Guest Post: “Created Words in Science Fiction — how do they work?” by Juliette Wade

I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. Today, in my absence, as a special treat, I am so pleased to have a guest post by my friend, and fellow Analog-writer, Juliette Wade In addition to being a wonderful writer of stories, Juliette is also a linguist by training. I urge you to check our her website, TalkToYoUniverse, and follow her on twitter, @JulietteWade. And with that said, let me hand it off to Juliette.


One of science fiction’s defining characteristics is the creation of new words to describe  worlds. While television and movies have seen a recent trend toward the creation of entire alien languages, word creation is vitally important also for written stories, even those set in worlds only slightly different from our own. I thought I’d take a look at some of the kinds of words which are created for science fictional contexts, and discuss how they work.

Created words can be arranged on a scale between most and least familiar. At the most familiar end are words from English which have simply been re-purposed for use with novel concepts. At the other end are completely alien words. Naturally, the further toward the alien end of the scale the words are, the more difficulty a reader will have in understanding them. Eventually, a narrative too full of alien words can become impenetrable, so my own rule of thumb says that if you want to create a sense of familiarity between the reader and the story, use as few alien words as possible, and if you want to create a sense of alienness, use more. If we look at examples from science fiction stories, we find that authors don’t use only one kind of word. They mix words from different areas of the scale.

Let’s get specific.

You typically know an alien word when you see one. They look like this: “Na’vi” (James Cameron’s Avatar) “Ariekei” (Embassytown by China Mieville) “Dirokime” (A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge). They bear no linguistic relation to English, other than being written in English characters. Luckily, English speakers do still have ways to pull meaning out of them.

We use our sense of onomatopoeia, our sense of the “feel” of sounds. We’re familiar with onomatopoeia from words like “bow-wow,” and “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but also from words like “drip” and “drop,” “gallumph,” “pitter-patter” and “smash.” You can read my article about onomatopoeia at this link: http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2008/09/bow-wow-boom-smash-onomatopoeia.html . We find that, even across languages, voiced sounds like “b” “d” “g” etc. tend to occur in actions or sounds with greater intensity or lower pitch, while their unvoiced equivalents “p” “t” “k” tend to occur in actions with lesser intensity. It’s no surprise that when I created an alien word for a large waterfall, I decided to call it “sàth,” using a wide-open vowel and two unvoiced fricatives (s and th) that make you hear the rushing of water. I didn’t plan that word consciously, but imagine how much smaller that waterfall would have seemed if I’d named it “sìth” — and if I’d called it “dìt,” it wouldn’t have seemed very waterfall-like at all. We also use resemblance between words to evaluate potential meanings, as when we see a word like Frank Herbert’s musical instrument, the “baliset” (Dune). Inside that word live the echoes of familiar musical words — “balalaika,” “quartet,” or maybe “quintet” — helping to give the word its “feel.”

Beyond those hints, a reader must rely on the author to teach the meaning of the word. This brings me to another type of science-fictional semantics, all the way on the opposite end of the scale. Sometimes authors will take English words that we know very well, and change their significance for alien worlds. Take the word “Net”, or “Hosts” for example. The trick with using these types of words is that they can’t be too specific to our own world. The vast distributed computer system that extends across the galaxy in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is called the Net; it wouldn’t make any sense to call it the World Wide Web, or even the Web, because that term has come to seem archaic in our own world, and Vinge’s Net is anything but archaic. Frank Herbert uses “Voice” to describe a tone of voice that creates a visceral command in the mind of its hearers. China Mieville uses the word “Hosts” to describe the alien residents of the planet on which his fictional human embassy is located. In doing so he defines the social relationship that the aliens bear to the humans, one of hospitality and also of tolerance, while leaving room for the aliens to be powerful and inscrutable.

A word becomes generic when it has been heard in so many different contexts that no single context wins an overriding association with it. That makes it an ideal candidate for extension to an alien environment. As with fully alien words, the author’s job is to teach readers what the word means in that science fictional environment. You can even see authors telling readers to look out for extra or different meaning when they use Capitalization, which suggests Greater or Alternate Significance.

So what other features can put us on the lookout for words that signify new concepts in a science fictional world? When we see alien words, our simple lack of understanding tells us to look for a new meaning; with redefined English words, capitalization can be a hint that pricks up our semantic senses. In both of those cases, we’re looking for the author to teach the new significance using surrounding context. However, those aren’t our only tools. There are two other word types I’d like to mention here:

  1. Derivative words
  2. Translation-derived words
  3. Compound coinages

These are all very common in futuristic science fiction, because they are clearly words from our own world, yet they can be quickly understood on the basis of their derivations.

Derivative words are terms that are derived from word roots we know — using common grammar rules like adding prefixes and suffixes — but which don’t result in existing English words. Take for example the word “suspensor,” used for antigravity devices in Frank Herbert’s Dune. You can start with the concept of “suspending” to suggest antigravity, but you can’t go in the direction of “suspender” or readers will expect to be holding up their pants. Herbert therefore chooses another form of the root, “suspense,” to get to “suspensor.” That’s a word we’ve never heard, but which we can understand instantly with minimal contextual support.

The very same concept, antigravity, is derived differently by Vernor Vinge in A Fire Upon the Deep. He starts with the word “gravity,” shortens it to its root, “grav,” and then adds the Latin prefix of negation, “a-“, finally arriving at the word “agrav.” Same function, different derivation, and it results in an entirely different yet still comprehensible word.

China Mieville needed a word for an artificial life form in Embassytown, but clearly didn’t want to use familiar words like robot or android for his very-far-future context, so he began with the older word “automaton” and shortened it to “autom.” Embassytown also features a word that I thought at first was entirely alien: “miab,” a supply ship. When I did some research, however, I discovered the acronym “MIAB” meaning “message in a bottle.” Lucky readers who are familiar with the acronym should be able to access that meaning to support the term as he uses it.

Another technique that can require lucky readers is that of translation-derived terms. These are generated by derivation from Earth languages — but not English. Zilpha Keatley Snyder uses more than one language to derive words in her book, Below the Root. She allows the German word “Erd” (earth/terrestrial) to name her underground city, Erda, and its people, the Erdlings, without having to call them Earthlings (which they certainly are not!). She names the people of the trees Kindar, based on the German Kinder (children). She also takes the word “nid” (nest) from French to describe the hammock-like beds that the Kindar sleep in. This works best in an Earth-derived culture where the use or retention of such words might be more plausible. That problem is less likely to occur with English-derived words, which are more easily construed as creations of an English-speaking society (represented by the narrator) or as translations into English (from the ambient alien language, for the sake of story comprehension).

Compounds are actually just another type of grammatical derivation, but there are so many of them that I think they deserve a separate treatment of their own. To make a compound, all you do is take two words whose meanings are known, and put them together to create an obviously alien word whose meaning can nevertheless be easily derived.

Vernor Vinge uses the word “coldsleep” for suspended animation, “hightalk” for a style of alien speech that involves using high frequency sounds, and “incalling” to describe summoning people for a gathering. Frank Herbert’s word “stillsuit” combines the concept of a “still,” or distilling machine, and “suit” to describe a suit that distills clean drinkable water from the body’s excretions. China Mieville combines “technology” and “enzymes” to create “techzymes,” while “flesh” and “matter” become “fleshmatter.”

I myself was recently looking for a casual word to describe police officers in the future, and decided to reference the checkered ribbons on the hats of Australian police alongside the British word “bobby” to get “checkerbobby.” Notice that the “feel” of these compound words is determined by the feel of the underlying words you pick, with the result that my word for police sounds more teasing than insulting, Vinge and Herbert’s compounds feel more elemental, and Mieville’s sound scientific.

In an article of this length, I can only scratch the surface of this topic. However, I hope that these examples can get you thinking in a different way about created words — both those you encounter in your reading, and the ones you create in your own writing.

It’s a whole new world of meaning, waiting to be explored.

Thanks very much to Jamie Todd Rubin for inviting me to guest post! If you’d like to read more articles like this one, you can find them at my blog, TalkToYoUniverse.


Juliette Wade has made multiple appearances in Analog magazine, where her most recent story, “The Liars,” was illustrated by Michael Whelan for the October 2012 cover. She is inspired in her writing by her experience living in France and Japan, and her studies of Japanese, Anthropology, and Linguistics. She blogs about language and culture in SF/F at TalkToYoUniverse.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: “Created Words in Science Fiction — how do they work?” by Juliette Wade

  1. Thanks, Juliette.

    I think, though, that some people shy away from science fiction because of this feature–“Oh, I don’t know what all of those sci-fi terms mean”. What SF fans read for and enjoy is something that turns others off.

    It’s something to think about.

  2. Paul, that’s an interesting perspective. I’ve heard people talk about not knowing what sci-fi terms mean, and it’s possible that they are simply left behind by them, as I was initially by the word “miab.” That’s enough to make some people stop reading, but I don’t suppose everyone will. Fantasy also uses a lot of unknown words, but we don’t hear the same kinds of complaints, to my knowledge. I think science fiction also has a tendency to build on itself, i.e. to use familiar concepts like FTL drive and brain software, androids, etc., etc. and expect people to know what to anticipate from them. This may be another factor that causes people not to know what sci-fi terms mean – not so much the constructed words that are intended to be recoverable through analysis, but those that come from previous works of science fiction which have since become canon.

  3. Paul- I think that it’s an important feature of SF because it represents something that the target audience enjoys. I love the wordplay and linguistics that go into SF writing, and a I think that a lot of readers of SF enjoy parts of that, too.

    No genre can please every reader. I read very few mystery stories, personally. That’s not because mystery is a bad genre, or it’s doing something wrong. It’s because it’s not to my interest.

    Many people complain about the amount of world-building in SF and Fantasy. That doesn’t mean writers need to change how they write. It means different people have different tastes. If we took everything out of every genre that some people disliked, we wouldn’t have much left.

    Juliette- I wonder if you could apply some of your tricks in the opposite direction. You mention sound-meaning associations. Many of these are cultural, although there have been some studies arguing for universals. You could emphasize the alien-ness of your culture by twisting the common associations of your target audience. You’d have to be careful, because it might turn some people off to completely subvert their cultural background this way, but it would be a fun experiment in a short story, perhaps.

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