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November 1998

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Strange Word Origins

Here are a few strange words and their origins as found in Brewers Dictionary of Phrases & Fables:

Dragoons So called because they used to be armed with dragons, i.e. short muskets, which spouted out fire like the fabulous beast so named. The head of a dragon was wrought on the muzzle of these muskets.

Lion's Claws Commonly used as ornaments to the legs of furniture, as tables, chairs, etc.; emblematical of strength and stability. The Greeks and Romans employed, for the same purpose, the hoofs of oxen.

Lion's Head In fountains the water generally is made to issue from the mouth of a lion. This is a very ancient custom. The Egyptians thus symbolised the inundation of the Nile, which happens when the sun is in Leo. The Greeks and Romans adopted the same device for their fountains

Red Tape Official formality; so called because lawyers and government officials tie their papers together with red tape. Charles Dickens introduced the phrase.

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The Turkey City Lexicon

A Primer for SF Workshops

Edited by Lewis Shin


This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction workshop. Having an accurate and descriptive critical term for a common SF problem makes it easier to recognize and discuss. This guide is intended to save workshop participants from having to "reinvent the wheel" at every session.

The terms here were generally developed over a period of many years in many workshops. Those identified with a particular writer are acknowledged in parentheses at the end of the entry. Particular help for this project was provided by Bruce Sterling and the other regulars of the Turkey City Workshop in Austin, Texas.

"Said" Bookism

Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word "said." "Said" is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than "he retorted," "she inquired," or the all-time favorite, "he ejaculated."

Tom Swifty

Similar compulsion to follow the word "said" (or "said" bookish) with an adverb. As in, "'We'd better hurry,' said Tom swiftly." Remember that the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. 99% of the time it is clear from the context how something was said.

"Burly Detective" Syndrome

Fear of proper names. Found in most of the same pulp magazines that abound with "said" bookisms and Tom Swifties. This is where you can't call Mike Shayne "Shayne" but substitute "the burly detective" or "the red-headed sleuth." Like the "said" bookish it comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph, or even page. This is only true of particularly strong and highly visible words, like, say, "vertiginous." It's always better to re-use an ordinary, simple noun or verb rather than contrive a cumbersome method of avoiding it.

Eyeball Kick

That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." (Rudy Rucker)

Pushbutton Words

Words used to evoke an emotional response without engaging the intellect or critical faculties. Words like "song" or "poet" or "tears" or "dreams." These are supposed to make us misty-eyed without quite knowing why. Most often found in story titles.


Sudden change in level of diction. "The massive hound barked in stentorian voice then made wee-wee on the carpet."

Brand Name Fever

Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM's and still have no idea with it looks like.


Expositional redundancy. Making the actions implied in a conversation explicit, e.g., "'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave."

Telling not Showing

Violates the cardinal rule of good writing. The reader should be allowed to react, not be instructed in *how* to react. Carefully observed details render authorial value judgments unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling us "she had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood," specific incidents--involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey--should be shown.


Characters give cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.

Squid in the Mouth

Inappropriate humor in front of strangers. Basically the failure of an author to realize that certain assumptions or jokes are not shared by the world at large. In fact. the world at large will look upon such a writer as if they had a squid in their mouths. (Jim Blaylock)

Hand Waving

Distracting the reader with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw (Stewart Brand)

You Can't Fire Me, I Quit

Attempt to diffuse lack of credibility with hand-waving. "I would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself." As if by anticipating the reader's objections the author had somehow answered them. (John Kessel)


Element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word "somehow" is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. "Somehow she forgot to bring her gun."


Intrusion of author's physical surroundings (or mental state) into the narrative. Like the character who always lights a cigarette when the author does, or is thinking about how they wished they hadn't quit smoking. In more subtle forms, the characters complain that they're confused and don't know what to do--when this is actually the author's condition. (Tom Disch)

Bogus Alternatives

List of actions a character could have taken, but didn't. Frequently includes all the reasons why. A type of Dischism in which the author works out complicated plot problems at the reader's expense. "If I'd gone along with the cops they would have found the gun in my purse. And anyway, I didn't want to spend the night in jail. I suppose I could have just run instead of stealing their car, but then..." etc. Best dispensed with entirely.

False Interiorization

Another Dischism, in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc.