Where to look for inspiration when inventing words for your fantasy writing.
To write, you need words.
To write well, you need a vocabulary—preferably, a large one. And this isn’t so you can show off and write about sitting in a puddle of your own mucilage while bound in a brodequin and tortured in a tenebrous tower.
Readers have it easy: they’re given context for each word and it’s usually sufficient to intuit a meaning. Writers have to pluck a precise word and understand most of its denotations and connotations and create a fitting context (all of which happens simultaneously); therefore, writers need access to a wide roaming ground, plentiful in detail and depth, and an effective search method.
The roaming ground metaphor offers little when it comes to nonfiction writing (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write about fish, go explore the lake), or when it comes to fiction writing set in the real world (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write murder mysteries set in a Bedouin camp, go explore the desert).
But when it comes to writing anything set in a world of your making, where you are God, where you give names—what happens to your roaming ground?
You can keep expanding it by learning concepts, but eventually you’re going to have to inventnames forthat new plant, that new race, that new arcology. You’ll even have to invent verbs and adjectives (somehow new adverbs seem to be the rarest). Two questions present themselves:
How does one invent?
How does one invent, coherently? (Because it’s likely you’ll need more than one word.)
The words you invent are the writer’s quirk words (as opposed to the reader’s quirk words)—they enrich the boundaries of language in general, not just the boundaries of a reader’s vocabulary.
Nonce-words and an anthology’s worth of short story ideas based on meld-compound words from Yeats, Cummings, and Hulme.
a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat
—E. E. Cummings
When I call my husband’s phrase a nonce-use, he thinks I said nonsense.
/nɒns juːs/ vs /ˈnɒns(ə)ns/
Try saying it quickly to someone who doesn’t expect it and you too are likely to get a blank look. Even the third time in three days.
Every word starts life as a neologism (a newly-coined expression). When a neologism is first uttered it is uttered for the nonce, meaning for a particular purpose or occasion. If it never gets uttered again that word becomes a nonce-word and its singular application a nonce-use.
Internet users—human and not—indulge in volumes of neologising, thereby making it less and less likely that any reasonable two-word combination is truly unique. But that doesn’t mean we’re liable to run out of options any time soon. And even if you’re not being entirely original, context nuances meaning.
In the other posts this week I’ve talked about binding two words together, either as a meld (without a gap) or as a compound (with a hyphen), to create a complex colour expression or a compressed, fresh description. The examples I quoted were meant to be interesting, but fairly reasonable and replicable in kind, if not in beauty and purpose. Now I quote the exotic.
By “exotic” I mean sufficiently interesting that taken as a title, I could write a whole short story based on it. Following each word, I offer the key phrases or sentences describing the ten-second flash-fiction that unspools in my mind.
Any commentary or association is not directly related to the original context but might be distantly affected by it, as I have read the three sources in their entirety.
fartravelled saltsea ships: Horizon, armada, modern Simbad, oceanliners to the Moon. It turns out this is a newly unearthed painting by Rob Gonsalves. (Similar to the painting on the cover of the Masters of Deception.)
lovebent fingers: Lovers, mothers, age, fronds of plants, tree branches, lifetime cycle and reuniting with Nature.
mothmirth: A swarm of drunken drones, dancing, before being sent into battle. One returns from battle, but mothmirth requires at least two.
spiderchild: Silk-weaver born into poor family, spins fortune, climbs nearby cliffs, scene with poor moonlit mooncalf. Moral: a quick climb often leads to a long drop.
singing-tired and weeping-drunk people: Wedding of a child-bride to an alien as an alliance between worlds. We’ll find out in two hundred years whether it worked.