are television presenters, supposedly professionals, property experts and the like.

        William Katzell

        August 17, 2010 at 4:21 am

      • I agree with you about “very unique.” It’s an annoying turn of phrase, though we do have “very best” in the lexicon mostly due to advertising. (This perhaps is why “very unique” has entered it as well — advertising is always looking for superlatives, which is why we now have “pre-owned” instead of “used” cars, though most people still think “used” no matter how often “pre-owned” is used.)

        As for “decimate,” if they want “killed all _but_ one in ten,” at least that would make some sense. But usually it’s used in the non-specific “killed a lot of (whatever),” which is nonspecific and extremely frustrating.

        And if someone’s having sex with one out of every ten people, that person has a big problem — how will he or she ever get any sleep? (Tacky of me, I know.)

        (Btw, I like “confuddlement.” Michael used “confuddled” from time to time. Forgot to say that in my reply to your other comment.)

        Barb Caffrey

        August 17, 2010 at 1:37 pm

      • What really annoys me is that there are words like devastate, destroy, demolish, and probably a bunch more nice “de” words that do mean what they want to mean. Why not use them, and not the word that doesn’t mean that?


        August 17, 2010 at 2:10 pm

      • Betsy, this was Michael’s contention as well — I agree with him, and agree with you, and honestly don’t know why writers do this. Perhaps a few of ’em have been overruled by editors or agents who aren’t as “up” on words as we are — but then again, most of the agents and editors I’ve followed over the years (by their work, by their blogs, etc.) are _just_ as up on these things as we are.

        Michael felt it was downright illiterate to use “decimate” to mean “kill a lot of (whatever).” So do I. Which is why I know _we_ both tried to use the other words you used here — devastate, destroy, demolish, etc. — but I can’t answer for these other, lazier writers. (Unless they’re doing so in dialogue, there’s no excuse IMO to use “decimate” to mean “kill a lot of (whatever).” In dialogue, a writer can get away with much — and unfortunately this and many other inelegant phrases are used, often. But I know in my own case, I’d not use “decimate” in any way except precisely — kill one out of every ten — even in dialogue unless the character using this word is an extremely ignorant, short-sighted person.)

        Barb Caffrey

        August 17, 2010 at 3:01 pm

  2. What is causing me frustration is the continual evolution of task specific language. That is, speaking perfectly plain English to a co-worker but because they come from a different work semantics background, they misunderstand what you’re saying.

    Case in point; I was talking to my supervisor last week and used the term “inactive” to refer to records (files for the laymen out there) that had not had any documents added to them in over a year, and she thought I was talking about closed records, which refers to those that are ready to be archived. She was speaking Government of Alberta Program Analyst English and I was speaking Government of Canada Records Management English. Our confusion came because we each thought we knew what language the other was speaking (English), but we were speaking in different dialects.

    Later I realized what the problem was and was able to relieve her confuddlement (combination of Confusion and befuddlement).

    William Katzell

    August 17, 2010 at 4:13 am

    • This happens, William, though I’m sorry about the confusion you’ve suffered recently. Words mean many things to people beyond the “just words” aspect — some words are emotionally laden due to past specific instances in any given person’s life (which is why some people don’t like the word “wife,” “husband,” “spouse,” etc., even if they’re in a marital relationship). And as you said here, they can mean two totally different things even without the emotional component — language shifts, and specific skill-sets don’t always mesh well. (This is why Heinlein believed a “synthesist” would be needed, and be paid big bucks; so far it hasn’t happened, but you never know. I agree that we do need such an individual.)

      Barb Caffrey

      August 17, 2010 at 1:32 pm

  3. I’m not wading into this discussion, Barb, because my English is bad and I get confused all the time. Stupid ESL…


    August 19, 2010 at 2:49 am

    • Jason, that makes sense to me . . . don’t worry about it. I just appreciate that you read the blog and thought about it. You never know when down the line, something here may hit your brain in such a way that you get a story idea from it, or a dialogue chain, or who-knows-what-else. 😉

      Barb Caffrey

      August 22, 2010 at 1:27 am

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