A steampunk world–any fantasy world, really–will have more depth and feel more real if it’s given its own language. I’m not talking about fantasy languages the reader can’t understand (thanks for that, Tolkien), but slang. This article is about where slang comes from and ways to make up your own.
Slang is a bit harder to come up with than a fantasy language. A foreign word can be completely made up and still work, but slang often uses recognizable words in unusual ways. Done wrong, it makes the world feel silly. But done right, it not only makes a fantasy culture feel deeper, it can provide clues to the culture itself.
PART I: ORIGINS OF SLANG
There are innumerable mechanisms by which language naturally evolves, any of which you can use to make your own language. These are just a few of them.
Slang often arises as a roundabout way of discussing harsh or taboo topics. For example, English has a thousand euphemisms for sex and death. Kicked the bucket. Knocked her up. Sleeping with the fishes. Sleeping with each other. And so on.
In the world I created for my short story “Pawn’s Gambit,” an air pirate might “rack” a girl, especially a “woman of easy virtue” (prostitute). Though they are essentially hitmen, knockers don’t kill people, they pack them (why don’t they knock them? I don’t know. Language is funny like that).
Metaphors — idioms, really — are slang’s cultured cousin. “Bite the bullet” used to be quite literal, but became a metaphor for doing anything painful or difficult. Criminals want to stay “under the radar,” even if they’ve never flown a plane in their lives.
Metaphor is a powerful tool to make up slang unique to a fantasy culture. There’s no radar in the air pirates’ world, but a good pirate knows to stay “in the clouds” even if they’re not aboard an airship. A “spot of blue in the dark” literally refers to ocean without the deadly dark water, but metaphorically means hope in the midst of trouble.
Remember when “bad” meant cool? How about sick or phat? Sometimes slang is not a new word, but an altered meaning of an old one.
I didn’t use this method very often in the air pirates’ world — I tried, but the results often sounded contrived. One that worked, though, was the term “baron” for a shopkeeper. The idea was that “robber baron” used to be a derogatory term for a merchant who cheated you. Over time it came to be a common title for all merchants, good or bad. When it was shortened to simply “baron,” it became almost a term of respect, like a title.
Technically, jargon isn’t slang. The purpose of jargon is to allow its users to speak more precisely about technical issues in a given field. Slang, on the other hand, is often used to exclude non-members from a group. But the two are closely related, and jargon can become slang over time as knowledge of a field becomes more widespread (e.g. everyone knows what it means to download something now, but in 1980 the word was as obscure as “SNMP” is today).
Jargon can also take the form of a thieves’ cant or rhyming slang, where the intent is to exclude. As languages evolve, and these code languages become more generally known, they can become slang for a whole culture.
Just like their real-world, seaborne brethren, my air pirates have their own jargon, some of which has passed to the public. “Klack,” the word for a ship’s brig, can be used to mean any prison. Crewmen might be navvies, turners, swabbers, stokers, machinists, gunners, or just plain skylers — and all of those terms have passed into the language as metaphors. For example, a swabber is a generally derogatory term for someone with a crap job.
Language often evolves to make things quicker and easier to say, to the point of obscuring the origin of the phrase in question. “Goodbye” was once “God be with ye.” Internet acronyms occasionally find their way into spoken speech. And no one knows what the heck “okay” used to mean, but nearly every language uses it today.
Almost everything is shortened in the air pirates’ world. I mentioned the term “baron” before, and hardly anyone actually says “spot of blue in the dark;” they’re more likely to say “a spot in the dark,” “a spot of blue,” or even just “a spot.” Likewise, mercenaries are mercs, anchors are anchs, and centimeters are cents. (That last one actually comes from the Thai language, where word-shortening is practically a national sport).
Making up swear words is really, really, really hard. That’s because swearing is only effective when we decide it is so. There is nothing inherent about swear words to make them worse than any other word, only the meaning we assign to them. Most made-up swear words, therefore, sound silly to new readers because they have no offensive feelings about the word.
If you decide to make up swear words, imagine what kinds of things would offend members of your culture. References to sexuality, feces, or blasphemy work for almost any culture. But if your culture is particularly fantastic, you might decide other things (i.e. things that are normal to us) are vulgar to them.
I didn’t get too creative with the swearing in air pirates, preferring instead to choose words that sounded like swear words but weren’t. Words like flack and tullit. I also borrowed words from British slang like sod and bleeding, once again giving a feel of swearing without actually being offensive to the (American) ear.
PART II: BUILDING A LEXICON
Using euphemisms, metaphors, reverse meaning, jargon, shortening, and swearing, you should be able to come up with a number of phrases to make your made-up culture feel more real. It is a lot of work, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Here are some tips that will help.
UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE
Many of the methods outlined above require an understanding of the culture involved. Metaphors arise from what a culture is most familiar with: a farming culture will use farming metaphors, an underwater civilization will use ocean metaphors, etc. Jargon that has transitioned to mainstream slang will be dependent on the subculture from which it came (in my case, pirate culture).
My air pirates’ world is one of airships, pirates, and the ever-present fear of dark water. Knowing the foundations of their metaphors made it easier to come up with new ones, which I often (but not always) evolved or shortened so the source wouldn’t be obvious. After all, modern slang is a mix of phrases whose origins are immediately apparent and phrases whose origins have been forgotten. I wanted the air pirates’ language to be similarly mixed.
TAKE IT ONE STEP AT A TIME
Don’t try to come up with 100 idioms at once. That’ll drive you nuts, and you won’t even use half of them.
While writing air pirates, I mostly came up with slang words as I needed them. Sometimes I thought, “I feel like they’d have a special word for this. But what?” But mostly I came up with my own slang whenever I found myself using modern idioms and cliches. This had the added benefit of wiping my manuscript (relatively) clean of cliches.
Every time I made up a new slang term or idiom, even if I didn’t end up using it, I wrote it down in a separate document. Sometimes I’d make up an idiom only to cut it as part of a larger revision. But I still had the idiom saved in my “Pirate Slang” document for use later.
Then every time I needed a slang term or idiom, I’d skim through the existing ones to see if anything fit. Sometimes I’d use a word I already came up with, sometimes not. If nothing else, skimming the old words made it easier to come up with something new that fit the existing pirate lexicon.
PART III: NOT SCARING OFF THE READER
So you’ve built a dictionary for your made-up culture. Now how do you teach the reader this new slang without overwhelming them? Also without resorting to cheap tricks or boring exposition? Here are some guidelines I use.
IF THE MEANING OF THE SLANG IS OBVIOUS FROM CONTEXT, NO EXPLANATION IS NEEDED. Don’t give it. Seriously, the reader doesn’t need every phrase explained. Often context is enough:
“I’m sorry. About . . . about what I said.”
Sam waved it off. “Nothing. Birds in the wind.”
IF THE MEANING IS UNNECESSARY TO FOLLOW THE STORY, DON’T GIVE IT. Have you ever read the poem “Jabberwocky”? Half the words don’t make any sense at all. A couple you can figure out from context (frabjous, galumphing), but most you just don’t need to know (slithy toves, borogroves, tulgey wood, and pretty much everything else) — and that’s okay. You can understand the story fine without them.
IF THE MEANING IS NOT NECESSARY YET, DON’T GIVE IT. Not every term has to be explained right away, even if it’s important later. When it becomes important, the reader won’t mind you stopping for a paragraph to explain it. In an air pirates novel I’m writing, for example, the word “jacks” is introduced on p. 15:
B’Lasser flashed a foot of sharp steel.
“Oy, oy, oy!” Dean came running out from the back, hands waving. “No blood! You gotta fight, you take it down the road. Else I call the jacks in here.”
There’s a little context, but the full explanation doesn’t come for another 25 pages when an actual jack is introduced as a character.
WHEN YOU FINALLY DO NEED TO EXPLAIN IT, there are a number of ways you can do it — more than I list here, certainly:
1) Include a character who doesn’t “get” the slang and needs it explained, or who can at least identify with the reader’s confusion:
Hagai looked around. “What did you do with my friend?”
“Easy, lad,” Sam said. “I just showed him the way out. I didn’t pack him either, if that’s what you’re flailing about. ‘Sides, man like him, float in the dark he would.”
Hagai didn’t know what most of that meant. “So . . . you didn’t kill him?”
“Nay, Gai, I didn’t kill him.” Sam’s smile mocked him.
2) Use context. You know that first tip, where if the context is there already you don’t need to explain it? It works both ways: if you need to explain it, add context. For example, “grubbing:”
Normally, if Sam wanted a snack, he would’ve just grubbed it off the shelf while no one was looking. But Crike Cappel, who’d been grubbing a lot longer than Sam had, taught him to establish “legitimacy.”
3) When all else fails, tell. You don’t want to do this often, but don’t be afraid of it either. You gotta do what you gotta do, aye?
Fitch came back a few minutes later with the keys. As he opened Sam’s cell door, Sam said, “Where’s the guard?”
“Sleeping,” which meant he was unconscious.
Notice, too, these modes of introduction work for any made-up terms in any genre. Though obviously speculative fiction (like steampunk) will have more of it. Remember it’s about the evolution of language and the feel of your culture. Think of what’s important to them — or what used to be important (perhaps before the introduction of the steam industry?) — and how those words might have evolved over time and usage. Pretty soon, you should have characters with a unique vocabulary that helps define the world even more.