On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 14: Fake Words

Science fiction and fantasy are good at fake words. They have to be. Without fake words, how could writers realistically describe fake things? “Snake that gives you pleasant dreams and takes away anxiety” is nice but “Dreamsnake” is a lot easier to type, say, and read. “Helicopter with bird wings instead of rotors” is nicely descriptive, but “avicopter” gets the idea across much more nicely. There’s no reason why Klingon should be using the metric system — or the Imperial, for that matter — but with a bit of context, “Kellicam” gets the job done.

Sometimes science fiction writers borrow fake words from each other. Left Hand of Darkness used the term “ansible” for a communication device capable of transmitting information across interstellar distance at instantaneously. One of the Hugos I read after that — Ender’s Game —  used it again and gave LHoD indirect credit for it by mentioning that someone borrowed the term from an old book.

What about the rules? What do they say about fake words? This point of contention comes up often in writer’s groups. Many insist the practice is evil. Just use the nearest available English word as and rely on description to handle the rest. Others insist nothing less than arrogance demands that all alien species be fluent in English. This camp claims no problem with generating their very own words.

So, what did the Hugos and Nebulas do? Some totally made up words. Others generated words by using Latin and Greek or Germanic roots and affixes. Some did both, but I don’t recall any of them doing neither.

In my own writing, I have totally made some woods up (urushalon, kiandarai). I have also built words from roots and affixes of other languages (astrogator, avicopter). Sometimes, I have badly spelled those on purpose or combined the two techniques (seeyay, atravay). The reaction from readers is mixed. Some of my betas, critique partners, and readers have had no problems, at least not that they’ve told me. I do sometimes get feedback that a word I used — even a perfectly good but less common English word — caused confusion.

So what’s a speculative fiction writer to do? Strive for clarity.

Whether you repurpose an English word like Dune’s “spice,” or use a less common English word like “piste,” or build a word like “avicopter,” or totally make one up like “kiand,” use context and description, or even some outright telling *gasp*, to make the meaning clear. Do this not only the first time the word comes up, but periodically throughout the tale. Link the reader back to the meaning of the word.

Clarity. That’s the thing.

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