Wednesday Writers: Natalie Costa Bir

Last year’s Conflux was a wonderful experience on so many levels, and one of the things that made it so was the excellent line up of quality guests. One of the stand outs, Natalie Costa Bir, was kind enough to agree to writing today’s guest post and, to use another new word, it is very shiny indeed.

New words for new worlds

One of my favourite words from a book, and one that I have misappropriated, is glassicals, coined by the magnificent Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (which starts with Soulless).

“Goodness gracious me,” exclaimed Alexia, “what are you wearing? It looks like the unfortunate progeny of an illicit union between a pair of binoculars and some opera glasses. What on earth are they called, binocticals, spectoculars?” The earl snorted his amusement and tried to pretend he hadn’t. “How about glassicals?”

I’ve stolen the word to use when referring to my own rather less exciting glasses because it just sounds right. Some words do that. Using ‘glassicals’ lets me indulge in the fantasy that I live in another world, just like eating eggs, bacon, mushrooms and roasted tomatoes while wearing a quilted dressing gown at the weekend lets me imagine that I am a member of the gentry with nothing more to do over the day than wonder if Netherfield Hall has been let at last.

I’ve read lots of books and seen a lot of shows over the years where new words are introduced – any science fiction and fantasy fan will have experienced the same. But what is it, I wonder, that makes a new word right? To me, glassicals sounds right in its context – it’s exactly the sort of word you would make up on the spot and then, due to no one else being able think of another word that fits so well, end up using. I’ve always enjoyed the word klah, which Anne McCaffrey uses in her Dragonriders of Pern books to describe a drink with stimulating effects similar to coffee but a taste more akin to a cross between a chai and a mocha, from what I remember. (See recipe here if you’re interested.) I’m not a coffee drinker myself but have met many people who are only able to mumble out a word that sounds like klah (maybe it’s ‘argh’) first thing in the morning, so it’s always seemed like a good created word to me. You’ll find a similar drink to coffee in many science-fiction stories – it’s one of those essential we can’t imagine life without now! Diana Wynne Jones wrote a short story called ‘Nad, and Dan adn Quaffy’ about an author who uses her typos to create new words in her books – you’ll find a lot of substitute words for ‘quaffy’ in it.

Of course, you come across stories where a created word thrown in and doesn’t work. If it’s a carbon copy of something in our own world, it doesn’t make sense to call it something else, unless there’s a logical reason to do so. Although it is comparable to coffee, klah is made from the bark of the klah tree. So it’s not a direct copy of coffee, even though it may be quaffed in a similar way and has the same effect.

Continuing on with words that sound like what they describe … Anyone following mining practices would know that fracking is a (environmentally destructive) technique used to drill underground to get to coal seam gas deposits but if like me you’ve ever watched Battlestar Galactica, you’re more likely to use fracking in a sentence like ‘what the frack is going on here?’. Normally, I wouldn’t see any need to replace a better known f-word, but in this case I don’t think the show could have got away with using it as much as they do ‘frack’ – and it’s become a fun one to drop in my work place, where we are all recovering or current sf-tv addicts, and where it would be inappropriate to use the other f-word. It’s got the one syllable, the same hard ‘ck’ at the end, you can spit it out furiously, and it just works. Unless you’re in mining … although saying ‘fracking the earth’ works with both meanings of the word.

The use of created or appropriated words helps me immerse myself in the world the author has built, not unlike arriving in Paris and hearing French spoken all around you.  I recently read Reign of Beasts by Tansy Rayner Roberts, the final book in the Creature Court trilogy. The series is full of words that draw on Italian and French, and set you into a world of narrow streets, festivals, intrigues and masks (see a map here). Tansy uses wonderful and evocative names for the times of the year such as the Ides of Bestialis, and Nones of Saturnalis. Her characters are demmes and seigneurs, which I find a romantic and beautiful way to refer to ladies and gentlemen (although some of those seigneurs are very ungentlemanly and the demmes excessively unladylike!).

The organic way in which these words are used have the effect of setting me firmly into the world of the Creature Court and the city of Aufleur.  The use of seigneur and demme throws me back to a different age, of courtesy (a word which comes from the manners practiced in court) and classes of people, all of which helps form the structure of this world. Were the characters to use ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’ I might find myself wandering into Victorian Britain, rather than a more European city.

So if you want to create words in your stories that add to your world building, I say go ahead. Just make sure they really do add to your story and don’t distract your readers, making them go ‘what does that word mean again’ or worse, ‘why does the author keep using that word, it’s annoying’. And of course, while ‘a rose by any other name’ may smell as sweet, it would be distinctly unromantic for a rose to be called a ‘stinkwort’. So make sure your curse words wouldn’t make a sailor feel ladylike, your machinery names can be uttered by a layman, and that the majority of your words are in plain English (or whatever language you are published in) to form the backbone of your world.

A few other favourites

Ooma – In Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun, this is a term of endearment most often gushed by one member of the Jang (young adult members of society) to another and is the perfect word to draw out – I can almost see Paris Hilton using this as she spies her bestie across the room … ‘Ooma darling …’

Forging – This is from Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. I like it because it refers to something (horrible) that first happened to the inhabitants of a place called Forge, and thus subsequent occurrences were called  ‘forging’ – a bit like Stockholm syndrome being named after what happened in that city.

Undying – In Diana Wynne Jones Dalemark Quartet, the undying are, loosely speaking, the gods/immortals of that world. I think it is a beautiful and reverent way to refer to deities.

Over to you

I’ve touched on a few that are special to me; what are your favourites? Like me and ‘glassicals’, have they made their way into daily use in your life? Do you use ‘frack’ to curse, or enjoy a reviving cup of klah in the morning? I’d love to hear your stories about the words that have meaning to you.

Natalie Costa Bir is the Web Content Editor at the University of Sydney. She worked at HarperCollins Publishers for five years, starting in the marketing department and finishing as Digital Editor in the publishing department, where she looked after the e-book program, and edited Voyager titles. She also created and maintained the Voyager blog and Facebook/Twitter accounts. She does a small amount of freelance editing but since leaving HarperCollins mostly uses her spare time to read through the giant piles of books in her house in order to avoid death by book-pile collapse.

4 thoughts on “Wednesday Writers: Natalie Costa Bir

  1. Tansy Rayner Roberts

    Aww, YOU NOTICED! I am a crazy wordbender, and love to use vocabulary to find my way into writing and worldbuilding, so to have people pick out and discuss what I’m doing is very exciting.

    Invented words are the best! Of course, they only work when they work. Jabberwocky being the ultimate example (maybe ‘jabberwock’ should be the verb we use when talking about invented fantasy worlds).

    One of my favourites is Bujold’s ‘flimsy’ which I think refers to electronic smart paper, a sheet of something like cellophane which works like a computer screen, but I don’t know for SURE because that’s just from context.

  2. Natalie

    Of course I noticed! I couldn’t have immersed myself half as well into Aufleur otherwise and loved it.

    Flimsy is great and made me think of ‘floopy’ in Douglas Adams Hitchhiker books – he had the most wonderful scene with a mattress flobbering in it. You’re absolutely right that they work when they work and sometimes they don’t – but the ones that do make a lasting impression. Jump in the TARDIS anyone?

  3. kimfalconer

    Natalie! I love this article! And you have absolutely made my day with a recipe for klah! Fabulous!

    One of my favourite invented words is from Richard Adams’ Watership Down: ‘silflay’, the verb meaning to go above ground and eat. ‘Flay’ by itself means ‘food’.

    Also ‘hrududu’ for car, or tractor. Love it!

    Recently, in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, capall uisce! I get chills just writing the name of those water horses, don’t you?

    Thank you for putting this all so well!

  4. Natalie

    Thanks Kim! I want to try out that recipe myself. Tansy’s done a great ‘answer post’ over at the Voyager blog and I’d love to see one from you too if the spirit moves you. Watership Down is one of my favourite books and I still think of the phrase going ‘tharn’ …

    Totally agree about capall uisce – though it took me ages to get the pronunciation right :). And I often think ‘vixaxn’ though I don’t say it 😛 – that’s a Tanith one.

    Interesting link from Wikipedia: Fictional language.

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