Evolving Words for a Future Earth Setting
Over years, decades and centuries our social systems, family dynamics, structure, influence and power of our leaders, technological breakthroughs, need for new inventions and devices, and—very importantly to writers—words all change and evolve. This developmental change of the original meaning and spelling of a word is called etymology. This word-evolution over time means it is important for authors to use new words, or variations of existing words and/or their meanings, when writing science fiction future-Earth settings to ensure authenticity.
Here are five examples of how to acknowledge the inevitable evolution that happens to words over periods of time.
Two Become One
There are words we use all to time now that were once two separate words, such as altogether, already and always—all together, all ready and all ways. Back when they were separate they started to be used right next to each other more and more, and eventually their pairing become so regular that the English dictionary accepted them as a singular word. The exact same process of word evolution happened with spoonful, gatepost and lipstick.
If you look in the dictionary for words starting with sea you’ll be able to see the evolution in progress, with some words commonly used together still separate, some hyphenated, and some that have been sealed together into one word: sea lion, seafood, seafarer, seashell, sea level, sea-gooseberry, seagull, seaweed, sea urchin, sea-air.
If you look up words beginning with water, air, ice and sun you’ll see a similar pattern of two words that are frequently used together slowly become a single word as time passes. This system was notably used by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four with ‘Doublespeak.’
New Words for New Objects
Science fiction authors of the past have already imagined up items that we now accept as everyday but back then didn’t exist. Examples of this are the ‘Communicators’ in the original series of Star Trek (1966-1969) which we now know as mobile phones or cell phones, or small earbud headphones to allow for the personal listening of music, which was first imagined by author Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 as ‘Seashells.’
This invention of new objects and therefore new names for said objects is the most obvious way to add authentic changes of words to your novel. Be mindful, however, not to overpower your story with too many new words, as you preferably don’t want to have to provide a reference guide at the back—readers rarely want to be jolted out of a narrative every few lines to look up word-meanings.
To get around this reader-confusion of new names for new objects and inventions, the new names you choose could be fairly obvious in conveying the use and function of the object, allowing for easy understanding for readers. This doesn’t mean they need to be in-your-face onomatopoeias but could be created from the fusion of two known words.
In the BBC flagship series Doctor Who, the ‘Sonic Screwdriver’ is a small and portable multipurpose device that can open almost any lock and can be used to magically fix almost any piece of equipment. Its name contains the existing word screwdriver which allows us, the viewers, to understand that it is a tool used for fixing things. The addition of the word sonic—which we know to have a meaning linked to sound waves—helps us to create a picture of what the device can do from its title alone.
In Prelude of Fountain, one of author Isaac Asimov’s many novels, he imagined vehicles that fly through the air at high speeds. He called these vehicles ‘air-taxis,’ a choice of name that clearly describes the purpose of this fictional object and relieving readers of any confusion.
Change of Function
The object might be one that we know well today, but the use of the object could have changed over time, and therefore it might be known as an entirely different name in your future-Earth setting.
An example of this is in the Netflix original television series Altered Carbon, adapted from a novel by Richard K. Morgan. In this imagined future-Earth we are no longer limited to having just one life because our bodies can be reproduced, swapped and upgraded, and our consciousness is digitized and stored in a ‘stack’ which is implanted in the back of the neck when young. With human bodies being interchangeable and death no longer being permanent, the word body—due to its evolved function—has been replaced with ‘sleeve,’ which is a more accurate and appropriate name for its almost throw-away future use.
The original meaning of a word can become lost or altered as decades and centuries pass, meaning that it might be pronounced in the same way that it always has been, but its original meaning has been used incorrectly for so many generations that it is now used for an entirely different meaning. An example of where this process is already morphing the meaning of an existing word and allowing for a new meaning to be developed is with the word literally. Literally means ‘to the letter’ or ‘exactly in the way stated, without exaggeration’ but many people use the word figuratively to add emphasis, as in, “It was literally raining cats and dogs.” Another word which currently suffers misuse is unique because it can be used to describe something as being ‘quite unique’ or ‘fairly unique.’ However, its original meaning is absolute, allowing for something to either be unique or not unique, with nothing in between.
If you decide to change the meaning of a word due to a morphing of its meaning over time through the misunderstanding of how to correctly use the word, ensure this new meaning is plausible to your setting.
Over time, through word-of-mouth, words can be influenced by many factors, such as accents and movements of people and of society, of pronunciation, popularity, and of consistency and quantity of usage. This natural and slow morphing of a word allows for the original word to still be present, but adds depth to a story by acknowledging that some aspect of it will have changed over time.
Examples of this can be seen in the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, where a handful of character names are altered versions of names we recognise today. These names include ‘Peeta’ for Peter and ‘Haymitch’ for Hamish. The drug Morphine is now called ‘Morphling,’ with ‘Morphling’ also being used as a term for those addicted to using the drug.
None of these examples of changed words are far from their original spelling, but they give a nod to the authenticity of the future setting by accepting that some words will have changed over time.
Words that have been clearly reimagined and altered by an author into what they believe they could plausibly evolve into over centuries can be highly fascinating to readers who enjoy science fiction, and quite enjoyable for authors to create, too.
When it comes to changing words to suit your future-Earth setting, balance is vital. If you make too fewer changes there will be no believability of the passing of time, because we all know that time changes things. But if you make too many changes you risk confusing and overwhelming a reader and losing their interest.
To create a good balance, use a few clever changes of words, where appropriate and well-thought out, to keep readers intrigued and immersed in your tangible futuristic story.
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© 2018 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.