Jargon can be valuable in speculative fiction. From technical terms to swear words to a group’s in-jokes, it helps to convey setting and character. Creating your own can be a fun and useful part of writing your science fiction or fantasy story.
Uses of Jargon
There are several uses for jargon in speculative fiction.
Most obviously, there are words for the technology or magic of the setting. Whether it’s about spaceships, steam robots, or magic spells, you’ll need it to refer to those things.
Then there’s the slang. This can bring a culture or group of people to life, making their dialogue distinct and flavourful.
As part of slang, there’s swearing – the words characters use to express extremes of emotions and to break through taboos.
Finally, there’s the in-group language, jokes, and references that develop in any group of people, from a friendship circle to a company of space mercenaries.
Why Use Jargon?
Creating such jargon for your world brings several benefits.
Firstly, it adds to the reader’s immersion in the world. A few distinct linguistic ticks can help to make a place feel real and different, as the inhabitants don’t just talk like us.
Then there’s the importance of expressing specific concepts. If an important part of your story is religious fire magic that can only be used by orcs, then you don’t want to have to say “religious fire magic that can only be used by orcs” every time it’s mentioned. A special term for this is easier for both you and your characters.
Having jargon for a topic highlights its importance to readers. The fact that there are slang terms for biological computers will tell readers that they are important enough in this world to have earned nicknames. The fact that you’ve invented the terminology tells readers that those computers will matter to the story.
Finally, jargon can create a sense of being part of an in-group, the readers who know your specialist language. Few things create more powerful positive emotions than being part of an in-group.
Pitfalls of Jargon
It’s important to use jargon carefully. Using it too heavily or without explanations can alienate readers and make the book hard to read.
This doesn’t just apply to the terminology you invent. If you’re using jargon from elsewhere, consider how widely it’s understood and whether it will mean something to your target readers. Don’t just take their awareness of the four humors or the language of robotics for granted.
So how do you do jargon well?
First, make it convincing. Consider how the jargon came about so that you can create a term that fits. Maybe it comes from shortening a longer word or combining several together, like the term “cosplay”. Maybe it’s been borrowed from another language or context, as in the use of terms like “back door” in hacking. This shows a common feature of such borrowings, that they often have a metaphorical style which will make them easier for readers to understand and remember.
For swear words, think about how and why people swear. Curse words are generally short and with hard, clipped sounds that fit saying them in anger. They refer to subjects widely considered inappropriate for conversation. As such, they should fit the taboos of your world and can even show readers what those taboos are.
Having created your jargon, you need to put it into your story in a way that readers will understand.
Ideally, the meaning of some of the jargon will be self-explanatory. For example, the phrase “ship’s mother” immediately conveys the idea of someone who looks after the rest of the crew.
For the less obvious terms, try to introduce them in a context that makes their meaning clear. If a “stitching engine” is a device that connects together different parts of reality, letting a spaceship move quickly between them, then use it in a conversation about space travel to show that meaning. This way, you don’t have to stop for exposition and readers get to feel smart for working out the meaning.
Sometimes you’ll just have to use exposition. When you do, keep it brief and consider whether it could convincingly be done as part of an in character conversation, for example explaining magic to the new apprentice.
Above all else, don’t overuse jargon. A little goes a long way in giving the world flavor. Too much can easily make the story hard to read.
How much of what sort of jargon you can get away with will vary a lot depending on your readers. A Clockwork Orange delights some and alienates others with its strange words. But if you use jargon carefully and thoughtfully, it should help you to reach the readers you want.