Inventing New Words: A proven method

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In fantasy writing we are sometimes–if not frequently–faced with the chore of making up words.

New names, new places, new animals, new new NEW.

And if creating new vocabulary isn’t hard enough, you can’t just start stringing together letters and syllables, because then you’ve got a word that’s just unbelievable. And I don’t mean that in a good way… Like “drong”. What the hell is a drong? A made-up word, that’s what.

So how do you do it? How do you invent a word that exudes meaning, oozes with definition and rises above all doubt of it being a fake word?

There are some rules.

1. If describing a thing, try pairing a word we all know to your invented one. This will ground the word, giving it a sense of reality. Let’s start small. Example: Burg nuts. Nothing too crazy just yet. Both words are already familiar… Do you find yourself asking what a burg is, even though it sounds familiar? Iceburg. Burger.

So “burg” isn’t too strange. In a descriptive sentence, a reader would read “burg nuts” and not bat an eye. Because we know the word is possible, even if we can’t quite pinpoint the source. (Think cognitive words from multiple languages.)

2. Need something a little more Sci-Fi? Pencil down the alphabet, pick a letter from the first 3/4 of the alpabet and make that the first letter of your soon-to-be new word. Why? Because traditional Sci-Fi terms frequently begin with an X or a Y or a Z. This has become cliché and screams FAKE. Let’s try a C… Example: Crimling Shore, Corvallis Falls… Not too unbelievable right? And they still have a certain amount of Sci-Fi to the sound, without beginning with a crazy letter.

3. Using old words in new ways. This may be the easiest process and results in the most realistic of words, but it comes with the risk of making up a word that already exists. But I suppose that’s what that little disclaimer is for: All names/places are entirely fictional and not associated with actual…blah blah. Example: Bluecat River, Skydock Planetarium, Greenhook Marsh

4. Name-making without making your characters sound like weirdos. This is really tricky. DON’T use a common name and substitute i’s for y’s or something similar. Eric looks ridiculous spelled Eryc. DO slightly modify common names by changing the last portion. By keeping the first half of a name, you’ve got something to roll over your tongue repeatedly until you come up with the ending. Example: Mary becomes Maris. Charles becomes Charron. Roseann becomes Roseli.

5. Animal names are popular. Plants and places make good character names as well. Example: Peony, Robin, Star, Fox, Lily

And remember–new words don’t have to be strange to be new.

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