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English is a language invented by humans, for humans. Which means some words don't fit well when you're writing about characters who aren't human.

For example: Suppose I write "The demon tiptoed across the room."

My inner nitpicker complains that demons don't have toes. But if I try to replace "tiptoed" with "tiphoofed" (tip-hoofed?), it just looks weird.

Are there any guidelines for dealing with this sort of situation, or do I just have to play it by ear?

Edit: Two of the POV characters are demons - the word choice needs to work for a demon's perspective. And they're obsessed with correctness.

Edit #2: The demons have had billions of years to figure out how to walk on their hind legs. They're perfectly capable of tiptoeing/tiphoofing.

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    Tiphoof can't work physically - the hoof is already the tip of the toe, the nails. And I can't imagine them going quietly either, the way tiptoeing implies - I always imagine them going clippety-clop. Good question though. I'll have to think about it. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 26 at 12:53
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    also a good opportunity to try different word choice all together. "Tiptoe" can raise imagery of silliness, Scooby-Doo-esque type walking. If the story is serious / realistic (in as much as a fantasy setting w/ demons) then perhaps something more demon-esque (slinked, creep, sidle, slithered, furtive, etc...) – NKCampbell Mar 26 at 16:20
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    Tiptoe implies that the toes are bent such that the rest of the foot doesn't touch the floor. Unless their hooves are built differently than what we're used to on this plane, hooves are not flexible, so that might change the situation as well. – John Doe Mar 26 at 19:13
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    @DarrelHoffman Consider a ballerina en pointe. Graceful, balanced. The pointe shoe is, for all intents and purposes, an artificial hoof, in how it's structured. With stunt horses, their legs don't bend the way bipeds' legs do, so they can't bring their centre of mass to be just over their hind legs. That's why they're so wobbly. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 26 at 19:21
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    "Tip-hoofed" feels like something from a Terry Pratchett story. Whether that is right for your story is up to you. OTOH, if it appeared in the middle of a Tolkien or GRRM story, I'd definitely consider it out of place. – BittermanAndy Mar 27 at 12:26

12 Answers 12

39

Adapt to the culture. If it's a town of demons and the narrator is implied to be well familiarized with them, then you can go with 'tiphoof' and other such expressions, coining new idioms for the culture, replacing common phrases with more suitable counterparts, often playing puns with the expressions.

On the other hand, if there is a culture clash, with the speaker/narrator being unfamiliar with the demon customs and language you'll either go with common 'human' expressions, or show hesitation. Express that inner nitpicker!

"The demon tiptoed... tiphoofed? Can one even tip-hoof? Eh, let's say the demon crept sneakily across the room."

29

I think Secespitus hits the nail on the head by saying:

People will rarely look at the letter of a word means. They know what "tiptoeing" implies and that is all they need to imagine the scene.

Imagine being the key word. IMHO, immersion is far more crucial in a story than correctness. The true joy of reading comes when you are so engrossed in a story that you forget you are reading.

Every time an author uses a word that's difficult, for any reason, the reader is forced to pause and take stock. Reality returns, the immersion is lost, and it takes time to recover.

Their brain switches from being immersed in your scene to considering the word tip-hoofing, and whether it feels right or correct. They may like the word and even smile to themselves, but the continuity of the scene has undoubtedly snapped. Moments pass while their brain disengages from processing diction to re-imagining the scene. Meanwhile, your story has lost its flow.

For the same reason, I steer clear of overly-elaborate or complex diction, since immersion is more important than attempts to demonstrate a wide vocabulary.

Edited after OP's edit:

If it's the demon who is nit-picky and obsessed with correctness (rather than the author as originally understood) there's nothing wrong with one demon saying tiptoed and the other correcting him to tip-hoofed for a bit of tongue-in-cheek dialogue. That could add to the character's roundedness if it's part of who s/he is.

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    An excellent example of this can be seen in the TV show Lucifer, which centers around the devil himself, who is taking a bit of a vacation in LA. He continuously replaces the word "God" with "Dad" in common colloquial phrasings, "God willing" becomes "Dad willing" and all that. It causes a hiccup in immersion every time he does it, but in return it really does a good job of defining his character and that of the other Celestials. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 16:29
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    @CortAmmon It's an interesting example you've hit on. It makes me think this very much depends on the reader (or watcher in Lucifer's case). That hiccup in immersion was just too much and too often for me. I think I watched the first three episodes before giving up. For me, it was over-milked to the point of being cheesy. I'm very much an immersion gal, in what I read and watch, but that's a very popular show, so there must be just as many people who enjoy the fun of clever phrasing. In which case, OP, you probably should play it by ear! You'll never please everyone and kill yourself trying. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 26 at 16:36
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    It's worth pointing out that we already apply lots of idioms from other species to humans, anyway: If I say "I need to take the bit between my teeth" people don't say "Hang on, but you're a human, not a horse". – Max Williams Mar 26 at 16:47
  • Very true @MaxWilliams but we don't bump our nose on the page or correct idioms in that way because they have become an established part of our language over decades or more. If an author begins making words/idioms/expressions up on the fly, how long before it gets tiresome to read and comprehend? Perhaps, less is more in such cases? I think the other vital question is, is it adding or detracting from the scene? And, if adding, is it worth the momentary loss of immersion? – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Mar 26 at 16:56
  • @GGx sorry, that was my point really, that we already use lots of non-species-appropriate expressions, without anyone minding, so "don't worry about it", basically. – Max Williams Mar 26 at 17:09
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Your demons likely wouldn't be speaking English either. Yet you write your story in English, not because the demons speak English, but because the readers do.

A lot of English words stem from something that ties into human history. Fictional worlds don't always have to reinvent their history.

  • In a world where humans never existed, what would you call someone's Achilles heel? After all, they wouldn't know Achilles.
  • If you're describing the rule of Russia, you would call them a tsar. But "tsar" stems from "Caesar" (as does the German "kaiser" and the Dutch "keizer"). So in an alternate reality where the Roman empire never existed (or where Caesar specifically died young before his fame), you wouldn't be able to call anyone a tsar.

When you say "tiptoe", you mean "tiptoe" the word, regardless of whether it stems from "toe" or not.

  • In a story of anthropomorphized animals, an eagle who knows carpentry is a handyman, not a talonybird.
  • A dolphin guitarist knows how to finger chords, not how to flipper chords.
  • A T-Rex will still find this difficult puzzle a headscratcher, even if his arms can't reach.

Viewers/readers can (and generally do) assume that the language of the movie/book is a translation through the author's eyes. The words chosen are intended for the viewer/reader's understanding. That counts double for narration as opposed to direct quotes.

That being said, you can of course change the word for comical or whimsical effect. That's a perfectly valid option, but I wouldn't expect this to happen in a serious drama, only in lighthearted stories.

The key point is that you are not required to change the word just because some part of the word's etymology isn't fully accurate.

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    I remember being repeatedly put off by mentions of "Fabian tactics" in a secondary world heroic fantasy series where nothing like the Roman Empire seems to have existed, let alone Quintus Fabius. This despite being fine with "Czar" in similar settings, as it felt like the translation of a similar title with (probably) parallel etymology. – Eth Mar 27 at 10:39
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Doing something like this occasionally can be pretty entertaining, but if be careful when inventing new words: too many new words can make your book hard to read.

If the people in your world invented certain words because something "unrealistic" is completely normal there than it's fine if the word comes up from time to time. So if your demons are "normal" people will have thought about whether it's "tiptoe" or "tiphoof" and will use the correct term accordingly. Or at least those few people that regularly interact with demons and know how petty they can be. You don't want to anger a demon after all and those poor commoners that never get to interact with these magnificent creatures tend to make a blunder when first encountering one - for example by using the wrong word, even if everybody knows that demons don't like when people call them out on not having any toes. Poor little commoners, always getting eaten because of such little mistakes...

It could also be interesting if you do this once when introducing something. Like "The demon was tiptoeing around the room - or more precisely tiphoofing as it didn't have any toes as far as I could see."

But if every page consists of three new words that are partly normal everyday words it will get difficult. People will rarely look at the letter of a word means. They know what "tiptoeing" implies and that is all they need to imagine the scene.

If there is a good reason to use such a word by all means go ahead and use it. But don't use it just for the sake of being different or perfectly correct. Many demons don't care about political correctness, only about the next contract to get some tasty souls. People mostly want to read about demons and tasty souls - not about the anatomy if there is no character specifically analysing demon anatomy.

8

It might be worth pointing out that the hoof of, say, a horse, is essentially a single toe.

https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/horse/the-evolution-of-horses/on-your-toes

I can't speak for the evolution of demons, so not sure if that helps with the nit-picking, but I wouldn't have a problem with 'tiptoed' if I saw it, whatever hoofed creature was being described. It summons up the correct image, which surely is all that is required.

  • The demons evolved from dragons, so it's pretty similar (4 toes -> 1 hoof). So they would actually be tiptoeing all the time? Interesting idea... – Evil Sparrow-Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 15:43
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    @EvilSparrow Well they’d be walking on their (single) toes, yes, but not necessarily on the tips! :) I guess it’s the difference between my version of tiptoeing, and that of a ballet dancer. – bornfromanegg Mar 27 at 14:14
3

I think I remember having come across a number of such replaced/invented words in some of Terry Pratchett's novels. Whenever I've come across these words in Terry's writing it has had a humorous effect. This works well for Terry's satire filled novels but would be out of place in something more serious.

There is also the frequently seen inverse relationship between the number of invented words and the overall quality of a book. Having too many of these invented words makes it difficult for a reader to keep track of and can break immersion.

This is all to say, feel free to use invented words, but consider using them sparingly for the sake of your readers.

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    In the same vein, from J. K. Rowling: ‘ “But we're not telling you what was in there, so keep your noses out if you know what's good for you,” said a Gringotts spokesgoblin this afternoon.’ – Roman Odaisky Mar 27 at 1:29
  • @RomanOdaisky I daresay that one's a bit less risky than "tiphoof", because Standard English already has variations on spokesman -- viz. spokesmen, spokesperson, -people, -woman, -women -- which means a deviation that still follows form will not be so jarring. Compare with "tiptoe", which has no such accepted variants in Standard English or indeed any variety, making it less malleable when inventing a new one. – M. I. Wright Mar 27 at 3:14
2

There's a simple answer.

Use a different word.

Crept, snuck or slunk would be valid synonyms.

2

I'll skip repeating what others have said. Some additional thoughts:

As other have pointed out, "tiphoof" is probably not an anatomically accurate term for how a hoofed creature would ever walk, any more than "tiptoe". I'm not sure just what the analogous form of walking for such a creature would be or what words would describe it.

And you can dig a hole for yourself here. If you are extremely pedantic about the use of one word, you set yourself up that you have to be pedantic about every word. Otherwise the reader will likely be wondering, Why did he make such a big deal about "tiptoe" vs "tiphoof" vs whatever here, but then a few sentences later said ... and then point out some other way in which a description of an action wouldn't apply strictly to the demons as you've portrayed them.

What is the intended tone of your story? If you start inventing words like "tiphoof", it's going to sound whimsical. You make it a comedy. If that's your intent, great, this can add a whole category of amusing lines. But if you're trying to be serious, inventing funny-sounding words will really break the mood.

2

I wouldn't shy away from "tiptoe", if I have a non-human species that has been around longer than humans, I consider everything I write about them translation of their language to English. If they have any posture or means of walking more silently, "tiptoe" is an appropriate translation.

However, if you are bothered by the anatomical incorrectness, just substitute an actual description of the walk.

The demon moved slowly across the room, landing his hooves carefully and silently on the wood flooring, to not alarm the couple sleeping in the bed.

I will agree with NKCambell's comment; "tiptoe" does have a comical connotation that may be unwanted. If you want this action to feel sinister and not break the reader's immersion, the longer version above (or something like it) will maintain a more sinister air without having to make up words.

Don't be afraid to use more words to convey the right image. Readers don't mind reading.

1

I recently saw a Wikipedia article talking about five different ways a word can be used. Unfortunately, I can't find it right now. Some of the different uses of "head" are:

  • Literal: a literal head with two eyes, a mouth, etc.
  • Figurative: a head of lettuce - not a literal head, but roughly the same size and shape
  • Functional: the head of an organisation - as a head controls a body, so the head of an organisation controls the organisation, the leading part
  • Positional: the head of a queue - the front, the foremost part

So, for a demon to tiptoe doesn't mean it has to literally have toes. However, perhaps your demon is so pedantic they refuse to accept any definitions except literal ones. In that case they might coin awkward or humorous alternatives that more literally mean what they want to say.

They could see "to tiphoof" as an alternative to "to tiptoe" to only be used for hoofed creatures, or they could have been using it for so long that they don't even realise that "to tiptoe" is a correct word! It depends how much humour you want in your story.

Terry Pratchett is a good example of how characters can be internally serious (they consider themselves serious and dignified), but are portrayed as very silly to the reader. If your story is intended to be serious, it will be much harder to pull off, as the nonstandard language will distract from a serious story, while it would enhance a comedic story.

It also depends on what form the demons' correctness is manifested. Do they insist on correct English (or whatever language they use), in which case "tiptoe" is correct and "tiphoof" is incorrect, or do they insist that all words have to mean what they appear to mean and can't have figurative or idiomatic meanings? Ultimately, that's up to you to decide.

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Other answers rightly point out the break of immersion an invented word makes.

However, I think this is relative. It depends on the cumulative experience you have with the text. In a light read-once text (or tv episode?), immersion-break trumps other effects (unless you go the Terry Pratchet way). In a multivolume 1000-page-each read-again-and-again novel, by the 10th or 20th time you have read 'tiphoof' I expect you are no longer unfamiliar with the word.

There is also 1984's newspeak. Slightly alienated language has an effect, so it has its uses.

(To answer your question concretely, I think it depends on the context and the overall effects you want to achieve. Naturalisation of invented words take (read-) time.)

1

Hoofed creatures are always effectively tiptoeing, but it doesn't help them sneak around silently. But there are other ways that they can improve their stealth all stemming from the idea of interposing some cloth between hoof and floor:

  1. Wrap a cloth around their hoofs,
  2. Dangle cloth from each arm to the floor on which they can step,
  3. Wear shoes with a soft sole.

Fleshing out the details of demon sneaking like this gives your demons more flavor and serves to further immerse your audience.

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