Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
Lewis Carroll’s bizarre poem, “The Jabberwocky”, remains required reading for many children’s literature courses. Why on earth do we expose kids to such nonsense? Even Alice (of Through the Looking-Glass fame) is bewildered by it.
Imaginary words spark imagination.
Everyone reading that famous stanza has their own vision of what a mome rath looks like, and most of us have tried to gyre and gimble at some point in our lives, even if we called it something else.
I’m a firm believer in the right to invent words. My bias in this arena may come from the fact that I am the parent of children who invent new words almost daily. Many of those words become part of our family lexicon. For example, my son once complained that his vision got blibbery when he cried. Well, of course it does. So does mine.
One of my favorite ways to create new words is switching up the use of suffixes. Shakespeare did it, and I think he was on to something. The guy added something like 2000 words to the standard English vocabulary.
For example, why shouldn’t I say, “He unshouldered his back pack and took out a pen”? You can shoulder a back pack, can’t you? Why not unshoulder it? [Of course, as I write this article, the computer is marking everything with red squiggles. Hmph.]
Another way to create new words is to play around with the parts of speech (which the Bard also did). You know, things like verbing a noun, as in when we say “Can you Xerox this for me?”
Or when I say verbing. (Again, you knew what I meant, didn’t you?)
Don’t let a dictionary–a finite book (or computer program)–tell you what does or does not convey meaning. Words are instruments for expressing ideas, and if there isn’t a word already extant for what you want to say, then you can jolly well make your own. If you use it in a familiar way or with clear context clues, readers will understand it just fine.
But now let’s think about practical application when we’re creating not only new words, but new worlds…
When painting a picture of an imaginary world with foreign and exotic elements, I like to consider three things:
the nature, the clarity, and the frequency of imaginary words.
This is about what the words look or sound like. Too often, sci-fi and fantasy writers feel that imaginary words are the time to pull out all the high-scoring Scrabble letters. Js, Xs and Zs abound. While this certainly is different from our normal speech, it has become cliché and feels unnatural in a text that is otherwise in plain English.
Hundreds of languages around the world sound foreign and mysterious to our ears. Just listen to Hawaiians coo with soft consonants and enough vowels to fill the ocean. That’ll take you to another world! Scandinavians sound like they’re gargling, and many Arabic tongues sound as if people are perpetually dealing with hairballs. Japanese always makes me think of an old fashioned typewriter.
Point being: When (in English) we’re trying to make something sound foreign, we have more options than just Xs and Zs. This is not to say don’t use those letters, but not every new word needs to look like the name or a new sports car model or Xbox game.
This is about meaning. While I don’t recommend including distracting footnotes or glossaries to define new terms, some context clues can go a long way to give readers a sense of what they should be imagining. If, for example, a sentence reads, “She felt the wind of the buyu’s wings “, the reader can discern that a buyu is probably some kind of big bird. The details come in pieces until the picture is constructed in the mind’s eye.
A special quality of English is that it’s incredibly easy to invent new words which are immediately understood because of suffixes, etc. We can verbify things and go a’ nouning at will, and the readers can follow so easily they don’t know they’re looking at imaginary words. Red squiggles may appear under words like unshouldered, flashjumped, or holo-deck, but our brains tell us they’re real words because they convey a clear meaning.
This has to do with not overdoing it. Unless you’re Lewis Carroll–or Dr. Seuss–chances are any story or poem with fully 50% imaginary words is not going to make the grade. (And those fellows had illustrations to help with comprehension.) Generally speaking, imaginary words are a spice to be sprinkled, not a gravy to be slathered. They lend an exotic flavor to the narrative without taking over and obscuring the story underneath.
From early childhood, it is in our linguistic natures to invent new words, some of which become part of our lexicon for the rest of our lives. Making those words stick in the memories of our readers will require careful attention to their nature, clarity and frequency.