Sometimes a Smeerp is Just a Smeerp

I recently ran up against an interesting worldbuilding issue: a reason for smeerps.

In case you’re not familiar with the convention of “calling a rabbit a smeerp”, it is when a writer of sci-fi or fantasy includes something that is clearly recognizable as an existing object, concept, or creature (e.g. clock, love, rabbit) in a non-human (or at least non-Earth) society, then refers to it using a made-up word in an attempt to make the society seem exotic. (The rabbit may also have some token alien characteristic, like different coloration.)

This ranges from being a bit silly (apparently parts of the Star Wars canon refer to dice as “chance cubes”) to being a good example of how a culture views things differently from ours. Perhaps your culture is full of tiny carrot-shaped people who are terrified of rabbits and refer to them as Hopping Death. What I ran into, though, was a totally different reason for . . . smeerping?

It stemmed from the type of clothing that the protagonist of my new novel wears. This is something between a sari and a toga – and therein lies the problem.

If I call it a sari, immediate reader assumptions could include:

  • This story is supposed to take place in India
  • This is a female-specific garment
  • This is a garment with Hindu significance

None of which are true in my story.

Similarly, “toga” calls immediately to mind Ancient Greece and Rome. Then, of course, there’s the fact that neither “sari” nor “toga” is an entirely accurate description of the garment (though saris can be worn so many ways that it’s hard to say that one couldn’t look like this).

In photos I’ve seen of garments that approximate what I want here, they tend to be described as “robes.” Unfortunately, the word “robe” carries a set of connotations in high fantasy. Connotations like sleeves. Again, not quite right.

So I smeerped it, using a made-up name and working in a brief description of how it’s worn. This works out well, because I can avoid using an approximate word that doesn’t quite describe what I mean. It occurred to me, though, that I might have used a made-up word even if the object I wanted looked EXACTLY like a sari, just to avoid the other associations. I don’t want someone thinking I’ve made a mistake when a male character appears wearing this garment, and I don’t want people pointing out that my characters aren’t good Hindus.

On a more basic level, though, I don’t want to use a word that seems out of place. Decades of frequent appearances of European objects in fantasy means that their use doesn’t make readers go, “Hey, how can there be a castle? This story must take place in actual medieval Europe, because that’s where castles exist.” I suspect, though, that a sari or a toga would, at the very least, throw people for a loop. Since my setting is based loosely on India, I don’t want readers thinking I’m doing things “wrong” when they see some variation. If I were basing it more closely on India, I’d still want to be careful of using a term which not only has Hindu significance, but could, again, cause readers to think the setting actually was India. (Many words have religious significances, of course, but I try to avoid that when I reasonably can.)

So! Smeerpage as a force for good! Huzzah.

6 thoughts on “Sometimes a Smeerp is Just a Smeerp

  • Huzzah!

    I don’t have much to add, but I wanted to underscore your connection of smeerpage (excellent word, btw) with culture. You mention it in the context of Hopping Death, but I think it’s the operative principle behind your smeerpage of the sari-like garment as well. The reason you need to smeerp it is that saris have cultural connotations that don’t match your characters’ culture–just as the word “rabbit” would have cultural connotations (fuzzy, timid, harmless, etc.) that wouldn’t match the carrot-people’s culture.

    I think “castle,” on the other hand, has been used in so many novels, movies, and fairy tales–with varying degrees of realism–that its cultural connotations now include “medieval Europe or anything remotely resembling it.”

  • I agree that you were right to smeerp in this case. You really just have to do what will be clearest to your audience. Sometimes this means avoiding a word based on its connotations, other times it means ignoring a word’s cultural history because the word has lost its context in modern usage and won’t be seen as wrong/anachronistic (and is much clearer than any alternative).

    But why would you link to TVTropes, Nic? Why would you do that to me??

    • Haha, having now been sucked into TVTropes, I do like the “Uncoffee” trope – because so many writers are hopelessly dependent on coffee, they want their characters to drink coffee, but because this doesn’t fit in a SF or medieval fantasy setting, they create a drink that is obviously meant to be coffee but isn’t actually called coffee.

      • I am aware that linking to TVTropes is evil. It’s a delicious kind of evil, though, like an evil cookie.

        Have you read DWJ’s short story “Nad and Dan adn Quaffy” (yes, that’s how I meant to spell that).

        Oh – haha, just went to look at the TVTropes page, and it quotes that story. 😛 But yes, an interesting point. I think it’s also the reason so many fantasy books include cats, treecats, Cats in Space, etc. (And, incidentally, why so many mystery protagonists have cats.) I suspect that writers, on average, own more cats than the general population.

        • I haven’t read that story, sounds intriguing.

          Yes, “cats are magical” seems to be a basic premise of many fantasy series. (And you’ve got the Warriors series which basically takes that idea to its logical conclusion.) I can’t remember many magical dogs by contrast.

          Statistical analysis of the average writer would be pretty funny!

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