Linguistic Quirks: What Wordbirthing & Name-Nicking Can Do for Fiction

Jasper spring 2011I awoke from a nightmare last weekend and did the sensible thing. I got up and showered off the flop sweat, crawled back in with the ToolMaster, and poked him in the shoulder — firmly, since he was the cause of my distress.

“Hey,” he said with a fair degree of irritation. Then something must have shown on my face. “Another bad dream? What do you need?”

While he wrapped his arms around me, I told him the sordid tale.

Despite it being considered a huge no-no in fiction to begin with a dream, I’ll repeat myself here. I’m hoping to first illustrate some linguistic elements, then discuss how they might be intentionally used to help with world-building and characterization.

So, the dream…

On a gorgeous day in early spring, we’d gone for a family hike in the mountains. The snow was a good three feet deep but packed underfoot, so navigable, if slow going. To the right was a half-buried snow fence, and a yard beyond that, a canyon carved smooth and deep by a river.

We were alone, free to enjoy the sounds you’d expect in such a setting: from far below, the gentle shushing of meltwater. From a quarter-mile back, the voices of our kids as they argued about an episode of Dexter. Overhead, the loopy birdsong of robins that had dined on fermented mountain ash berries.

At one point, the ToolMaster turned to say something to me — knowing him, it involved some kind of Jan-ribbing — and he lost his balance. Before I could draw breath, he slipped sideways, his momentum carrying him over the snow fence and toward the canyon’s edge. At the last second, he grabbed the branch of a pine tree on the proximal side and his feet found purchase on a narrow ledge.

If he’d stayed there and waited for a rope, he might have been fine, but he looked down. Whatever he saw spooked him.

He pinwheeled backward, ended in a worse position yet — feet on that small shelf, shoulders on the opposite wall of rock, his life depending upon the strength of his core. He might have been a tree lodged at an angle, except that he was clad in layers and wearing the latest in moisture-wicking technology.

I screamed to the kids to get help and went to him, stretching out from the pine tree. Naturally, I awoke as he was risking it all to grasp my hand, and Molly and Frank were disobeying my orders, easing past the snow fence to try and haul us up. If you saw their body mass versus ours, you’d know it couldn’t end well. Without equipment or help, we’d end in a daisy-chain of doom.

“You need to pay attention to the path when we you walk in the mountains, I said. “Are you listening? Also,”—I pushed closer as a shiver racked me—”you shouldn’t have panicked. You are not a panicker. This is not your role in our relationship.”

“All right,” he said. “I’ll stay calm.”

He’s not one to easily acquiesce, so I twisted my neck to stare at him with suspicion. “Promise?”

“Of course. But you’re not allowed to put yourself in danger to rescue me.”

“Um, you’re the one hanging above the crevasse due to poor judgment. You’re hardly in a place to dictate my behavior.”

The ToolMaster would likely have had a pithy rebuttal, but use of the word “crevasse” forced us to retrench. You see, it’s a trigger word in my marriage, setting off a ritual which proceeds like this:

  • One of us recites the old chestnut which distinguishes between “crevasse” and “crevice”. Slip on your ass and fall in a crevasse. (Which makes no sense whatsoever, because they went and made the glacial “crev” word end in “asse” and the rocky version end in “ice.”)
  • We enjoy a bout of communal laughter.
  • Revisit the memory of my late father-in-law, with whom we used to share this joke. Draw emotionally closer.

On the morning of my nightmare, we added two more steps.

  • Have a heated discussion about which kind of crack we were suspended above, given its stony origins but its snowy cover.
  • Given that it’s we two O’Haras in danger, soon to be we four, decide that the geological formation of my nightmare will be called a “crevuss.”

If you stuck it out this far through my post, you probably noticed a few linguistic quirks which are particular to my family and this dream scenario. (ToolMaster, crevuss, etc.) Apparently, linguists consider these to be hallmarks of a speech community, or a community whose boundaries are formed by a shared understanding of language. These signals can include:

  • Coined words
  • Nicknames or pet names
  • Insider jokes
  • Phrases pronounced with certain inflections
  • Speech rituals following particular triggers

If you’re not making careful and judicious use of these linguistic symbols in writing, you might reconsider for the following reasons:

If you’re accused of writing wooden dialogue or unrealistic speech, they can provide a remedy, conferring a sense of naturalness.

They can provide texture to your story. The best of these elements will provide a sense of the speakers’ values, socioeconomic status, education, profession, geography, ethnicity, etc. In other words, they form a succinct package for elements of world-building and characterization.

Act like a motif or symbol by providing a sense of resonance when certain words or phrases are used repetitively. For instance, think of how Penny and Sheldon play with the Soft Kitty song in The Big Bang Theory, and how their shifting treatment of the song reflects the change in their relationship. (They begin like this, end like this.)

Signal quality and type of relationships through subtext. For instance, within your fictional setting, consider a particular micro-culture and its speech patterns. Who understands it due to an accident of birth? Are there any parties who are deliberately excluded, thereby branding them “other”? Are their any supposed outsiders who understand the subculture’s language instinctively, signaling compatibility or worthiness for inclusion? Who should understand the nuances of communal language, but rejects it, or can’t navigate it appropriately?

Do you make use of any of these techniques in your fiction to signal belonging and cohesion, or lack thereof? Where have you seen them best applied? Do you consider them a fun part of writing, or do they seem foreign?



About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    Thank you for an excellent post! I struggle with dialogue at times and this gives me some direction on how to make it sound more natural, as well as developing each character’s voice.

  2. says

    This is a very enlightening post. I have to say that sometimes when I read sci-fi or fantasy, the quirky language there has that “beyond” sense that is appropriate in the beyond worlds. But in more traditional pieces, when it happens too much or is too cute, I tend to find it self-conscious, like the writer is saying … look how clever I am. I suspect this technique is like pepper where we need to shake carefully.

    • says

      You raise a good point–one on which I should have elaborated beyond saying “careful and judicious use”, because I mostly agree with you. If the goal is to keep the reader completely immersed, then IMHO, whatever we do, we want it to remain invisible and subservient to the story. We don’t want to lose the reader.

      That said, as you’ve noted, some genres delight in using these techniques. Sci Fi, UF, fantasy as elements of worldbuilding. I’d add to that satire, parody, which often wink to the reader; and contemporary realistic fiction that deals with youth or distinct subcultures. I think we forget how much readers will absorb. Think of all the insider language in police procedurals, and how readers take to it, sometimes yearn for it.

      This is probably a place where writers need to rely on good beta readers and/or editors to say when a piece has become too baroque.

  3. says

    Oooo. I like the post and Paula’s nice add-on about shaking the pepper carefully. As they said about Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘Both great’.

    • says

      Alex, I agree on the pepper analogy. Achoo! ;) Wrote a more elaborate reply to Paula’s comment just above, if you’d care to weigh in.

  4. says

    One of my favorite things to do, “coin phrases,” and it really makes the characters’ personalities POP. As long as the characters are saying these things, its my opinion (humble not) that you can pepper liberally. Again just my not humble opinion. PS I can analyze that dream for you, but its a pretty obvious one at this point don’t you think?

    • says

      Heh. That dream is a little on the nose, yes?

      I like these quirks, too, provided they’re consistent with the tone of the piece, the character, etc. Interestingly, though, my brain shies away from them in fantasy, and I haven’t figured out why. I’m not hopeless at other languages–at one point I was semi-conversant in French–but it feels more forbidding than inviting in certain genres.

  5. says

    Thanks for the excellent insights, Jan. I’m especially struck by the use of linguistics to indicate community and changing relationships. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I can think of all sorts of examples. Picture the lightbulb over my head coming on.

    • says

      Wonderful to hear, Cheryl. If your experience is like mine, now that you’re looking for it, I’m sure you’ll see it everywhere.

  6. says

    We (I use the pronoun lightly, as I’m unpubbed) in epic fantasy rely heavily on linguistics to circle the wagons, hopefully with the reader inside each of our wagon circles.

    I had a few early beta-readers who didn’t get it, and part of that was my inexperience and unskilled introduction of my linguistic quirks. But some of it, I now realize, is just that certain readers are never going to enjoy this sort of world-building. For example, my female MC has a nickname that only her sisters and mother use. This threw one reader for such a loop, she wrote me a note just to scold me about it.

    But this is quite common in the genre. To demonstrate, I give you Aragorn, son of Arathorn (Lord of the Rings). Called Strider by the hobbits and Elessar by the elves. And that’s not all. He’s aKa: the Dúnadan, Longshanks, Wingfoot, Telcontar (Strider in Quenya), and Envinyatar (meaning “the renewer”). My character has *one* nickname.

    A reader doesn’t need to know all of Aragorn’s names to follow the story, but they enhance the flavor of Tolkien’s world. And geeks like me relish delving deeply into such linguistic swimming holes.

    Fun stuff, Jan. Please keep yourself and your family away from the crevusses.

    • says

      Sadly, with my imagination, I don’t require treacherous mountain terrain to envision doom and gloom. I’m not sure my former job helped. Nor writing, for that matter!

      “But some of it, I now realize, is just that certain readers are never going to enjoy this sort of world-building.”

      Yes. I should have added a point about reader tolerance and genre expectations, because you’re right in that they vary greatly.

      Would you agree, though, that within subgenres there can be a big variation in indulgence or use of linguistic play? I’d argue that it’s a component of author voice, and we all know we intrinsically find some more pleasing than others.

      • says

        I do agree. One piece of advice I received after my first round of beta readers (which could only be called disastrous) was to be more judicious about who I asked to read (I think this piece of wisdom came from Cathy Yardley). Because of this wide range of tolerance, I’m glad I didn’t overcorrect based on early feedback from readers who never really read epic fantasy.

        Funny, I was always worried about my linguistic quirks in regard to submitting my work to agents and editors. It’s never arisen once. I hope that means I’m still being judicious about who reads my work. Great conversation here today, Jan. Kudos!

  7. says

    The technique works beautifully to show progress in a relationship: at the beginning, people are pulled from the larger pool of ‘everyone’ as appropriate for the situation (everyone at the party, all people in the store, the passengers on a plane).

    As the relationship moves forward, the degree of exclusivity or bonding is shown by words becoming exclusive in meaning to the smaller in-group, with in-jokes and puns, words that recall shared memories.

    The deeper the relationship gets, the more likely a single word or a short phrase can become a trigger for a whole slew of common memories.

    The reader, who knows all these little bits and pieces, is thus a member of the relationship, even as it gets more exclusive.

    I think it puts the reader in the coveted ‘fly-on-the-wall’ position.

  8. says

    The timing for this post is amazing! Last night I was searching for a name for two characters, going for something exotic and warriorish. My husband suggested I look at Aztec, Mayan and Quechuan names. From there I started thinking about if I should have key words (ie. titles, etc…) in their language. Your post kind of pulls all of my thoughts last night (scattered as they were) into a usable, understandable format.

    I read a book by David Farland about Resonance, and I think linguistically we can give our stories resonance by developing those cultural references. You’re so smart!

  9. Lisa Threadgill says

    Very good post on this often unnoticed tool. I have distinct classes in my trilogy, and each has it’s own way of speaking. Not so much as to be distracting or to point out with a gigantic arrow that “THIS GROUP IS NOT AS RICH” or “MORE EDUCATED”, but enough that it gives each section of society it’s own flavor and character.

    • says

      I don’t know what you people have against giant arrows in your prose. ;)

      That was a joke, in case it’s not obvious! On a serious note, my hat’s off to all you worldbuilders who must make up entire societies with their casts and attendant subcultures. It’s a lot of work. But when you pull it off, we readers are rapturous.

  10. Gretchen Brant says

    You are not unpubbed because the fic-pic piece in your article counts in my book. You had me spooning with you and the ToolMaster.
    You are able to deftly describe those nuanced “things” (that’s the best I can do) within tight relationships as opposed to the wannabes and the outsiders.
    When I visit my family of origin I unconsciously revert to our family’s pigeon: so-shee for lotion, mazageens for magazines, pocker for pocket, et al. My husband has picked it up and once asked a co-worker if she had any so-shee.

    • says

      So you’re saying there were three of us in bed that morning? Why thank you! You’ve put a smile on my face.

      You’ve just deftly described another attribute of insider language–it spreads. That’s often used to invoke humor in a fictional sense. Think of a toddler who overhears intimate conversation between adults, then brings it out at an inopportune time. (In front of the boss.) Or a hyper-masculine man who slips up and uses a cutesy nickname in front of his friends.

      Or it could be used in crime fiction, when a suspect knows a word to which they shouldn’t have been privy.

      /geek-out ;)

  11. says

    This is such a great post, Jan. I love the idea of using catch phrases to include or exclude characters. As always, you made me think. (No fair on a Monday morning!!)

  12. says

    So interesting, Jan! I got caught up in the momentum of the dream–like a good story!
    Also, it got me to thinking about a few of those words that my husband and I have shared along the way.
    Seems like a way to develop the identity of a character for sure. Thanks!

  13. Peggy Foster says

    I like this post. It is true that we can make our characters have the different distinctions of speaking and it will resignate with some while it will not resignate with others. Thanks for the great post.

    • says

      I agree, Peggy. I wrote a comment above in reply to Vaughn about these quirks being one feature of authorial voice. Some readers won’t respond to ours, that’s for sure.

  14. says

    Perhaps the best use of micro-culture speech patterns we’ve ever seen displayed was by the author Brian Jacques in his series Redwall.

    It is funny – and perhaps a little concerning – to realize how many daily conversations with those you have grown up with would be near-unintelligible to the “others”. Sometimes the two of us (sister and brother, Deb and Zac) have conversations that our own parents can’t even understand. It is interesting to note that when we can’t hear what the other is saying, we can still comprehend the meaning due to speech intonation familiarity. Unfortunately, that last instance is extremely difficult to write in a novel.

    • says

      I’m sorry to say I haven’t read the Redwall series, though I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

      It is funny – and perhaps a little concerning – to realize how many daily conversations with those you have grown up with would be near-unintelligible to the “others”.

      So true. Barbara O’Neal is always telling writers to eavesdrop in food courts, and it’s amazing how often insider language crops up.

      I take your point about speech intonation. Have you read any Georgette Heyer? (I’m guessing not.) IMHO she’s superb at this. She can write pages and pages of dialogue, often without noticeable character attribution, but the reader knows exactly who’s speaking and where they’ve emphasized certain words. I’d love to have her mad dialogue skills.

  15. says

    I always enjoy your particular blend of humor and sage advice. The scary dream was an entertainment bonus–but only because I knew it was fiction. I was right in the crevasse with you, reaching with shaky hands. Who doesn’t like a spike of thrill with their coffee?

    Agreed. Our worlds would fall flat without the peculiarities that give our fictional cultures depth. I believe the personality of the place/setting is as important as that of our people, too–the nuances that create an instant understanding and immediate reaction without a lot of exposition.

    • says

      “I believe the personality of the place/setting is as important as that of our people, too–the nuances that create an instant understanding and immediate reaction without a lot of exposition.”

      Couldn’t say it better. Thanks, D, for elaborating. And I appreciate your kind words.

  16. says


    As I was walking my son to kindergarten this morning, we overtook a classmate and her mom, who was like me accompanying her kid to school albeit at a slower pace.

    My son said, “I crash on Caroline.”

    I said, “You mean you bumped into her? When? In class?”

    “No,” he said, “We crash.”

    I thought about it. His English pronunciation is sometimes fuzzy.

    “Do you mean *crush*?”


    “Caroline has a crush on you?”


    “Do you have a crush on Caroline?”

    “No!” (Tone of “silly Dad!”) “I have a crash on my Mom.”

    So you see? Even five-year-old’s invent new usage.

    • says

      Kids are a rich source of new words, and new applications, aren’t they? In attentive families, their “mistakes” become part of the lore. Fun stuff, Don, and good blackmail material. ;)

  17. says

    I remember reading an interview with Burgess about A Clockwork Orange. He said something about how he thought it was his worst novel. I thought the (nadsat) language was fascinating and you can see the gulf between those whose speak it and the uninitiated in the book.
    The power of having your own language:
    In wartime you can label an enemy a gook, and it makes it much easier to kill them.
    Hmmm. that wasn’t what I was reaching for, but there it is. :-)

    • says

      Great examples there, Walt. Thanks! Careers have been destroyed when people slip up and let the larger world hear one word in the lexicon of certain microcultures. That’s how much power they have.

  18. says

    While praying to the Holy Ghost, my daughter said:
    Spiritual unicorn (instead of unction), so of course, now and forever more I’ll probably envision a little white unicorn instead of a dove.

    Great tips for making the characters pop. Thank you.

  19. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Very funny post.

    PS. I got some wonderful images from “daisy-chain of doom”. Love it!

  20. says

    A friend of ours went through a period a while ago where he over-used the phrase “not massively amounts”. Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s awkward and doesn’t really make any sense anyway, it annoyed my to a ludicrous level.

    “How was your night out?”
    “Great! The meal was huge. Not massively amounts, but big.”

    “Did you get in trouble for being late to work?”
    “Not massively amounts, but I’ll have to stay back tonight.”

    It was simply impossible to have a conversation with the guy and not hear the phrase. And because it annoyed me, my husband picked it up and started using it as well. Nowadays, this phrase makes an appearance any time we’re about to move from “polite disagreement” to “serious argument”. One of us will say something like, “I hear what you’re saying, but I think you’re wrong. Not massively amounts…”

    And that’s it. Tension broken as we go into paroxysms of laughter and hideously bad examples of how to use the phrase.

    Now, to go and use some linguistic quirks in my fiction. (But not that phrase. NEVER that phrase.)



  1. […] takes a while to get to the point (to say nothing of the title!) of Jan O’Hara’s (@jan_ohara) Linguistic Quirks: What Wordbirthing & Name-Nicking Can Do for Fiction, but that point is an excellent one. Namely: the unique twists of language characters use, […]