Furry Writers' Guild Forum

When to call a rabbit a 'smeerp'?

Taken from the TV trope page of a similar name.

When is it a good idea to substitute a commonly known name of something for something more exotic and at what point does this sort of thing become a problem?

In a science fiction setting where the anthro-animals are an alien race, there is ample precedent for referring to them by another name rather than as the animal we here on Earth would know them as. In C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series, it simply wouldn’t do if the Hani were simply lions, or Lisanne Norman’s Sholans were… whatever kind of feline they most closely represent.

Sometimes using an alien species name without identifying what species they resemble can lead to confusion. I initially took K.D. Wentworth’s Hrinn to be feline, but in the second book it was evident they were much closer to canine. And I interpreted Alan Dean Foster’s Quozl to be lemur-like creatures, and only later when reading others’ comments about the book did I find out they were essentially anthro-rabbits.

In my short story Brush and Sniff, the two main characters are different species, anthro wolves and non-anthro squirrels, who refer to each other and at least two other species by different names. It helps accentuate how the two main species see the world differently.

In my Ranea stories, the various animal-people races have what they call “Formal Race Names” that are distinct words: foxes are Vraini, raccoons are Procya, and so on. I’ve gotten a bit of pushback about that from some readers over the years, but here’s my thinking: human and ape are not the same word; we don’t think of ourselves as bald anthropomorphic apes. We’re related, but plainly not the same kind of creature. In Ranea, there are still non-anthropomorphic animals. A Vraini is a fox, in a sense, but a six foot tall fox-person is plainly not the same kind of creature as a ten-pound, four-footed non-anthro red fox.

This actually creates a fair amount of politics around the language; the human language is the common tongue, and that means they have only one word for their race. In the Vraini language, “Vraini” is more or less the equivalent of “person,” and the only reason the word “fox” also exists for them in common parlance is because of humans. In some contexts, calling a Vraini a fox is just fine, but in others, it could be an insult (accidental or deliberate).

…I suppose the point is, though, that it depends on the setting and the effect you want. I think Mwalimu is correct in that if the race is a genuine alien that just happens to look like an Earth animal, they should have an alien name. In other circumstances, well, it might depend on context. If your main character is a rat woman, does she think of herself as a rat? If there are no non-anthro rats, she might. But if there are non-anthro rats and she’s consciously modeled on them, she might still think of herself as a rat, and distinguish herself from non-anthro rats by saying she’s a rat person.

To me, it’s not a problem unless it’s overly obvious that the smeerp is just a rabbit. I wrote a review once complaining about a book that literally called the rabbits smeerps, and also giving s-f author James Blish credit for that rabbit = smeerp line.

Thanks! Well, part of my problem is while it’s easier to use an Earth-reference, it’s not always accurate. As your examples show, alien species can look sort of like another species, but they most certainly aren’t. Gordon R. Dickson’s novels have the Dilbians (who look like anthropomorphic bears) and when humans describe them, that’s usually how (even though they call them Dilbians). This sort of thing is a handy mental reference: most people know what a bear looks like (or lions or tigers or so on) so a human encountering an alien race that sort of looks like an Earth animal is going to use that as a reference. And it’s good to be able to emphasize the differences in terms, especially when it cuts both ways (Dilbians call humans ‘shorties’, but the novels are never told from their perspective, so I’m not sure what Dilbian creature -if any- they might compare humans to).

Thanks! Well, I’m planning to world build (I’m likely going to post here asking for help) and the world will have numerous anthro races (but no humans) and non-anthro critters too. All of the races are going to be based on mythological hybrids, but when it comes to their facial designs I’m trying to figure out how to describe them. I mean, they will have a sort of horse-like creature they call a juxia but no human is going to read a description of someone’s face being juxian and know what I’m talking about (and using ‘equine’ is going to cause it’s own issues because no one has a word for ‘equine’ so no one would think to say a face is equine). Will I break things because either no one will know what I’m referring to or because I’m using a term that technically shouldn’t exist?

Thanks for the link! Well, I don’t see a point in doing that. There, I think, has to be an assumption that words are being translated as best they can be. I’m just wondering at what point this goes from a helpful reminder that you’re not dealing with Earth to readers casting the book across the room in frustration.