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That’s Not a Real Word

on July 2nd, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on July 2, 2012

Are you, as a writer, limited to real words, words found in a dictionary?

No, no, no.

You knew that already, didn’t you?

But have you hesitated about throwing a made-up word into your fiction, so worried about getting everything exactly right that you thought a faux word might brand you as unprofessional?

Don’t worry. Do create.

Yes, give us your made-up words; it’s quite all right. You already make up characters (maybe with unusual and never-heard-before names), towns or countries or worlds, political systems, religious practices, cultural events, animals, even non-human beings. You easily give names to each of these story elements, so why not also give names to words that have never existed before? Give us some new nouns and verbs and modifiers.

Shakespeare certainly did it. He apparently made up scores of words (though researchers have found fewer can be attributed to him than was first believed).

If the president of your space federation needs a word for vehicles that vacuum up rodents, shrink them, and then freeze them before transporting them to the next galaxy where they’re released at their normal size, give him a word for that vehicle.

If your sports announcer needs a word for a ball—baseball, football, or golf ball—that soars fluidly through the air and he wants to call it an aero-sphere, let him.

If your heroine cusses, but oh so delicately, give her a delicate profanity to match her sensibilities.

People make up words all the time. They may misspeak or they may simply connect words or letters they assume go together even when they don’t.

Whether your characters misspeak or they deliberately create a new word—and whether it’s them as the character or you as the writer coining a new word—you can most assuredly use new words and non-words in your stories.

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If you’re looking for the poetic or the jarring or the humorous or just something sublimely apt—something that fits your sentence or character or style or genre or setting—write it. Create it. Make it up.

You are allowed to make up words. If not you, a writer, then who? Who better to create a descriptive word than the one who needs to describe a person? a place? an action? an emotion?

Novels and short stories aren’t school essays, where you’ll be graded down if you try to slip something imaginary past your teacher. This is creative writing. You are allowed to and encouraged to and expected to create. And that means at every level of your writing, down to the very basics. And that means words.

But what about clarity and meaning and communication?

Good question.

Yes, you have to be clear. Yes, you have to communicate. Yes, the reader has to understand. And that’s where your other skills come in.

It’s your job to make clear even the unfamiliar so that readers immediately catch your meaning. Or you must make the unfamiliar at least clear enough that the meaning dawns on readers at just the right time.

Make the new words meaningful. Or make them fit the story’s tone or a character’s style. Make their use necessary for your story on at least one level and preferably several.

Keep in mind that made-up words, even the nonsense words of children’s stories, can deepen the unique feel of your fictional world, can give characters shared language that sets them apart from others in your stories or from characters in other books.

Name not only characters and locations but objects and practices and historical movements.

If your Eastern tribes practice prislex as a rite of passage but the practice has been outlawed by the Western tribes, with execution without trial as punishment for an infraction, prislex becomes an important word. A word doesn’t have to be real in our three-dimensional world; it only has to be real in your story world.

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So, what can you do to create new words?

**  You can make up words from nothing. If you like the sound or the look of the letters as they combine, simply create yourself a new word. Dourling, cryplat, briest.

Your made-up words can sound like something familiar or be completely fresh. They may be most effective when they aren’t merely a combination of random letters but combine into sounds that fit your world. Let rules of language—even if it’s a make-believe language—guide your imagination.

**  Make nouns from verbs or verbs from nouns. Yes, you can verbalize nouns and nounalize verbs. Turn verbs into adverbs and adjectives.

**  Combine existing words to create an obvious hybrid or portmanteau (brunch from breakfast and lunch or Microsoft from microcomputer and software).

**  Attach traditional prefixes and suffixes to words that aren’t usually paired with them. Cokaphobic.

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If you create new words, do check that they aren’t already words, especially not trade or brand names.

And know that you don’t have to make up words. You can write a wonderfully entertaining story with words familiar to every school child above a certain grade. Creating new words is an option, not an imperative. Look at it as one more way to create unique characters and stand-out fiction.

Make up new words and coin phrases if they fit your story. Don’t hold back out of fear yet be sure they work.

Use the unique to craft a story unlike any other.

Use the unique to write good fiction.

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One Response to “That’s Not a Real Word”

  1. the word situnario – a mixture of situation and scenario, as it sounds well better than them two words alone

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