This morning I got a question on my blog about one of the made up words in The Velocipede Races, which made me think about made-up words in general. I admit I have a tendency to make up words; it’s part of the tendency to make up worlds. When you design an alternate world, naturally (it seems to me) you need new words to describe parts of that new society that are different from ours.
In the case of the The Velocipede Races, one of the reasons I made up words was so that I didn’t end up basing Serenian society on any one country or culture too much. For example, if I had used “gentry” instead of “riesen,” readers might have immediately characterized Seren as England in the nineteenth century. I wanted to avoid that, because Seren is a blend of many cultures and places, with a generous touch of pure whimsy from my own imagination, too.
Another made-up word from The Velocipede Races is manotte, a Serenian slur for a woman who looks or behaves like a man. I couldn’t find a suitable slur in English. (Aside note: analyzing a language’s slurs can be terribly revealing about who and what is marginalized in that culture). In English, many of the slurs we have for women who look and behave like men are conflated with prejudices about sexuality. For instance: bull dyke or butch. I didn’t want connotations of sexuality in my slur (not because I imagined the Old Guard of Seren wouldn’t be horribly prejudiced about alternative sexualities, but rather because I didn’t feel Serenian society was open enough for any kind of discussion of those sexualities, even in their slang insults!) So a sexuality-charged insult wouldn’t do. Other words for describing women who are outside the gender box, such as mannish or unfeminine, didn’t fit the bill because they were adjectives, not nouns–and I feel that a noun insult carries a deeper vitriol: you are this thing; you have been boxed into a narrow and socially-despised category. So I came up with manotte. I like it because it has that French diminuative -tte at the end, making it infantilizing and patronizing, and it combines two English words: man and not: as in, you are not a man, so don’t try to be one.
My writing comfort zone is pure fantasy. I think most writers who love to write in made-up worlds also like to make up words. Language is a reflection of awareness, the very stuff of the categories and realities we perceive, the prejudices and understandings we have learned. Made-up words build a story’s world and shape a character’s psyche.
In The Velocipede Races, I made up only a few words (for me, at any rate). In my Tales of Blood & Light series, I have three separate cultures, all with their own languages, beliefs, and magic systems, and I have a ton of made-up words to describe the facets of their societies that are different from ours. Fantasy readers are probably quite accustomed to absorbing made-up words via context and suggestion. Other readers, I know, are deterred by such new vocabularies.
My editor, Elly Blue, and I discussed the made up words in The Velocipede Races and decided to include a glossary note at the beginning of the published book. Here’s is the note in its entirety:
A Note About Language
Some of the words that exist in Seren do not exist on Earth, or may be used slightly differently than we might use them here.
Seren is the name of the city-state where the story takes place, an imaginary combination of the prominent late 19th century cities of Europe and America.
Riesen denotes the upper class of the city, the people who are born to privilege.
Velocipedes are two-wheeled, human-powered vehicles similar to old-fashioned bicycles.
The keir is a bicycle or velocipede race that takes place on a track, similar to the keirin race that developed in Japan in the early twentieth century. The first laps are paced to ensure all racers achieve a shared starting speed before the final sprint for victory begins.
Finally, manotte is a uniquely Serenian slur used to insult a woman for behaving or appearing like a man.
I hope this post helps readers consider language and made-up words in a new light. Please note: even though I included “velocipede” in my TVR glossary, it is an actual word in the English language. You say it like this: vuh-la-suh-peed. Go ride one sometime!