Can I use that word?

Can I use that word?

Traditional fantasy sometimes runs up against the question of what words it can or can’t use to fit into the story world. In my experience, critique groups most commonly question the use of slang. They almost never mention words derived from names, but I wind up questioning myself about those.

Slang

Here’s my theory about slang. Whatever language the characters are speaking, it isn’t English. What we’re reading is a translation of their language. Like any language, theirs will have the normal range of registers. Most relevant, there’ll be formal and informal ways of speaking. Their language will have slang.

The trick is to represent slang without it jerking the reader out of the fictive world. I try to use it gently. In a book I have coming out next year, I do use terms such as “scamming” (rather than the more formal “cheating” or “tricking) and Jarka, the central character, talks about “going the whole hog” and using a “shiv.” But I also use the made up term “fright tale” to mean “scary story,” to create the feel of a different culture.

Be consistent

If you’re going to use slang, you need to do it from the start of the book so it doesn’t startle the reader when it turns up. A good example of this comes from a series that’s historical fiction, Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco series. Historical fiction shares some of the same language issues traditional fantasy does. The Falco series is set in ancient Rome, but Falco is a smart-mouthed detective who’d be at home in a TV series. His language is casual and irreverent. He classifies himself as the Emperor’s “flunkey.” He’s a recognizable human type who also fits happily into Roman customs and life.

One of my favorite examples of slang use comes from Cinda Chima’s Seven Realms series. One of the central characters, Han Alister, uses street slang that Chima based on 18th Century thieves slang. For example, he says “bingo” for “brandy,” and “scummer” for “filth” or “excrement.” Chima uses it consistently, and it quickly sets up Han’s voice. It’s remote enough from us that it still fits into the world Chima creates.

Words derived from names

In this category, I place terms such as “Adam’s apple.” Can I use that in a world where Adam is not named in a religious text? I choose to use “throat knot” instead. The derivation of “Adam’s apple” is widely known, and I don’t want to evoke it.

Less objectionable to me are terms that have faded into our language with their origins forgotten. Here, I’d put words such as “galvanized” and “mesmerized.” Those words originate from Galvani (a 19th century scientist who developed a method of coating metal) and Mesmer (a late 18th century doctor associated with what we now call hypnotism).

I wouldn’t use either of those terms.

Obsess about everything

These may seem like small considerations, but multiple small considerations add up to big effects. Writers obsess about it all.


The Wind Reader (Inspired Quill 2018) by Dorothy A. Winsor is available in e-book and paperback. E-book only $3.99.

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Marooned in a city far from home, Doniver struggles to earn enough to live without selling his soul in the process. Unfortunately someone wants him dead. He’ll need all his courage—and glib tongue—to survive.

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4 thoughts on “Can I use that word?

  1. It’s funny — the origins of galvanize and mesmerize are in the front of my brain, but I had to think for a minute about where “Adam’s apple” must come from!

    Now I need a list! Achilles’ heel, wouldn’t know him from Adam, John/Jane Doe, caesarean birth, Davy Jones’s locker, Grinch, Scrooge, Midas touch…. Are you formally tracking any?

    1. Holy cow. I never thought of most of those. Though I think I would have if I started to put them on a page.

      I didn’t know the derivation of galvanize until someone pointed it out to me. And I’m not tracking any of them. Probably having to capitalize something is a big clue.

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