As a writer of primarily science fiction, I've often struggled with finding a happy medium between making the prose/dialogue relatable for readers and avoiding using too many "Earth words" as I've come to call them. On a couple of occasions, I've had readers mention that the use of idioms, etc. (especially American ones) seemed unrealistic for the alien culture featured in the story.

A couple of "Earth words" I've gotten hung up on are related to characters' hairstyles: ponytail and mohawk. Obviously the latter is a Native American word, and the former looks like a horse's tail. But in a fictional universe where Earth doesn't even exist (and therefore the Earth-based origins of these words doesn't exist) would they seem totally out of place? Or if you were a reader, would you even notice them because they're so commonplace?

  • The question could do with clarification. Are you asking about those specific words, or about a policy for "Earth words" generally? If you mean just those words, for me "Mohawk" certainly jars, but "ponytail" is borderline. If the people are human and have hairstyles then they can have ponies too. (As everyone knows, all should have ponies.) If they are not human, express it differently. As a general policy you have already said it: maintain a happy medium between having distracting chunks of alien language and "translating" so much that one half expects the characters to go for a Big Mac. May 3, 2016 at 21:29
  • A little of both. Those are just two specific words I've always wondered if readers would feel weird about. I've managed to change other things -- like for example, they have devices that are basically equivalent to cell phones but they call them communicators or "comms" for short, and calls are "transmissions" instead. The tech-related stuff is a little easier to change or make up than, say, physical appearance terms that have existed for ages
    – EJF
    May 3, 2016 at 21:48
  • I like Thomo's answer, but one should feel free to use the occasional neologism or neo-idiom if its meaning is easily discernible and not too corny.
    – Stu W
    May 4, 2016 at 14:02

1 Answer 1


It depends. If it's being described from the POV of a human, then it should be ok, the person is merely describing the look in terms they are familiar with, which in turn, the reader redefines to terms they are familiar with.

If it's not a necessary detail in the story, though, do you need to include it? Is there a plot reason for a pony tail, or could you instead mention that the hair is 'tied back', or describe it as a top-knot instead.

For the Mohawk, could it be described as 'a crest of hair'? I've heard 'warrior crest' used before, and it also invokes the same image.

As an example of what I'm (badly) trying to explain, instead of:

He had an orange Mohawk.

You could use something like:

His scalp was mostly shaven except for a bright orange crest running down the middle.

  • 1
    Oh I hadn't thought of "crest!" That's a good one. And I think you're right, the POV thing would definitely be a deciding factor. The majority of the characters who are being described aren't human (though they appear nearly human on the outside) but I have other human POV characters who interact with them. That could totally work.
    – EJF
    May 4, 2016 at 16:14
  • Glad to help. The POV thing is important, as is context and, of course, the intended audience. A real life example would be localized terminology. The first that springs to mind, and from personal experiences causes a lot of raised eyebrows with people from other countries, is "Thongs". In Australia, they're footwear. The rest of the world, not so much. You get some interesting looks overseas when you say a sentence like: "I've got to go down to the shops, have you seen my thongs?"
    – user18397
    May 5, 2016 at 4:56

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