Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Coining or inventing words is a regular task for storytellers, and in certain genres plays an important part of world-building. Not every writer forges new words -- some are fine with using only words that already exist -- but word smithing can be fun and a great way to stretch both your vocabulary and your imagination.

When coining words for your fiction one of the easiest methods is to create compound words by joining together two small words to forge a new construct. Some examples of these that already exist in our language are copperhead, eyebrow, flowerpot, handbag, ladybug, sandstorm and windmill. When you create a compound word you should consider what the two words you're combining mean, how they relate to each other, and when combined what sort of imagery they invoke for your reader. Let's shuffle the example compound words I just gave you and see what new words we can invent:

copperbrow ~ eyebag ~ flowermill ~ handstorm ~ ladyhead ~ sandpot ~ windbug

Copperbrow made me think of a warrior wearing some sort of metal band or helm to protect his forehead or eyes. I imagine if a character doesn't get any sleep they'll acquire a huge matched set of eyebags. Flowermill invokes two ideas -- a village perfumery or a brothel that specializes either in catering to virgins or procuring them. An agitated translator for the deaf might indulge in a handstorm, while a garden of ladyhead plants might bloom with genteel elegance. An ancient fire extinguisher could be called a sandpot, and an exotic alien insect that lives its life entirely within the air currents above a planet (or another species of blustering, ineffective politician) should be named windbugs.

If compound words seem too obvious, you can meld them together more completely by joining them at shared prefixes or suffixes. For this you can play with Degraeve.com's Invent-a-Word generator, which recombines words that share common prefixes or suffixes. It also allows you to choose the specific number of letters to be shared by the recombined words. Here's part of a list I got when I fed "word" as a 3-letter shared prefix to the generator:

word + ordain = wordain
word + ordeal = wordeal
word + order = worder
word + orderly = worderly
word + ordinal = wordinal
word + ordinance = wordinance
word + ordinaries = wordinaries
word + ordinarily = wordinarily
word + ordinate = wordinate
word + ordination = wordination

The generator can also be useful in reverse melding two words with a common suffix; here's a partial list of "word" as a 1-letter shared suffix:

aglow + word = agloword
borrow + word = borroword
claw + word = claword
draw + word = draword
few + word = feword
flaw + word = flaword
flow + word = floword
gnaw + word = gnaword
hallow + word = halloword
harrow + word = harroword
law + word = laword
low + word = loword
pew + word = peword
pillow + word = pilloword
shadow + word = shadoword
shallow + word = shalloword
show + word = showord
tallow + word = talloword
thaw + word = thaword
threw + word = threword
wallow + word = walloword
whew + word = wheword
widow + word = widoword

Do you have any particular tricks or tools you use when coining words for your stories that you'd like to share? Let us know in comments.


  1. Love, love LOVE this. I've always made up words on the fly. Now I have a whole new way to tackle it. Shared!!

    1. It's lots of fun to play with that generator, too, Donna -- it forces you to think of compounding words and the letters that work to be shared between them. Glad it helped.

  2. This would be so useful for a fantasy writer!

    1. I have to agree, Damyanti, especially as fantasy writers tend to have a lot of word-coining to do in their work.

  3. I. Love. This! Thank you!

  4. I really liked the word switch...especially handstorm and windbug.

    1. That's one of my favorite ways to coin words -- shuffling existing compounds. You come up with such interesting variations. :)

  5. bluebamboo8:07 PM

    As a sign language interpreter I can say firsthand (no pun intended) that "handstorm" usually works the other way -- I often see "handstorms" from my deaf clients or friends (especially young kids) when they're talking really fast! I sometimes have to ask them to start again because it flew right past me.

    As a writer I've played with words in exactly this way for years (matching up letter/s), it's my favorite way. I have a notebook dedicated to it. Sometimes I do it for a story, sometimes just because I love doing it and seeing what I can come up with. I'm a stickler for pronunciation though -- most of the "word + ord-" examples don't work for me. Though I do love "wordinance"!

    1. I'm taking my first class in signing this fall, Bluebamboo, and I expect everything will look like handstorming to me. :)

      Word play is so important when forging new terms for your universe, but it works just as well as exercise for your imagination. The more often you coin words, the easier it becomes, until you find yourself doing it without even really thinking.