Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding Colloquialisms

This post was originally written and posted September 8th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Still off the grid in Alaska. This post was uploaded ahead of time for your viewing pleasure.

So today’s topic is a bit of an interesting one. Let’s put forth a scenario to get us started. Have you ever been reading a story that was either Sci-fi or Fantasy, and then suddenly been reminded that it’s a book when a piece of dialogue sounds completely out of place? I’m not talking foreshadowing or eye-catching, I mean something that’s completely ill-placed and breaking of the book’s world, like a medieval fantasy character using the phrase “awesome” or making a political joke that relies on modern political climates to be funny—which means in the context of the book, it’s entirely out of place.

It happens. Surprisingly enough quite a bit, in a lot of literature. If not with jokes or slang, then with characters swearing (which in a lot of books, tends to be the biggest offender. The number of times I’ve read a book where characters who have a completely alien pantheon of gods use Judeo-Christian swear words …). It’s a trend.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s an author who didn’t make colloquialisms part of their worldbuilding.

See, the thing is, colloquialisms and slang are one of those things that we don’t often think about unless it’s pointed out to us, because by definition a colloquialism is not something formally recognized (except in title) nor literately correct. A colloquialism is just a quirk of day-to-day dialogue, an odd phrase or word that has taken on a new—and often temporary—meaning. They’re rooted in culture. Deeply rooted in it, in fact. So deeply rooted that most of the time, we don’t even think of them. We just use them, lose them, and pick up new ones.

For example, take the word “cowabunga,” a term used as an expression of happy amazement and interest in the early 90s. For most users of this word, it was inspired by the show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which the characters used it as an expression when something really good and interesting happened (or as many of us today would say, when something “cool” happened).

However, TMNT was not the origin of the phrase. TMNT was merely bringing back and older term used as a greeting by 60s Southern California surf culture. So in the 90s, the term was used to express amazement, but to the SoCal surfers of the 60s, it was a greeting. And where did they get it?

Turns out, the original use, and origin of the word, is from an old kid’s show called The Howdy Doody Show, wherein a Native American character, rather than use the cliche “How?” phrase to greet the peanut gallery, played with the pronunciation to say “cow,” and then (supposedly) added on the “abunga” because it sounded fun.

And somehow, that phrase ended up being picked up by surfers a decade later. Then, when the designers of TMNT were creating the series characters, they made the decision to include “cowabunga” as a phrase and nod to surfer culture. They way they used it, however, was different, and it took on a whole new meaning to a new generation.

This isn’t anything new. Colloquial slang comes and goes at an almost terrifying pace. Most of you reading this blog can probably recall slang phrases and word that you used as a kid that no longer have popular use today. Or slang phrases that really didn’t mean too much outside of a small group of friends.

XKCD Illustrates this perfectly

If you want a really good example of this, take a look at this list of colloquials and slang from the 1920s. What’s truly interesting is that some of these phrases have stuck around, leaving examples of their use in every decade since their appearance. Others have vanished, died out. And some have even recently resurfaced, brought back into the modern vernacular by popular songs or TV shows.

All right, all right. “This is all very fascinating,” I hear some of you saying, “but so what?”

Well, the key here is to realize that every culture and time has these colloquialisms, and to take advantage of this in our writing. Rather than just sitting back and making use of the same colloquialisms and phrases we’ve grown up and used ourselves, we should realize that our characters, along with our world, will likely have their own batches of slang that they use in place of our own.

This is something I’ve been working on with my own writing as of late. Spending time on Colony, one thing I realized was that I was falling into the trap of simply having characters set in a future over a hundred years from now use slang a dialogue that was distinctly modern, despite the fact that setting and culture of the time probably wouldn’t have led to such phrases existing. So I started making changes (and more will probably be made, the book needs some work in that respect). The catchphrase for “cool” became “prime.” A dead end or point where no one was getting anything done, became to the locals of the colony world “dead water.” Getting in over one’s head became likewise “caught in the tide” or “stuck in a riptide.” A derogatory term for someone became “chum sucker” (ew).

Now, while most of would sound odd or even strange to us if used in a conversation, that’s kind of the point. When you’re writing about a culture that’s removed in both time and place from us, it’s necessary to realize that such a culture might be a little different (though still recognizable). Part of your goal when writing about it is to make the reader feel like it’s real, after all. And nothing helps that along more than giving your characters strong slang and colloquial.

So where do you start? Like with most other things, if you’re going to build a world and characters from scratch, start there. Even if you’re going to make a version of our existing world. Look at where some of our own colloquialisms come from and work backwards to see what inspired them, and then see what phrases a similar line of thought could create in our characters culture and situation. “Prime,” for example, in the universe of Colony, is similar to “cool” in that it’s a single word with a maleable meaning (colloquials and slang don’t need to worry about correctness). In this case, it’s replaced “cool” as the slang for similar. There isn’t any real justification for it aside from the fact that it sounds “cool” and is quick to say while being fluid to a number of meanings. In other words, a perfect slang.

Other colloquialisms and phrases can come out of your world’s unique history. No one in your medieval fantasy, for example, is going to use the term “Grammar Nazi.” It’s just not going to happen unless you actually had a very widely known, world-altering Nazi party somewhere in your fantasy’s past.

But what could you use instead? Well, that’s up to you, but it should be something that is part of the world you’ve created. Maybe a famous ancient bard/playwright named Gerin was a stickler for grammatical correctness to the extent that he offended a king and got himself beheaded, and so people say “Don’t be a Gerin” when someone is being a stickler for something at the wrong time.

Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? And straightforward enough. All you really need to do for colloquialisms is dig into your world a little and let it influence your writing.

Well, ultimately it probably won’t be as simple as it sounds to remind yourself of this when working, since we tend to try and stick with our own slang the majority of the time. Reminding yourself to use cultural lingo is actually a little tricky, since you’ll be trying to overcome your own verbal tics as you do it.

But the effect is worth it. Colloquialism and slang, despite their oddness, are an unmistakable part of culture, and making them a part of your world and your characters will do much to increase the life and vibrancy of your creation. Turns of a phrase, abbreviated words, slang … These are all things that indicate a living world, one that stands on its own. When you have characters use phrases that aren’t part of the world (or redone phrases that are literally word replacements which a lot of fantasy does), these become reminders to readers that the world is merely a construct, a play which the reader is merely observing.

We don’t want that. Well, not normally. What we want is a world our readers can lose themselves in, a world that’s seamless and real.

And as small and inconsequential as they may seem, colloquialisms, slang, and other types of language based phrases can do a lot to help with that.

Want a challenge for the week? Look back on something you’ve written and come up with some in-universe colloquialisms for your characters to use.

See you all next week!

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