Well-Placed Phrases: Alien Idioms in Science Fiction

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Well-Placed Phrases: Alien Idioms in Science Fiction

     Lutck waved his tentacles maniacally. “The Daphrian Flats might seem unconquerable, but Commander Tatch has an ace up his sleeve.”

     Can you see what’s out of place in that short paragraph?  I’m not talking about grammar or punctuation or even a stylistic issue. (though it’s admittedly far from the best material I’ve created) The problem rests in the idiom (colloquialism) Lutck uses. “Ace up his sleeve” is a currently-used English idiom, so where the heck did Lutck, who has probably never associated with an early 21st century human, pick up the phrase to begin with?

     I’m a reader, a Sci-Fi writer, and an experienced critique writer (a critter, if you will) and in my sojourns into others’ drafts, I’ve come across a multitude of misused idioms. Writers not only don’t understand what idioms are, but they have no idea how to use them correctly.

     So, what’s an idiom, you ask? Here are two Merriam Webster definitions:

       A: the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class

      B: the syntactical, grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language

     Here’s the layperson’s definition I gave my students when I taught College Writing 1010: an idiom is a phrase whose meaning doesn’t translate, on a literal level, between languages and/or cultures. I taught this definition so the students would begin to recognize idioms and stop using them in formal writing. That definition and my red grading pencil worked. They stopped using them.

     But this method obviously doesn’t apply to fiction.

     Still confused? Okay, let’s look at a few idioms that don’t derive from the English language.

  • German: Stehen wie ein bewässerter Pudel (I’m running from memory, so it may not be exact)

          English literal translation: To stand like a watered poodle

          Meaning: to be disappointed/crestfallen

  • Japanese: Jakuten no otowodasu ni wa (obviously not exact)

          English literal translation: To spew sounds of weakness

          Meaning: to complain/ whine

  • French: Sucer mes gaufres

           English literal translation: Sugar my waffles

           Meaning: to apply cosmetics/ use makeup

(NOTE: Please don’t fault my foreign wordage—I know the translations don’t completely add up to the original forms, so I relied on Google translations—sorry for any error)

     So what the bleep does any of this have to do with Science Fiction? A lot, if you’re writing about aliens or from an alien perspective. Idioms, at their root, are cultural. They represent the society from which they derive. That said, having a current, earth-based idiom fly from the mouth of your Balian Dark Guard (or name your favorite species) doesn’t make any sense.

     Let’s go back to what Lutck said. “The Daphrian Flats might seem unconquerable, but Commander Tatch says he has an ace up his sleeve.”

     The idiom—an ace up his sleeve—is an anachronism. It’s foreign and takes us out of the story.

     Poorly placed/ out of context idioms can ruin an otherwise good story. However, this does not mean that they can’t be used in Science Fiction. (or any genre for that matter) Actually, idioms can enrich writing—if you know what you’re doing.

     I suggest two ways to successively use idioms in your Sci-Fi writing:

1. Let your humans use earth-based idioms but only when they’re appropriate to the story, scene, or time period.

 In my soon to be released novel, Surrogate, one of my favorite characters is Akierli Mercine Feney. Merch was born in a human space colony, spent her entire life around humans, and had no alien interaction until shortly before she marries an alien. (a Takla—it’s an arranged thing, a tactical move, but I digress) Merch grew up hearing her English-speaking, earth-born-and-raised father’s colorful idioms. They’re special to her so she applies them liberally. Problem is, she’s surrounded by aliens who can’t understand her expressions, so she is constantly pressed to explain their meaning, giving rise to some mildly comical situations.

Idioms, in Merch’s case, help define her from the novel’s other characters.

2. Give your aliens idioms of their own, but make certain to explain the meaning within the context of the story.

       Example (again from my own writing)

       Language – Takla

       Phrase – May ohn toive

       Translation – Take me tides.

       Meaning—Oh, my goodness/Oh, my god.

The Takla use a lot of aquatic idioms, because they’re an aquatic species. It’s part of their culture, their world. It’s a natural part of their language.

     So why do I use my own writing for the examples? Simply put, a well-chosen idiom flows so smoothly into the writing that it doesn’t stand out. Again, it’s natural. In other words, I can’t think of any at this moment, but feel free share a few in the comments.

     My memory lapse doesn’t mean that idioms aren’t common in fiction. Shakespeare used idioms. In fact, he was an expert at creating English phrases that would eventually become idioms.

     “The game is afoot” (Henry IV Part I)

     “Brave new world” (The Tempest)

     “Cold comfort” (The Taming of the Shrew / King John)

     “Conscience does make cowards of us all” (Hamlet)

     “Crack of doom” (Macbeth)

     “Break the ice” (The Taming of the Shrew)

     “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet)

     “Full circle” (King Lear)

      “Give the devil his due” (Henry IV Part I)

     “Refuse to budge an inch” (Measure for Measure / The Taming of the Shrew)

     A creative phrase can become an idiom. but a poorly used idiom makes for atrocious writing.

     My advice: Proceed with caution.

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