Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s common knowledge that William Shakespeare’s plays and writing added more than 1000 words to the English language. It’s a legacy many writers seek to imitate, and yet it’s one which can turn readers off in an instant.
Inventing new words and phrases is difficult to pull off, and almost always hurts a writer’s work.
That’s less surprising when you realize…
Shakespeare wasn’t doing what we think he was doing
Like most received wisdom, the truth of Shakespeare’s word invention is more complex than it sounds. Shakespeare was a gifted student of language, and rather than simply inventing words where none were available, he manipulated what already existed.
The vast majority of words Shakespeare invented came from manipulating existing language – he used established nouns to create verbs of a similar meaning, or combined existing prefixes and suffixes with other common terms to form something similar but new.
For example, the term ‘swagger’ – meaning ‘to strut or carry oneself with arrogance’ and established in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – comes from the established word ‘swag’ meaning ‘to sway or swing heavily’.
That’s not to say that Shakespeare’s inventiveness is any less impressive, but it’s important to understand that rather than simply assigning meaning to entirely new sounds, Shakespeare was building on a genius understanding of existing words.
Many writers think that their readers’ ability to accept a new word as ‘right’ depends on it chiming correctly with the tone of the story. In fact, the acceptance of new terms depend on the readers’ innate appreciation of etymology.
Etymology is the study of words, specifically their origins and the way in which they have changed over time. Tracing words back to their source, seeing the effect that time has had on their use, shows that creating a word is not a simple task. Appreciating the fact that our language is a mix of contributing tongues put through the wringer of history makes it clear how rare it is to simply toss in a new sound and have it accepted.
Invented words and phrases which are devoid of history therefore tend to stick out exactly as an unfamiliar word from a foreign language would. Readers may be able to recognize it from context, but it will still catch their attention and divert their focus from the subject of what they’re reading to the language expressing it.
This phenomenon is often seen in fiction set in space. For instance, in Brian M. Bendis’ Guardians of the Galaxy the term ‘flarking’ is often used as a space-based curse word. Intended to echo the ‘f’ based curse in our own language and imply the influence of other worlds’ cultures, the epithet fails on both counts. Bendis sails too close to a familiar word with the exact same meaning, highlighting both the lack of unique meaning (and therefore the purpose of having a new word) and any sense of a real history behind his invention.
In contrast, the common sci-fi term ‘earthling’, first used in sci-fi by Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet, has roots in religious expression, with the suffix ‘ling’ implying both ‘follower or resident’ and ‘weak or childlike form’. This phrase worked (prior to perhaps becoming cliché) because the disdain intended by the term is expressed not just by its use but by the meaning of the component parts of the phrase. This phrase, however, was borrowed from existing language and put to new purpose. Again, as demonstrated by Shakespeare, invention can seldom hold a candle to the skilled use of what already exists.
The reader may not appreciate this consciously, but remember that we’re creatures who spend our entire lives learning to use language. The recognition of a word that hasn’t developed through use sets off many subconscious alarm bells, and readers don’t have to know why it doesn’t feel right to be annoyed by it.
The writer’s hand
The main problem with invented terms is that they remind the reader of the author’s presence. Awareness of the invented word triggers awareness of the inventor, and this in turn hurts suspension of disbelief.
As an affectation of the author, a new word or phrase can be irritating to the reader, and this irritation will only grow each time they see the term. In fact, attitudes to invented words are often surprisingly hostile, and it’s a brave author who includes a newly invented term in their book’s blurb.
This problem grows the more unique terminology you use, as many will view the challenge of learning each word as exclusionary – it’s a common joke that an over-inflated vocabulary is more aggressive than descriptive:
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Here it is, sir. The very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.
Blackadder: Every single one, sir?
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Every single word, sir!
Blackadder: Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: What?
Blackadder: “Contrafribularites”, sir? It is a common word down our way.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Damn!
Blackadder: Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I’m anispeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation.
– Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, ‘Ink and Incapability’, Blackadder the Third
This is less marked in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, where new ideas often demand new terminology, however with such a rich history of well-chosen terms, the judgement of new inventions is incredibly harsh.
Working with what exists
That’s not to say the inventive writer should despair; the options offered by existing words and phrases are often a more rewarding way to communicate fresh concepts.
If you’re exploring new ideas it can often be more engaging to attach an existing lexical framework rather than inventing new terms. Consider, for example, the use of nautical lexicon for space travel. References to ‘ships’, ‘fleets’ and even ‘docking’ are now widely accepted as the norm, and offer a whole range of under-explored terms for authors to play with.
Likewise, exploring mythology to find appropriate terms for fantasy work will often unearth lexical connections that only enrich the implied history of your subjects. This is also a fantastic way to find names for characters, and you can subtly foreshadow aspects of the story using choices which have an unacknowledged but real social context.
Terms should complement content
In the same way as a good writer creates background and depth for their worlds and characters, the words used to explore those worlds and characters should have history and meaning, and a little research into word origins is far more likely than invention to produce these qualities.
As tempting as it can be to put your own stamp on the language, it’s important to remember that words are tools of meaning. If your words challenge rather than inform your reader then it’s time to make sure your priorities as a writer are in the right place.
For more on putting your personal spin on a story check out 3 Question To Answer Before You Can Write With A Strong, Distinctive Voice, or for tips on protecting that vital suspension of disbelief try Are You In Danger Of Losing Your Readers’ Suspension Of Disbelief?
Have you put a book down because it was like learning a new language, or do you love diving into a different world full of new words and ideas? Get in touch with your thoughts in the comments below.