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Reader Discussions > Opinions on "Earth words" in sci fi?

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message 1: by EJ (new)

EJ Fisch (ejfisch) | 117 comments I suppose this question applies to both readers and writers of the sci fi genre, especially if it's a space opera that deals with space travel, alien races, etc.

Readers: do you guys have any opinions on the use of "Earth words" (such as American idioms and colloquialisms) in sci fi? I mean, I suppose if you were dealing with a futuristic setting here on Earth or in our existing galaxy, it wouldn't be a huge deal. But what if you were reading a story that took place in a fictional galaxy on an alien planet? Do you typically notice if typical idioms are used? The best example I can think of is someone "letting the insults roll off of her like water off a duck." It's kind of an extreme example because last time I checked, ducks don't exist on other planets ;) But if you were to come across something like that while reading, would you be like "Psshh, would they actually say that?" Or do you tend to ignore it and just treat it as a familiar phrase the author used to help you understand a concept?

Writers: how do you handle this scenario? Are there certain idioms you've used in your writing that realistically wouldn't exist in a space opera setting? Obviously you could make up new idioms. Building on my previous example, I could say "let the insults roll off of her like water off a [fictional space bird]" but a) it would probably end up sounding dumb, b) I feel like it would sound like I was trying too hard, and c) it would probably confuse readers.

Another thing I used to get stuck on was stuff like "ponytail" and "Mohawk" when describing hairstyles. Obviously we call it a ponytail because it looks like a horse's tail, and Mohawk is a Native American word, so would those words even exist on other planets? A little trick I came up with is to check Wookieepedia, and if it exists in Star Wars, I figure it's safe to include it in my own writing. Ducks actually do exist in Star Wars, but like I said that's kind of an extreme example.

I don't know - I've ended up kind of rambling here. What are everyone else's thoughts?


message 2: by Leonie (new)

Leonie (leonierogers) | 339 comments I notice more if current idioms are used in historical fiction or fantasy, to be honest.

Quite a number of our current idioms are based in the historical use of English as it is, so there's no reason to think that some (not all) would continue. Some words also take on a life of their own, and change meaning with time, so a ponytail might just end up meaning a hairstyle.

Having said that, I think writers need to look outside Americanisms if they want to take colloquialisms into the future in a believable way. (And even now, to be honest - not all people who read SF are from the US). Firefly did that well, using Chinese as a valid second language, and they did it regularly.


message 3: by Ronnie (new)

Ronnie (ronnieb) | 321 comments I'm with you, Leonie.

In fantasy there's only so far you can go before you have a character with a Lochaber axe made of Damascus steel.


message 4: by Leonie (new)

Leonie (leonierogers) | 339 comments Ronnie wrote: "I'm with you, Leonie.

In fantasy there's only so far you can go before you have a character with a Lochaber axe made of Damascus steel."


Exactly!


message 5: by Ronnie (new)

Ronnie (ronnieb) | 321 comments But on the other hand, if you give everyday objects and things "fantasy" or "Sci-Fi" names, you run the risk of alienating your readers.

You could include a glossary of characters/places/creatures etc. But then again if you end up turning to the back of the book every ten minutes just to remind yourself what something is, it kind of takes you out of the story.

It's a bit of a balancing act. :)


message 6: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Bergeron (scifi_jon) | 370 comments I'm of the camp, you shouldn't use colloquialisms. I think it just cheapen the writing. There are so many better ways to say something than using an expression that will likely go out of style in six months.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. In dialogue, if using colloquialisms meshes with the character, almost defines it, then use them. If not, it just makes it look like the author doesn't want go through the trouble of thinking up sentences that sound better.

I think when it comes to hairstyles you just gotta call it what it is. Describing someone's hair and using new words, is like describing their build or facial features with new words. You just gotta go with how it's described in everyday language, or the reader is probably going to end up confused as to what you wanted the character to look like.

As for idioms...Unless you're making a campy sci-fi like Whedon did with Firefly, they're not going to work. Idioms can add a certain campiness to the writing or it makes it read like a middle schooler wrote it.


message 7: by Lexxi Kitty (new)

Lexxi Kitty (lexxikitty) | 43 comments I mostly don't notice except in certain situations. Like relatively recently when I was reading something and a character mentioned earth. It was confusing. It was used in a "earthman" type way, if I recall correctly. About a creature who had no known connection to earth.

Or, hmm, maybe it was something like "I'm going to return to earth now", as in, return to the ground.


message 8: by Steph (new)

Steph Bennion (stephbennion) | 303 comments Hmm... As a writer, I had great fun inventing new idioms to put into the mouth of an officious 23rd-century bureaucrat; e.g: “I am not about to topple our rockets and reject the bible black of infinity,” the governor replied, smiling graciously. “Nor am I here to put the cat amongst the blood yerks..." The book is a light-hearted space opera, so a bit of silliness is probably okay.


message 9: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Bergeron (scifi_jon) | 370 comments If only I kept track of how many times I used earth instead of ground, then had to go back and change it. Very common mistake, and one I think most people don't even think of when they write it.


message 10: by Tani (new)

Tani | 9 comments I think it very much depends on the story itself. Is it near future? Then it's probably fine for not much to have changed. Is it hundreds of years off? Then it will feel more authentic to have the slang and colloquialisms to have changed quite a bit. And then you run the risk of confusing readers, so you'd have to do a lot of work with context.

As a reader, most of the colloquialisms won't really throw me out of the story, but I do think that making up your own makes for a richer setting and a better reading experience for me.

For words like ponytail and mohawk, I wouldn't overthink them too much. They're in such common usage that I think they're pretty detached from their origins, and it's way too much work to be trying to describe exact hairstyles without them! Although, I suppose you could just say that his/her 'hair is pulled back' in place of ponytail...


message 11: by Ronnie (new)

Ronnie (ronnieb) | 321 comments The thing is though, even now in the 21st century, we use colloquialisms and slang that're a couple of hundred years old without realising it.


message 12: by Brendan (last edited Apr 30, 2015 11:21AM) (new)

Brendan (mistershine) I think with words like ponytail and mohawk, if writing around the word would stand out more than just using it, go ahead and use it. "The ruffian was sporting the traditional shaved-sides spiky-on-top hairstyle of the rebels on betazoid IV."

I think its generally accepted as a translation convention that SF is written to be read by earth humans so use of earth words is fine.


message 13: by Steph (new)

Steph Bennion (stephbennion) | 303 comments Brendan wrote: "I think with words like ponytail and mohawk..."

Although we don't hear 'mohawk' much in the UK...


message 14: by Anna (new)

Anna Erishkigal (annaerishkigal) I've set down books (both sci-fi and fantasy) where the author tried too hard to be clever and original, so much so that I had to read with an 'otherworld list of terms' on my lap.

Not ... fun... :-P

I read for fun and don't like feeling like I'm getting my brains sucked out of my head while I read.

It -is- fun to invent colorful new curse words, though :-) As long as you use the same swear word consistently, readers pick those up pretty click.


message 15: by EJ (new)

EJ Fisch (ejfisch) | 117 comments Love all the thoughts, everybody! Sci fi is just tricky because, depending on the setting, you're either dealing with a futuristic version of our current culture or a completely fictional alien culture and it's hard to find a happy medium when it comes to the way they talk.

@Anna - curse words are seriously the most fun to come up with, especially since I try to keep the actual language in my writing fairly PG-level. It's always so funny to hear people using fictional curse words in real life. I mean, how many of us have said frakking or ruttin' at least once in our lives?


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

E.J. wrote: "Love all the thoughts, everybody! Sci fi is just tricky because, depending on the setting, you're either dealing with a futuristic version of our current culture or a completely fictional alien cul..."

I hadn't even thought about any of this at all until reading the discussion. I mean what if someone said duck and another character then said 'what the hell is a duck' and then another character says 'what is hell?' I'm thinking that a very small percentage of people if at all are going to stop reading and ask themselves how exactly do these far away aliens know what a ponytail is or would they? I'm thinking this might all be over thinking the situation. Remember the new battle star Galactica using the word frack in place of a swear word? Now every time I see the news about the dangers of Fraking the ground it makes me chuckle. Well, it made me smirk about once.


message 17: by Betsy (new)

Betsy | 883 comments Mod
I tend to agree with you, Craig. After all, for a civilization in the far future (more than just a couple hundred years), the language would likely be vastly more different than it is today. More than just the use of a few idiomatic words. Language is constantly changing.


message 18: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Bergeron (scifi_jon) | 370 comments Individual words don't really matter I'm thinking, but if you reference Twitter or SnapChat in a sci-fi book set thousands of years into the future, I think you may have a problem.


message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Jonathan wrote: "Individual words don't really matter I'm thinking, but if you reference Twitter or SnapChat in a sci-fi book set thousands of years into the future, I think you may have a problem."

I think one of the best examples of use of new language was in the book Clock Work Orange by Anthony Burgess. That takes a lot of imagination and effort, if not natural ability to work in some lingo that is either recognisable or understandable within context. It depends on how smooth or even how other you want the story to be. I'm thinking that school children learn Shakespeare in the form of trying to at first translate the text into its meaning regardless of further studies into his works narrative. I do recall someone saying while studying macbeth at the youthful age of about 14. Enterprise? isn't that off star trek?
A long way to go then in terms of getting into the depths of plot. In writing I purposefully chose not to go too far off into the future for purposes of not getting bogged down with language as I felt that from my own experience having read the original Notre Dame or a book about King Arthur and the Death of paganism called the Silver Cup were just a nightmare to read on a casual basis. Even if as in my novels being hard Sci -Fi, I try to simplify the concepts in physics even though I really could have gone to town. Upon editing down I realised that very few want to know the atomic structure of a newly contrived alloy etc. As for language being an impedance rather than innovative or even comical, I'm guessing we could try anything once and see what the audience has to say later. A risk perhaps? I do recall my editor laughing when the reality of a scene in the second novel went backwards so that every word was written backwards. I left it at two sentences having realised there is no need to drive the reader completely mad...


message 20: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Bergeron (scifi_jon) | 370 comments New lingo is hard, I'll attest to that. I created slang for a character in my new book because she's an alien gangster who talks in the first person. I tried having two of the aliens talk the same but it was overwhelming even for me. Which is another thing to take into consideration. If you make up new slang and such, you have to use it almost sparingly or risk losing the reader.


message 21: by Christa (new)

Christa Yelich-Koth I have worked pretty hard to not use colloquialisms in my writing because the galaxy where my books take place is not Earth's galaxy. And my goal with my books is to entice readers who may not pick up SF because it's "difficult" to read or follow. You don't necessarily need those sayings to get your point across or you can use something more general like "letting the insults roll off of her like rain off of an umbrella" or the opposite "she shook off each insult as easily as a planet shakes off gravity". You can definitely have fun with it while still bringing in identifiable things for the reader. Best of luck! :)


message 22: by Anna (last edited Jun 01, 2015 07:58PM) (new)

Anna Erishkigal (annaerishkigal) Craig wrote: "Upon editing down I realised that very few want to know the atomic structure of a newly contrived alloy etc...."

Hah! Actually, if they're hard sci-fi genre fans, you'd be surprised :-) Techno-porn should be like every other kind of porn. Sprinkle it lightly throughout the story to get blood warm, but not so much that all that fluff and whips gets old. :-)


message 23: by Dominic (new)

Dominic Green (dominicgreen) | 68 comments The worst thing for me is a story where the hero(ine) gets teleported to some distant galaxy where no-one has ever seen a human being before, and where everyone for *no reason at all* has names like Andromeda, Bellatrix and Sirius, Because The Names Sound Spacey.


message 24: by Andrew (new)

Andrew (mr_andrew_c) | 6 comments Earth-specific speech bugs me a little, but not nearly enough as someone saying a phrase in their native tongue that happens to rhyme in English.

Craig - I'm interested in exotic materials but only when they are reasonable - things like transparent metal drive me nuts (since grain boundaries are needed to provide strength and oh, they also just happen to scatter photons...). End rant.


message 25: by Jonathan (last edited Jun 03, 2015 08:02PM) (new)

Jonathan Bergeron (scifi_jon) | 370 comments Andrew wrote: "Earth-specific speech bugs me a little, but not nearly enough as someone saying a phrase in their native tongue that happens to rhyme in English.

Craig - I'm interested in exotic materials but on..."


transparent metal? why not just go with super strong glass? Corning is getting glass to the point it can take more abuse than some metals and still retain its form.


message 26: by Jessica (new)

Jessica  (jessical1961) I remember in one of the Star Trek movies Scotty needed something strong enough to build a tank to hold enough water to hold a whale that they were going to transport back to the future in an attempt to repopulate the species. He went to a company that makes plexiglass and paid for it by giving the owner the formula to produce transparent aluminum.


message 27: by Brendan (new)

Brendan (mistershine) Just call everything "plascrete"


message 28: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Bergeron (scifi_jon) | 370 comments Brendan wrote: "Just call everything "plascrete""

I like it. I'll inform the sci-fi community at once! :)


message 29: by Anna (new)

Anna Erishkigal (annaerishkigal) Jeffrey wrote: "I remember in one of the Star Trek movies Scotty needed something strong enough to build a tank to hold enough water to hold a whale that they were going to transport back to the future in an attem..."

Will and Gracie!!! That was my eldest's favorite movie for many years. Wore the VHS cassette out.

Or when T'Pal's ancestor/grandmother in Enterprise was trapped on early Earth pre-contact and needed to raise money, so she gave somebody Velcro.


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