Creating Futuristic Vocabulary

So I've been reading a lot of science fiction and dystopian this year. Something I've noticed that sets some books above others is the use of vocabulary.

I think each world that is different from our own, even in the slightest of ways, should have an operating vocab that the author can use. And that the reader can pick up on and relate to.

So how do you do this?

1. Be aware that such a need exists. It's okay to use familiar, but not commonplace, words. Does that make sense? For example, instead of saying "teacher," you might simply call the teachers in your word "educators." Sure, it means the same thing, but it signifies that your world has changed from this one to a futuristic one. Bonus: Readers don't have to work hard to figure out what you mean.

2. Even the simple things count. In a futuristic world, things have to appear changed. We run marathons now; they shouldn't run marathons in your post-apocalyptic society. You can use the same concept, but you should be aware of the vocabulary you create to portray it.

3. Beware the capitalized word. I often see novels with many capitalized words. It sort of marks the genre, especially for dystopias. I would simply caution to think long and hard about what should actually be capped, and what shouldn't.

4. Slang. Slang is constantly revolving. It's okay--and a good idea, I think--to create your own slang. Caution: Make sure it's not so far out of this world that readers can't figure out what you mean. You don't have to use the word "awesome" to characterize awesome. You know?

What do you think? Have you read any science fiction lately that makes excellent use of vocabulary? I have, and I highly recommend BIRTHMARKED by Caragh M. O'Brien. It is fabulous.


Anonymous said...

I like Beth Revis' use of "frexing" in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. It's used like "f-ing" or "freaking," but it's totally new. Considering the FRX financed the ship Godspeed in the book, I found it highly believable that FReXing made it into their vocabularly, although the author never makes that connection. It is something the reader figures out on their own.

There's also "chutz" which is like "putz" and "brilly" which means something awesome or beautiful.

Roberta Walker said...

I have to admit, I will pout down a book if I have to struggle with the 'language' in the first few pages. The authors that do it well make it believable but still 'different'. I am taking a world building class online and there's a whole section dedicated to creating a readable language - I'm excited to begin that part!

Matthew MacNish said...

Hands down the best example I have seen of this is Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker. If you've read it you know what I mean.

I've just started The Maze Runner and I'm struggling with the slang a little. I mean the words selected, or made up, seem like pretty good choices, but there is so much of it, so soon, that it's a little hard to swallow at first.

Angie Smibert said...

The best all time example I can think of is Clockwork Orange. Recent? MT Anderson's FEED.

Kulsuma said...

Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series uses quite a few unusual words like 'bubbly' in regards to how characters feel.

In general, I think unusual words can add a lot to the world the author creates but it's a fine line between loving it and struggling to understand what's going on.

Unknown said...

Part of my story is set 200 years in the future, and vocab was one of the biggest challenges. Most things, I made a small shift. But it was one of those things that I would rather have done too little than too much.

And Tara, I totally didn't catch the frex/FRX connection. With AtU, as soon as they used the word "brilly", I found myself thinking of their voices in a British dialect. :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I agree with other comments here that the slang in MT Anderson's FEED was brilliant and easily picked up, as was Beth's Across the Universe.

Elana Johnson said...

Great examples, everyone! I loved UGLIES and FEED and they are both worthy of excellent vocabulary.

Tara, I so didn't catch the whole Frex/FRX connection. But AtU had fantastic world-building, including the language.

Krispy said...

Love this topic. I think it's one of the harder things about writing fantasy and Sci-Fi because you want the language to sound natural and not like it's forced.

Carol Riggs said...

Yes, Feed by MT Anderson does this, and it works well. Argh, on the capped words...I will have to make sure I'm not overdoing those for my last novel as well as my WiP. I love making up new words--sometimes they work better than others. :D

Dadrocant said...

One very good example of the power that new terms in Science Fiction have is William Gibson's Neuromancer. Back in 1984 the word Cyberspace was one of those words invented by an SF writer to characterize his world, and in the end it creeps straight into our own world.

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dolorah said...

I'm working on that now. In my cyborg fairy tale I'm trying to find some curs words that are self explanatory but nothing like what we use now. Frashing is one of my words. I just hope its not to close to the original.

A very good post Elena.


PaulsNotDead said...

I'm looking for some future jargon for a quasi-cyerpunk novel I have on the bank-burner while I write my fantasy novel. One thing I notice in sci-fi slang is that the words most likely to be futurized in fiction are the ones least likely to change in real life-- curse words. The reason for made-up curse words in scifi is obvious, of course. But in real life, F**k, sh*t, ass and wh*re have all had the same meanings since at least Shakespeare's time.

When I try to decide which words to change for my future setting, I look at what words have changed in the past. The most common one seems to be the word for "fool" or "stupid person." Sadly the trajectory of words like "fool," "imbecile," and "retard" is pretty consistent. (I'm gonna be optimistic in my scifi story though and presume that in a few centuries we will no longer be using handicaps as insults.) Another one is anything related to sex. Just a few decades ago "making love" just meant flirting.

I don't have any concluding statement here, so I'll just say that creating future slang is frelling fun but frakking hard.