New Bread on an Old Plate

I've been going through updating the (private) wiki that I use to keep track of worldbuilding, characters and so on for the Gryphon Clerks, and thought I would write a post about how I handle sayings.

There are several valid ways to deal with common sayings in secondary-world fantasy. The most common is just to use familiar ones. This means that a reader like me, who's alert to these things, may need a bit of extra suspension of disbelief when they spot a saying from the Bible or Shakespeare, or just a common metaphor from our world that isn't in any way inevitable, but most readers will just slide on past without noticing - or having their attention distracted from the story.

This is what's sometimes called "Orwellian language", from an article that George Orwell wrote about the difference between language that's like a clear window (you see what's going on through it) and language that's like a stained-glass window (you look at the window itself).

Personally, I like a bit of stained glass from time to time. I also want to give the feel of a very different, even alien world, unlike our own world, and to freshen up some tired old metaphors by communicating the same thing using a different image.

How I mainly work is that if I find myself about to use a cliche or a conventional phrase, I think about the meaning of it and find another way to say it that makes sense in the setting, that sounds like it could be a cliche among the people I'm writing about. Here are some examples.

  • We're scraping polish off our boots for soup (= times are tough)
  • He has stones in his field (= he has a hard row to hoe)
  • Gave like a six-teat cow (= sang like a canary)
  • We’ll cut down that tree when it’s grown (= cross that bridge when we come to it)
  • The redfinch complaining of the chaffinch (= pot calling the kettle black)
  • Herding finches (= herding cats)
  • No dancing killed the ant (= all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy; from a children's fable)
  • We've started out with our harness tangled (= got off on the wrong foot)
  • Don't make a scarecrow and stand in your own field (= don't keep a dog and bark for yourself)
Miss Butterfly…!!!
Denis Collette...!!! / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
  • More holes than a moth's lunch
  • As drunk as a dockworker
  • Three-days-fruit (= drunk, possibly as a dockworker)
  • Too swamped to be bothered bailing (= three-days-fruit; an Islands expression)
  • Take to something like gnomes to mushrooms (= a duck to water)
  • That apple's already off the tree (= you'd be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted)
  • You build the house you're paid for (= he who pays the piper calls the tune)
  • A carnival of fools (= a (metaphorical) circus, a Mickey Mouse outfit)
  • I'll push him down one well and fish him up another (= I'll kick his ass)
  • Catch the fish that's biting (= strike while the iron's hot)
  • Working like a gnome (= working very hard; some, though by no means all, gnomes consider this expression offensive, as if hard work defines them)
  • Like selling gritty melons (= a tough sell)
  • Water in front and fire behind (= the carrot and the stick)
  • Out of the mud and into the quicksand (= out of the frying pan into the fire)
  • Knows where the meat is in the stew (= knows which side his bread's buttered on; has an eye to the main chance)
  • You could have heard a man put on a hat (= could have heard a pin drop)

I've also got a couple of gnome sayings:

  • You're talking tonnage to the production foreman (= you're preaching to the choir)
  • We're two pumps for three (= we're extremely busy)

Not something that every writer does, or probably should do, but I enjoy playing with language like this, and giving my fellow language nerds occasional moments of delight.

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