Creating Phrases for Future and Fantasy Worlds

Make your fictional universe more authentic by inventing phrases full of history and substance.

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When writing future or fantasy fiction, to make the development of speech realistic and believable, and to ensure the entire story becomes more tangible for a reader, many authors invent their own phrases for their characters’ language.

What history could your fictional world offer that may have spawned phrases? Was there a war in the past, or particular customs, hobbies, diseases, or punishments that could be the starting point of an idea? I wonder how many children know that when someone sneezes and they respond with a ‘bless you,’ they are using a phrase that originated in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great, who uttered it after someone sneezed during the bubonic plague epidemic (since sneezing was an obvious symptom).

Over the passing of time and through different accents, phrases can become altered, be pronounced differently, or the original meaning might get lost. Look at some of the common phrases we use today, considering what they mean to us and what their original meaning was likely to have been.

‘Caught red-handed’ is often used in jest and means someone has been caught while doing, or shortly after doing, something they shouldn’t be, and an item they possess proves their guilt without question. The phrase seems to have originated in Scotland in around the 15th century, and came from a law that meant a person suspected of killing the livestock of another couldn’t be proven guilty by being found with the meat alone, but only if they had the blood of the animal on their hands.

We use the phrases ‘beating about the bush’ or ‘beating around the bush’ to describe delaying doing something directly, or of doing something that delays getting to the main event. It came into existence somewhere in the 15th century, when men were hired by wealthy hunters in order to flush out the game that could be hiding beneath.

Saying ‘saved by the bell’ allows us to express relief at being rescued from an unwanted situation, but the suggested origin of the phrase is much darker. Being buried alive was at one time such a terrifying possibility that people designed safety coffins. One type of safety coffin may have been one with a bell. Guards who walked the grounds at night would hear a bell ringing and know that a living person was in need of being dug up. Another theory behind the creation of the common phrase ‘saved by the bell’ comes from boxing slang in the late 19th century when a boxer who is nearly defeated is saved by the ringing of the bell which indicated the end of the round.

A phrase we use when we decide to do something we don’t want to do is ‘bite the bullet,’ accepting the impending consequences, often putting ourselves forward from within a group of people. When unable to administer anaesthesia before surgery, patients were often given a stick of wood or pad of leather to bite down upon, allowing them to take the concentration away from their pain and also preventing them from biting off their tongue. A bullet seems to have been the battlefield alternative to wood or leather, and was cited in 1796 as being a tool used by wounded soldiers to stop themselves from crying out in pain, as that brought dishonour in some regiments.

Whether they came up with the phrases themselves or heard them spoken by those around them and were the first person to write the phrases down, authors have played a huge role in the invention of the phrases we use in our day-to-day language.

William Shakespeare was notably one of the most influential writers of our spoken language, with many of our phrases originating in his plays. ‘Be-all and the end-all’ and ‘What’s done is done’ were both first cited in Macbeth, ‘Bated breath’ first appeared in The Merchant of Venice, and ‘Break the ice’—which has now evolved into the phrase ‘Ice-Breaker’—came from The Taming of the Shrew. The phrase ‘a fool’s paradise’ was popularised by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, though the phrase is first cited in Tyndale’s translation of the bible.

Charles Dickens was also responsible for popularising many of the phrases we use today, including ‘the creeps’ which he used for David Copperfield in 1850. When inventing this catchy phrase for being un-nerved by something, Dickens was likely influenced by the existing word ‘creepy,’ which was added to the English dictionary in 1831 to denote a cold, sinking sensation of fear.

A much more modern example of the creation of a phrase by an author is from Joseph Heller and his 1961 novel Catch-22. Highlighting the mindlessness of war, his pilot characters had to fly one terrifyingly perilous mission after another, fearing for their lives and knowing the only way to get out of the missions was to be declared insane. However, in declaring themselves insane they would be displaying the sanity of a rational mind and proving they are, in fact, not insane. Thanks to Heller, the phrase ‘catch-22’ is now commonly used to describe an impossible situation where the very nature of the problem denies and defies itself. Interesting, the novel was going to be called Catch-18, but with the release of a similarly named novel from a rival author, Heller and his publisher agreed to change the name at the very last minute before publication.

‘May the odds be ever in your favour’ is a phrase any fan of Young Adult dystopian fiction will know well. It was popularised by Suzanne Collins when writing the Hunger Games and used as a phrase people utter to the youths who have to attend the annual name-calling for the games. The Hunger Games are an annual punishment for an uprising years before, a reminder of the Capital’s unwavering power, where the names of 24 children and teenagers are drawn out of a ‘hat’ to fight to the death until only one survives. The ‘odds’ are that an individual won’t be chosen, since many names are in the bowl, but some names are in more than others depending on how old they are, how many years they have needed food rations for their families, and how many adults that have needed feed over those years.

In the TV adaptation of the novel Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, the phrase ‘real-deathed’ is a common term, especially among the police, and is used for when the body of a murder victim is not only killed, but the ‘stack’ in their neck, containing their conscious being, is also destroyed. If the stack were undamaged, they could be easily placed in another body and their consciousness survive.

In George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, set in a fantasy world very close to the past civilisations of our own world, there are many phrases the author has created to add depth. These include ‘Like nipples on a breastplate’ (useless), ‘blood of my blood’ (relative through blood, marriage, or trust), ‘make water’ (urinate) and ‘seven hells’ (an expression of shock).

Since Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was turned into a TV drama and first aired in April 2017 I have heard, on three separate occasions by three different people, the phrase ‘blessed be’ uttered in sarcastic jubilation, as though it were a polite alternative to ‘finally.’ You’ve got to wonder if this phrase and its use will catch on to people who are not familiar with its origin, and whether in a century or two it might have become a common phrase in our language.

It can also be quite handy in fiction for a common phrase to be spoken slightly incorrectly. This was done in a Midsummer Murders episode where the killer was uncovered due to their lack of knowing the correct wording of the common phrase ‘the long and short of it’. Instead they said ‘The long and tall of it’—a mistake which linked them to another suspect who also made the same unusual mistake, an element that allowed the detectives to realise the two characters were related, giving them motive for killing the victim. This seems to be inspired by the real-life case of the Unabomber, who was caught after his insistence of stating ‘Eat your cake and have it too’ instead of the modern variation of ‘Have your cake and eat it.’

If you’re creating a fantasy world with fantasy phrases, think about the history of that world, even if you barely intend on putting the history in your novel. It will give you inspiration and a starting point from which to craft rich and believable phrases. If you have the time and money, travel to the places that inspire your writing, and listen to or translate the phrases that the people who live their say. And if you can’t travel to these places of inspiration, there’s always Google.

If you’re writing a future earth setting, think about how the phrases we use now will change over time—don’t throw them in as they are right now because it simply won’t be plausible that they will have gone untouched by the passing of time. Also, think about the birth of new phrases that your future community might bring.

Most importantly, when creating phrases for your writing, be creative, be flexible, and have fun, and you’ll know when the phrase feels right.

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Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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