The Best Parts of Making Up Sayings for Worldbuilding

I really enjoy making up sayings for worldbuilding. But there are three aspects of it that are especially fun.

What I Love about Creating Colloquialisms for My Book

1. Designing the Evolution of the Original Meaning

Sayings change as culture changes. Either words get replaced by similar sounding words because the phrase is heard rather than spoken, or the original context is completely lost as the connotation shifts.

For example, we know that “get your ducks in a row” means to be organized and prepared for whatever plan or goal you’re pursuing. If I’d had to guess where the origin came from, I’d’ve guessed a carnival shooting game with ducks or maybe even hunting. And I’d be completely wrong. It turns out that the style of bowling pins we use now were first introduced as “duck pins.” At the times, the pins had to be set manually, and the pin boys had to “get the ducks in a row.”

That lost origin is really common. The first adoption of the phrase makes perfect sense – it’s a shorter, easier way to say something the people in question are dealing with regularly. Then, as the saying spreads, and the culture that originally caused it changes (we don’t set pins manually anymore or differentiate our pin style from historic ones), the original nuances are lost to time.

Coming up with not only a saying but also how it changed with the culture – that’s fascinating and fun. At least to me.

2. Playing with the Original Meaning in the Story

Not all worldbuilding makes it into the book. Some of it’s just in the writer’s head as he or she writes the book. So once you’ve made the phrase, you also get to play with how to integrate it in the story, and how much of the designed evolution you’ll reveal.

The main options are…

  1. Using the phrase in passing (no evolution supplied), and let the creativity of the phrase speak for itself.
  2. Include a conversation about the phrase that starts with casual use and turns into an origin of language discussion (This is more common than you’d think – maybe because writers love language or because we’re so proud of our backstory we want to include it.).
  3. Have the original meaning play a bigger role in the story (More useful in books where there’s a find-the-clue-to-solve-the-puzzle type plot).
  4. Include the phrase in situations or discussions where knowledge of the origin adds irony, but don’t reveal that deeper meaning in the story (save it for blogs or about-my-world books with the irony as a kind of Easter egg).

One and two are the most common tactics in romance novels. Granted, many of them throw in lesser-known colloquialisms rather than making up their own since they’re set in the real world (ish), but the trope’s still familiar.

3. They Don’t Have to Make Sense

You know why people learning English as a second language struggle with idioms? Because the phrases themselves don’t make any sense with the meaning they go with. Not unless you’re a very specialized historian.

Think about it. Tons of colloquialisms we use all the time would make no sense if we didn’t already know the bigger meaning. For example:

  • Buckle down to work
  • Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • Make no bones about it
  • Remove the scales from your eyes
  • You’re pulling my leg.

The words put together don’t seem to have anything to do with the bigger meaning, do they? Not if you don’t know the historic context, and let’s be real, how many people do? Sometimes, the experts don’t even know for sure (The idiom dictionaries will state when they only have theories about the origins.).

While this one’s caused by the evolution of the phrases, the fact that the sayings can be out there makes creating the sayings extra fun if you have a strong sense of the ridiculous (which I do). I get to play with words, and add a kind of tongue-in-cheek commentary on language and society at the same time. Win-win! :-p


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