The Glories of Language: Making Stuff Up and Other Fun Things I Do

by | Jun 17, 2019 | Articles | 0 comments

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso

 

One thing I was never especially afraid of was breaking the rules. What I was afraid of was getting caught.

When I was young, I got into a tiny bit of trouble, but not much. Frankly, I didn’t like getting in trouble; I wanted to have my fun, go home, and have that be the end of it. I didn’t want trouble.

 

Throwing Out the Rulebook

When it came to my studies, I did well—always. So when I started getting into creative work, I wasn’t afraid of breaking the established rules of grammar or punctuation. I pretty well mastered them on a pro level—combining an advanced English degree with years of experience as a full-time writer—and that meant I felt confident taking Picasso’s advice to heart.

That includes just flat out making words up when necessary.

The first time I know for sure that I made one up was in Brothers’ Hand, my first novel. Jerome Brothers loses his dominant hand in a tragic fall, then, as the blurb says, “falls even harder for his therapist.” (See what I did there?) Now, there are only so many ways you can use the words hand or arm or residual limb in sentences without sounding repetitive. And at a certain point, I had to put myself firmly in ol’ Jerome’s shoes.

When his relationship with the therapist turns romantic, it’s awkward and scary for him to have any kind of physical experience. When you make up a word, it’s not a bad idea to put it into a context where it’s automatically understood. In this case, I suspect many readers wouldn’t even have noticed.

He clasped her to him, his right arm behind her clumsily, as if it were aware of its own clumsy handlessness.

 

Getting Even Bolder

With the artistic triumph of Brothers’ Hand behind me, I went on to the far greater challenge of Jana. This second novel was much longer, told from the more difficult first-person POV, and dealt with the thorny subject of sexual discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Who wouldn’t feel empowered to make up words in such a challenging context?

In truth, I only did it once in that book, as far as I can recall. I had a sense that Jana’s father, Thomas, would stare at her through thick glasses like an owl. Upon looking it up, however, I found no word for owl-like in my paperback dictionary (this was 1994, before we all had computers). There was a word for pig-like (porcine), for dog-like (canine), for cat-like (feline), and so on. No owl-like. So I read the etymology listing and found that owl came from the Old English ūle. Thus was born the word ulemic.

In the end, though, I think I chickened out, no pun intended. I can’t find any evidence of the word even in my pre-editor manuscript, so I don’t know what happened. But I still want to use it somewhere if I can get away with it!

 

Backtracking, but Only A Little

Once I got to my third novel, Miles of Files, I was looking for something a little more commercially palatable…or at least, more accessible. I still had the occasional urge to describe a character in animal terms, and Mac Flambet wound up being the perfect target:

Of course, the hair he smoothed down was not too thick, receding back farther and farther from the high colubrine forehead and the small cold eyes like the eyes a taxidermist would use, slick and dead-looking.

Looking back, I knew the word colubrine meant snake-like, but wasn’t sure if I’d made that one up, too. But no, it turns out it’s actually a word—in the dictionary and everything!

My latest novel, Whizzers, doesn’t have any invented words, as far as I can recall. There are at least one or two made-up names, though. And I faced plenty of challenges writing it, from the autobiographical nature of much of the material to the not-so-autobiographical elements like time travel. Here’s hoping that my next project has its share of challenges but also feels comfortable enough for me to break a few more rules along the way.

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