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Dinglehoppers, Walkers, And Tree Stars | Wordplay In Worldbuilding

The Little Mermaid is one of my favorite Disney films for so many reasons. I was Ariel for several Halloweens growing up, and she's still one of my favorite closet cosplays to break out on short notice. I was one of those kids who would play mermaids in any pool or on any beach trip. I still have pieces of my old bedspread stashed somewhere. Ariel may've also been one of the influences behind me dying my hair red.

There's a unique charm to The Little Mermaid. It's such a colorful film with an amazing musical score and endearing characters.

But one of the things that has stuck around in pop culture is the film's vernacular.

Ariel is a mermaid who is fascinated by the human world. Our introduction to her is her missing her debut concert because she's exploring a sunken ship and collecting human treasures. These are often things that we'd have around the house or in the junk drawer, but Ariel's intrigued by them like the little budding anthropologist she is.

In order to learn more about her findings, Ariel seeks the help of an "expert," a seagull named Scuttle who identifies her treasures and tells her what humans use them for. The names Scuttle gives them are, as we humans know, gibberish. Syllables mashed together with the utmost confidence.

The Dinglehopper is perhaps the most famous, a metal tool humans use to style their hair. The fact that viewers know this is a fork used for eating makes Ariel more endearing through her innocent curiosity (but I'm sure a few of us have tried to use a Dinglehopper to comb through our hair at least once).

Dinglehoppers aren't the only thing in Ariel's grotto. She's also got a Snarfblatt, gizmos and gadgets, twenty thingamabobs, and a whole lot more. By inventing new names for all of these objects, Disney succeeded in making Ariel feel more genuine as a character while establishing how separated the merpeople of Atlantica are from the human world.

Worldbuilding can be a formidable undertaking. You want to create an immersive backdrop for your readers to explore without overwhelming them. Whether you're writing a story based in our world or set in a fictional realm, it can be a lengthy process with a lot to consider. You've got the big-picture things like terrain, flora and fauna, and government, cultural aspects like religion and holidays, and then the seemingly insignificant aspects like how one might dispose of their trash.

One thing that doesn't always get brought up in worldbuilding is language. And while this can refer to the languages spoken throughout the character's world, it's often about the little nuances. It's your story's Dinglehoppers. The specific words or phrases that add life and flavor to your character's world.

In this post, we'll be exploring some of the ways that in-universe slang and even invented language can embellish your worldbuilding.

Context And Background

Primarily, the language we use is what we know. Terminology comes and goes and changes (as we'll talk about later in this post) but our language has existed for ages before us. Our mother tongue is how we first communicate with the world. It's what has always been.

Having your characters use in-universe vocab adds a sense of realism. We all know what it means to roll down the windows of a car. Even though we just press a button nowadays (unless you've got a vintage set of wheels), we understand that rolling down the windows refers to opening them. That's the context we have built into our world.

One of my favorite examples of contextual wordplay in worldbuilding comes from The Land Before Time, a series that follows a group of dinosaurs. Naturally, they wouldn't have our language for things and instead have their own terminology woven into their world because they're before our time.

Much of this is simplified and to the point. Cera is a Threehorn not a triceratops because her kind has three horns. Littlefoot is called a Longneck, not an Apatosaurus. Instead of an ocean, it's Big Water. Certain leaves are Tree Stars because of their shape and the height of the trees they grow on.

You could argue that these invented words are just kids being kids, kind of like the words used by the babies on Rugrats, and that's in part true, but it also enhances the worldbuilding. The adults also use these terms. This is just what the language of their world is.

So while Longneck may be easier for younger viewers to say than Apatosaurus (to which I must say that I was a dino kid and could still spit out Pachycephalosaurus like nobody's business even with my enduring lisp), the invented terminology enhances the world and the feeling on going on backyard adventures with your childhood friends that makes the series so nostalgic and cozy.

Here's a link to the Dictionary on the Land Before Time wiki page just because it's fun to scroll through.


Language can also be regional. Even in two countries or areas that speak the same language, you're likely to find variations in their lingo. This might be two words for the same thing or the same word for two different things.

Americans use different words than our friends across the pond despite both being English-speaking countries. For example, the Brits' "chips" are the States' "French fries," while American "chips" are the English "crisps."

This also happens in different parts of the same country. In one state, you'd be ordering a soda, but in another you'd be drinking a pop. Some areas also use "coke" as an umbrella term for most soft drinks instead of specifically in relation to Coca-Cola as a brand or beverage.

Experimenting with variations in dialect can add a sense of broadness to your world, especially in how those terms spread when people move around.

In The Walking Dead, the survivors develop different words for the undead. This is because in that universe, zombie media doesn't exist, thus the characters have no pre-existing word to describe the resurrected corpses when the outbreak happens. New words are invented and attributed to them as a result.

After Rick Grimes awakens from a coma, in the wake of the virus taking over, the first survivors he encounters are Morgan and his son, who use the term "Walker" when filling Rick in on what's happened and describing the new world. Rick, therefore, also uses "Walker," as that's what he's been told they're called. We may also assume this is a regional thing. Rick starts out in Atlanta and most of the characters use "Walker." But once they begin to travel around, new vocab is introduced such as "Roamers," "Biters," "The Passed," and "Deaddies."

This also carries over to the Telltale game series. Lee and Clementine are based in Georgia when the outbreak starts and use "Walker" (though there is one accidental instance of Lee using the Z-word). Meanwhile, A New Frontier follows a new protagonist named Javier, who is of Cuban descent, and his group calls them "Muertos," derived from the Spanish word for dead.

This leads to a humorous moment between Clem and Javier over what they call the undead. When Clem says she calls them Walkers, he quips, "What do you call the ones that run?"

You might not be dealing with zombies in your fiction, but you might have characters who grew up in different places or have different cultural backgrounds. Playing with the words they use can make your world feel more expansive, even if your story is limited to only a few key locations.

Historical Vernacular

Sending someone an eggplant emoji isn't considered a reminder to pick something up from the produce aisle in this day and age!

In all seriousness, language changes over time. Words come and go, and their meanings can evolve.

In the past, your coworker might have said they're going to be out of pocket next week to mean you won't be able to contact them because they won't be checking their emails or answering phone calls during their vacation. You may also have an out-of-pocket expense like milage with a company vehicle, meaning you make the payment yourself and are later reimbursed by a third party.

Nowadays, however, a new definition is emerging. Out of pocket is now commonly defined among the younger crowd as saying something hurtful or outlandish. Basically, to get out of line.

The way etymology shifts over time is too long of a discussion to break down for this particular post, but it's something you can use to your advantage.

In a YA novel, you might have a character struggling to get something across to their parent because of the language barrier imposed by two different generations of slang. Or you could have a Frindle situation in which a character invents a word that becomes widely used among their peers.

As a historical romance writer, you'll see me incorporating period-accurate slang and cant quite a bit in my stories. It makes the characters and their dialogue feel more realistic because it's what they would have used in their day-to-day lives.

Just as a modern-day YouTuber might say "unalive" to skirt around being reprimanded by the algorithm, my Regency Era characters might say "cock up one's toes." Both mean to die, but in a slightly toned-down fashion. A leading lady might be a diamond of the first waters who fancies a bang-up cove or a knave in the grain. A rake might seek to skin his opponents and strip the table during a game of cards at White's.

Adding historical terms enhances the flavor of the world my characters live in and make it feel more realistic. Even though these aren't terms my readers may be familiar with, chances are they'll be able to understand what they're saying based on context clues.

Here's one of my favorite resources for Regency Era slang for anyone who wants to dive a little deeper!

Worldbuilding can be daunting, but there are approaches that can make it less intimidating.

Exploring the nuances of language in your setting through wordplay seems like a smaller detail compared to government structures or religion, but it can make things feel more realistic and add depth.

The lingo used by your characters can say a lot, not just about them, but the world they exist in. Something as simple as "Oh my gods!" subtly informs readers about their culture. Your character calling their love interest "the bee's knees" clues us into their time period.

Though it's more subtle, delving into this aspect of your story's setting can add a sense of authenticity to the world, making it come alive and easier for your reader to step into.

And who knows? You may inadvertently introduce pop culture's next Dinglehopper or Frindle in the process!



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