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Why do creators invent new words for things that exist— and should they?

Edited by Sonious
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In my recent review of The Adventures of Peter Gray, I made a note that the book had furry characters which it termed furren. It is not something that I spent much time on but, in combination with some other reviews I've seen, it might be worth expanding a little.

During a review of Once Upon a Forest by The Nostalgia Critic, he noted that the children were called furlings. This lead him to ask, “Why is it fantasy films always have trouble just saying the word kids? It’s always furlings or younglings or Shia LaBeouf. Just call them what they are. Kids."

Similarly, in a review of Vampyr on Zero Puncuation, Yahtzee criticised using the terms ekons and skals for what were vampires and ghouls respectively.

Although to be fair to Vampyr, it does seem that ekon and skal are referring to specific subtypes of vampire. In such a case, it does make sense to use specific terms and it wouldn't be unlike the various vampire clans that feature in Vampire: The Masquerade.

The common issue that is brought up in all three reviews is the use of new word to describe something that already has a perfectly suitable word. Why is this done and is it a good thing to do?

When I asked Nathan Hopp, author of The Adventures of Peter Gray, about the term furren, he replied that was something he "wanted to use to distinguish my book from others within the fandom." Furthermore having a specific term which separated carnivore and omnivore anthros from humans and ferals "simplif[ied] my world-building but also helped me make my book distinct on its own."

So the first possible motivation is to make their work stand out. If you have unique terms, like furren or ekon, then anyone searching that term online will be more likely to find your specific work than anything else.

Another possibility, and one that Nathan Hopp also took into account, is that some terms can be copyrighted or trademarked. Certain companies leverage copyright laws aggressively to control aspects of our culture and go after other creators. At times, such copyrights are valid but in many cases they would be laughable if they weren't so serious. We've seen Zootopia released under multiple names due to copyright, Hasbro issuing a cease and desist against fan works and an author try to trademark the word "cocky." Disney is notorious for lobbying to extend US copyright durations from 14 years (28 if the author was still alive) to the current "life of the author plus 70 years" or, for corporate works, either 95 years from publication or 120 years from the date of creation. Ironically, most of Disney's animated movies were based on or adapted from public domain stories that had existed for generations.

That may explain, at least partially, the reason for the naming conventions in Vampyr. While the word ghoul has existed in English for quite some time, it comes from Persian and Arabic and refers to a corpse-eating demon. The use of ghoul for a being under the influence of vampire blood appears to come from Vampire: The Masquerade and is presumably copyrighted.

A third possibility for the use of a new term is because it really adds something new to an old concept. Many fantasy terms like elf and dwarf are heavily influenced by JRR Tolkien's work. To break away from that, one might want to use entirely new terms, even for very similar things. Of course, given that Dracula, The Vampire Diaries, Vampire: The Masquerade and Twilight all have very different conceptions of vampires and are able to use the term without people getting confused, I don't think this is a major concern.

But should creators do this? The answer is, of course, highly subjective and context dependent. I'm a lot more tolerant of using terms like furren or furlings in fantasy than if one just renamed a vampire but it remained exactly the same thing. It would not be enough to break immersion but when not engaged in the material it is something that I would find quite odd.

Due to the subjective nature of the question, I think it might be interesting to open the question up for debate. I have additionally created a Flayrah poll to gauge whether people think the practice is a good idea or not.


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TvTropes refers to this as "Call a Rabbit a 'Smeerp'". One argument in favor of its use is that if you want something animal-like but don't want the cultural connotations that are typically associated with that animal, a name change can help break the reader's mind away from those associations. And then the writer actually has put work into describing how the animal acts differently, otherwise it's the same thing in all but name.

You can also do something similar when you're creating a furry alien or fantasy species. Give the species or culture a name, then help the reader visualize them by using Earth animal comparisons, to tigers or to lizards or to whatever you need, and then once that's established you can build on what's unique and different. Or you can just have a mixed furry world with anthro-foxes and snow leopards and that's just how things are.

One day, I want to see a cartoon series where the bad guy is introducing his henchmen, and says "I'd like you meet the deadly... FELINA!" and instead of a cat-woman, in walks a minotaur, who then talksssss like a ssssnake.

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One of the oldest “duplicated terms” is “kids” for “juvenile humans”. The original word is “children” – still perfectly good. A “kid” is a juvenile goat. They’re playful and rambunctious, very like children, so children came to be called kids in slang – so long ago that it’s become a normal word. Most people don’t know when kids for children started. (In the 1590s, according to scholars.)

When the 1977 A.I.P. movie of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” with Burt Lancaster came out, its advertising heavily used the word “humanimal” which always appeared with the ™ symbol. The trademark lapsed long ago, and I’ve since seen “humanimal” used in furry stories as a generic term for human-animal bioengineered people; for example in the three “Fuzzy Business” novels by Amelia Ritner.

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of the 50+ “Animorphs” Young Adult novels by Katharine Applegate between 1996 and 2001? I’ve since seen “animorphs” used as a generic term for bioengineered human-animal blends. Also “animen”.

Fred Patten

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I didn't know that about "kids!" That's pretty cool. Although I'm sure there are several words that have made the transition from slang and fiction into our vocabulary now. In our current time, I wouldn't class them in the same way as terms like furren.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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There was also the short-lived Manimal... which probably explains why that term never caught on. :-)

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Give credit where credit is due: “Call a rabbit a smeerp” is from a review by James Blish. Back in 1955, the author-critic James Blish (under the pseudonym William Athling, Jr.) coined the now-notorious “call the rabbit a smeerp” rule of lazy s-f writing: “As usual, the problem is ‘solved’ by pulling three rabbits out of the author’s hat (though of course he [Robert Sheckey] doesn’t call them rabbits – they look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps, that makes it science fiction).” (Reprinted in Blish’s “The Issue At Hand”, 1964, p. 92.)

Fred Patten

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I think you're neglecting the most obvious reason people use words: to communicate something. "Youngling", which is not a new term really, is used in Star Wars media to refer to juveniles of a variety of species. Why not just use the word "child"? Well, because a child is a juvenile human being, with the timeframe and connotations that come with that. Using "youngling" makes the biological diversity immediately apparent to readers, and has the in-story effect of an attempt to avoid anthropocentrism.

Why is an anthropomorphic tiger called a moreau and not just a tiger? Because a tiger is Panthera tigris, and a moreau is a genetically distinct human-animal amalgamation (or the descendant of one).

Do neologisms always work? Are they always necessary? Probably not, but check out Merriam-Webster's lists of synonyms for "child".

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To be fair, the youngling quote was a direct quote from the Nostalgic Critic video. So that was more his error than Rauken's.

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Sometimes that is true but in other cases it doesn't really change much. I think the important thing is that there is a good reason for whichever word the creator uses.

So, thanks to Dronon's link which supplements my terrible ability to remember examples, we have "chance cubes" from Star Wars. Those are just dice. Does "chance cubes" communicate anything? No. At most its supposed to make things seem more alien but really it's just a bit silly. Harmless but silly.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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About the author

Rakuen Growlitheread storiescontact (login required)

a scientist and Growlithe from South Africa, interested in science, writing, pokemon and gaming

I'm a South African fur, originally from Cape Town. I'm interested in science, writing, gaming, all sorts of furry stuff, Pokemon and some naughtier things too! I've dabbled in art before but prefer writing. You can find my fiction on SoFurry and non-fiction on Flayrah.