(n.) a word invented by a science fiction or fantasy writer merely to give their writing a false sense of otherworldliness
If you’re a sci-fi or fantasy fan, here’s a word for something you might find an occasional annoyance: a smeerp is a word invented in fantasy literature purely to give a fictional universe a fake sense of bizarreness or exoticism.
As we explained over on Twitter, this is a word widely credited to the American science fiction writer James Blish. A two-time Hugo Award winner, Blish achieved considerable success for his own novels, including A Case of Conscience (1958) and Black Easter (1968), before penning a long-running series of Star Trek tie-in books and novellas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Writing under the penname William Atheling Jr., Blish also wrote extensively on literary criticism—and in particular, on the vices and pitfalls of writing good science fiction and fantasy.
It was in this context that Blish is said to have invented the word smeerp, explaining that it was a terrible tendency of sci-fi authors ‘to call a rabbit a smeerp’ in their stories, just to lend their writing a false sense of the bizarre. By all means, invent new and exotic words for things that exist solely in the fantasy world you have created, Blish believed, but when writing about or utilising something that exists in the real world, inventing a new word for something already familiar to the reader proves an unnecessary distraction—as well as a somewhat cheap trick.
From there, Blish’s term was later picked up and popularized by fellow science fiction writers Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling, who included the expression ‘to call a rabbit a smeerp’ in their Turkey City Lexicon, a guidebook to science fiction writing collated from their discussions at writers’ workshops in Austin, Texas, in 1988.
[‘To call a rabbit a smeerp’ is] A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu, without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. Smeerps are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses.
The Turkey City Lexicon, 1988