In case you're not familiar with the convention of "calling a rabbit a smeerp", it is when a writer of sci-fi or fantasy includes something that is clearly recognizable as an existing object, concept, or creature (e.g. clock, love, rabbit) in a non-human (or at least non-Earth) society, then refers to it using a made-up word in an attempt to make the society seem exotic. (The rabbit may also have some token alien characteristic, like different coloration.)
This ranges from being a bit silly (apparently parts of the Star Wars canon refer to dice as "chance cubes") to being a good example of how a culture views things differently from ours. Perhaps your culture is full of tiny carrot-shaped people who are terrified of rabbits and refer to them as Hopping Death. What I ran into, though, was a totally different reason for . . . smeerping?
It stemmed from the type of clothing that the protagonist of my new novel wears. This is something between a sari and a toga - and therein lies the problem.
If I call it a sari, immediate reader assumptions could include:
- This story is supposed to take place in India
- This is a female-specific garment
- This is a garment with Hindu significance
None of which are true in my story.
Similarly, "toga" calls immediately to mind Ancient Greece and Rome. Then, of course, there's the fact that neither "sari" nor "toga" is an entirely accurate description of the garment (though saris can be worn so many ways that it's hard to say that one couldn't look like this).
In photos I've seen of garments that approximate what I want here, they tend to be described as "robes." Unfortunately, the word "robe" carries a set of connotations in high fantasy. Connotations like sleeves. Again, not quite right.
So I smeerped it, using a made-up name and working in a brief description of how it's worn. This works out well, because I can avoid using an approximate word that doesn't quite describe what I mean. It occurred to me, though, that I might have used a made-up word even if the object I wanted looked EXACTLY like a sari, just to avoid the other associations. I don't want someone thinking I've made a mistake when a male character appears wearing this garment, and I don't want people pointing out that my characters aren't good Hindus.
On a more basic level, though, I don't want to use a word that seems out of place. Decades of frequent appearances of European objects in fantasy means that their use doesn't make readers go, "Hey, how can there be a castle? This story must take place in actual medieval Europe, because that's where castles exist." I suspect, though, that a sari or a toga would, at the very least, throw people for a loop. Since my setting is based loosely on India, I don't want readers thinking I'm doing things "wrong" when they see some variation. If I were basing it more closely on India, I'd still want to be careful of using a term which not only has Hindu significance, but could, again, cause readers to think the setting actually was India. (Many words have religious significances, of course, but I try to avoid that when I reasonably can.)
So! Smeerpage as a force for good! Huzzah.