Building a secondary world with idiom

So, I just finished Frederica by Georgette Heyer, which I liked a lot, of course. A bit different from her usual, what with the teenage boys and the occasional wild adventure they bring to the story, along with the more customary slow-building romance between Alverstroke and Frederica. I grant, I don’t quite understand why Frederica and others did not consider the handsome but dim Endymion anything but an obviously good match for the beautiful but dim Charis; I had to take this on faith since to me they seemed imminently well suited right from the start.

Anyway, for some reason, this was the Heyer novel where I especially noticed the unfamiliar idioms so frequently employed. Some paragraphs consisted almost entirely of idiom. For example:

Alverstroke, said Mr Peplow, was a noted amateur of the Fancy: none of your moulders, but a boxer of excellent science, who was said to display to great advantage, and was always ready to take the lead in milling. A Corinthian? No: Mr Peplow, frowning over it, did not think that his lordship belonged to that, or any other, set. He was certainly a top-sawyer, and a first-rate fiddler: might be said, in fact, to cap the globe at most other forms of sport; he was extremely elegant, too: trim as a trencher, one might say; but in an unobtrusive style of his own which never included the very latest quirks of fashion.

Moulders, excellent science, milling, Corinthian, top-sawyer, first-rate fiddler, cap the globe, trim as a trencher! Eight idiomatic words or phrases in a single paragraph! How do you suppose this compares with the average Regency? Of course not every paragraph is like this, but I bet very few Regency authors could get away with this high a proportion of idiom.

Perhaps in smaller quantities, idiom, slang, cant phrases, and figures of speech can do a lot of heavy lifting in building a secondary world, which is after all pretty much a category that includes historical novels, as the past is a foreign country. As far as I’m concerned, coming up with idiomatic and slang phrases and figures of speech is really hard. You know how you will sit and stare at your screen while trying to come up with yet another character name? (If you’re a writer, you know this feeling well, I bet.) Well, it’s just like that for me when I’m trying to come up with slang that is not too similar to any modern American idiom, sounds right for a particular world, yet remains intelligible to the reader. I must admit, I feel pretty good if I can come up with four or five slang phrases or figures of speech for a whole novel, never mind packing eight such phrases into a single paragraph.

I can think of a couple authors who are better at this than I am, though. It must be a knack, like coming up with witty one-liners or being able to just start speaking or writing in iambic pentameter. Plus I imagine from time to time a writer just stares at the screen A LOT as she comes up with enough idiom to suit the world she is building.

1. CJC. For example, in the Heavy Time duology. That’s by no means my favorite of hers; in fact it’s near the bottom. But she gives her unpleasantly gritty, claustrophobic, near-dystopic world a lot of flavor with the language the characters use. A lot of it is work-related slang: Bird watched doubtfully as Ben punched up the zone schema, pointed on the screen to the ’driver ship and its fire-path to the Well. Some of it is pure slang: Brut bad luck. Or He was drunk. Gone out. Everyone knew that. Some of it is based on foreign language phrases absorbed into the language: And brut put, I don’t like this ‘partner’ talk and I sincerely don’t like Bird close with this jeune fils . . . Check out the novy chelovek. . . . Do you want to know quelqu’ shoze?

2. Eluki bes Shahar. Another SF example with amazing use of slang and idiom.

I was minding my own business in beautiful downside Wanderweb, having just managed to mislay my cargo for the right price. My nighttime man had talked me into bootlegging again, and damnsilly stuff it was too, either maintenance manuals or philosophy texts, I never did figure out which … so I was making my way around wondertown, free, female, and a damnsight over the age of reason, when I saw this greenie right in front of me in the street. He was definitely a toff, and no stardancer – you never saw such clothes outside of a hollycast. He was lit up like Dreamstreet at night and wearing enough heat to stock a good-sized Imperial Armory besides. And this being scenic Wanderweb, land of enchantment, there were six of K’Jarn’s Werewolves and K’Jarn himself facing him. I was of the opinion – then – that he couldn’t do them before they opened him up, so, fancy-free, I opened my mouth.

“Good morning, thou nobly-born K’Jarn. Airt hiert out to do wetwork these days or just to roll glitterborn for kicks, hey?”

This is a wonderful book, and it’s the language and voice that make it. If you’ve never read it, you should see if you can find a copy. I will add: the first time I read the whole trilogy, I wasn’t crazy about how it ended. The ending did grow on me later, though.

3. L. Shelby in her Across the Jade Sea trilogy.
I’m sorry I got my feet mixed up.
Brighter than a bean in a bucket.
They went gleeful on me.
Trying to force the truth into their heads leaves me flatter than paper.

My favorite is “Brighter than a bean in a bucket.” Sure, that makes no sense. Neither does “Trim as a trencher.” The point is, if you’re at all accustomed to running into Regency slang, then Shelby’s slang has exactly the same feel to it.

It’s gotta be a natural knack. Wish I had it, because it’s one more way to add depth to your worldbuilding.

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5 thoughts on “Building a secondary world with idiom”

  1. Joan Aiken is good at it, too. Sample from random book: “Oh, croopus,” muttered the girl … “I jist hope we gets to London this side o’Turpentine Sunday, and all in one piece.” … “It’s our driver… I suspicioned he was a bit bosky at the start, and now I reckon he’s just about half-seas over.” (The Cuckoo Tree opening.)

    It can be overdone, and I think Heyer was skirting the edge – I don’t remember that book very well – is the speaker a minor character? That kind of speech would be hard to take in larger quantities.

  2. p.s. just noticed a new Vorkosiverse novella: Flowers of Vashnoi, featuring Ekaterin and Enrique.

  3. Of course, some readers will toss the book against the wall for it.

    I ran a story past a writers’ group once and about the only idiom was “fancy” for the upper crust and I got complaints.

  4. Robin McKinley did took fairly common words and used them as idiom in Sunshine. It very effective; using familiar words in unusual ways made the world she built ordinary but at the same time slanted a bit, as though it were a house you knew that was just slightly off kilter.

  5. I do think that paragraph from Heyer is over the top — but yes, it was a minor character. Most paragraphs were not quite that intense.

    Good heavens, Mary, really? … Well, I’ve certainly discovered that many readers are not keen on any names that are (a) not Americanish, or (b) longer than one syllable or at most two syllables. I go back and forth on whether to pay attention to this when naming characters and places …

    Oh, yes, Robin McKinley did a wonderful job with that in Sunshine. I’d forgotten, but I love how she handled that.

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