Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflections on "100 mostly small but expressive interjections"

I found this link today, to a list of tiny expressive interjections. I think this list is lovely, long, and quite comprehensive. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

One thing I notice, however, is how many of these expressions are 1. relatively new (weren't around when I was a kid) and 2. highly culture-specific. For example, when I see or hear the expression "Boo-ya," I don't think of success in any general way; I think of a sports commentator cheering over a score in NBA basketball.

The result of this is that the utility of these expressions can be highly dependent upon context. A list of expressions such as these, but that would also be usable in fantasy or science fiction settings, would be much shorter.

Fantasy settings require the most commonly used, most generic and non-context-specific of expressions (and also of words in general). In fact, this is one of the reasons why a sense of generic setting is such a pitfall for fantasy writers.

Science fiction settings can use slang expressions, but if they fail to take into account language change over time, they end up feeling anachronistically dated. It appears, indeed, that science fiction settings commonly have slang, and usually that slang is specially designed for the setting in question - shortenings of all kinds of gadgets, for example. Slang is much less common in fantasy contexts, at least in my experience.


  1. I can get away with slang in my Fantasy in two ways, but even then it can be tricky...


  2. This is fascinating. I'm reading all of the Golden Age issues of Astounding (7/39-12/50) and it's interesting to see how many of these show up. I think at least half are there, but some in much greater frequency than you see today. I think of it as what gives the stories a "pulpish" feel--along with the colorful adverbs used in attributions.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Misha!

    Jamie, I'm glad you liked it. Good observation about the early SF, too. I agree about the pulp-ish feel.

  4. I've tried to make up new ones when necessary. One story is set in space, so the slang has to do with space terms. For example, I have "Stars!" and its variation "Oh stars!" For a drawn out exclamation of shock I used "Black holes and super novas!" The characters were pretty rattled at that point.

    Fantasy is easier with general slang for things like saying one person goosed another. Readers know what the action means, and since geese are common enough creatures in fantasy, the phrase makes sense. I wanted to have one character goose another in the space story, except geese don't exactly exist in that setting, so how could the phrase exist? And using a made up creature would leave readers unsure of what I meant. I ended up leaving out the action altogether. Bummer. (There's a word that didn't make the list.)

  5. I was pondering the other day about how Batman comics use "Hh" for some of Batman's tersest or preoccupied responses. From one of the Batman, Inc comics: "Altruism? Hh. Selina, it's *me*." (Batman talking to Catwoman.)

    I think I like best not "known" interjections, but ones that are recently or newly made up, yet "should have been there all along" in feeling. You *get* the sounds they convey, right away. Comics in general seem to me pretty good in this area, particularly for sound effects. The "retro" sound effects in comics like BAM! POW! BIFF! can be amusing, but the modern ones on the stands or in webcomics I like a lot.

    I think maybe because comics writing leaves the description largely up to the artist, the things art can't convey--dialogue and sounds--possibly get more attention from the writer. They can focus on it and hit it right on the nail.

  6. I think comics have a different kind of vocabulary. A lot of these expressions would sound odd in text because of being dated/world-situated, and many people might find them strange simply because they have a problem with onomatopoeia - a problem that simply doesn't exist for comics writers.

  7. I've found that made up slang for one SF world doesn't translate well into other worlds/stories. For example, I tried inserting "frak" into a story, and my critiquers were very resistant to it's use. I can understand their reasoning a) it belongs to BSG b) it may date easily.

    Like Jaleh says, sometimes "stars" can be used, but I see it used in other places and I don't want to appropriate it. I've tried using it, but it feels wrong.

    From that list "tchach" is the only one I didn't recognize. I think I've been using "tsk" in it's place, but I'll be using it from now on - makes better vocalized sense!

    I can't be too sure, but didn't booyah have it's origins in the military?

  8. Thanks for the comment, Amanda! Yes, slang words can be marked for the world in which they originated. Usually it's good to find something that is well grounded in the world you've created. "Stars" won't work everywhere. But if you try some out, you may find the right one.

  9. BTW, I am not conversant with the origins of boo-yah...