Friday, February 4, 2011

Social Labels: YA and beyond!

Latchkey kids. Jocks. Nerds. Stoners. Fuzzies. Techies. Geeks. Divas.

Not all of these terms may be ones you've used, but you've probably heard most of them. They're labels for social groups. According to Wikipedia, "Latchkey kid" originated as a term in 1944 because of an NBC documentary. Jocks, nerds and stoners were commonly used terms around my high school. Fuzzies and Techies were labels at Stanford university for students in humanities vs. math/science. Geeks is a term I'm still coming to terms with as it is used for sf/f fans. Divas is a more modern term applied to girls of a certain stripe.

One of the things I've noticed and rather admired about YA books is their sensitivity to labels like this. Labels are big with teens, so for example when I see Scott Westerfeld titles - Uglies, Pretties, Specials, just to name a few - they speak "real" to me.

I think social labels deserve attention even outside of YA. SF has a few, but could always use more; even epic fantasy wouldn't suffer from some attention to these fine social distinctions and how they are marked.

The term "latchkey kid" came up in a discussion I had with the marvelous Deborah J. Ross yesterday. I was writing along in For Love, For Power and realized that two of my characters had something in common: both were children growing up in the care of their household servants rather than in care of their parents, because of laws that require them to stay in the capital for their own health and safety while their parents had been appointed to positions running other cities. While I was thinking about what that meant to them, it hit me that this wasn't an uncommon condition in Varin. It would have a label.

Deborah Ross and I tossed some things around, including the real-world-grounded terms "latchkey kid" and "rugrat" etc. to get some ideas. These terms need a certain ring to them, and can't be too complex. Also, I realized that there would be at least two terms for the same group: one that would be a relatively value-neutral term, and one that could be used insultingly. In the end I chose these:

leadership orphan - This is the relatively value-neutral term. It's very self-explanatory, which is important, because I can't use a bunch of words explaining it. But it's only relatively value-neutral, because "orphan" evokes sympathy for the kids in this condition.

Household brat - This is the insulting term (no surprise). I chose brat over rat because the animals in Varin aren't entirely congruent with ours. Brat is insulting by nature, but it's also insulting to juxtapose it with Household, because it implies that a noble child is being "run" by his own servants.

I've said before that there's value in considering the social subgroups within larger "types" of people. In "Cold Words," the Aurrel were divided into heavy-furred and Lowland groups, and this had consequences for the usage of the words "cold" and "warm" throughout the language. In "At Cross Purposes," the Cochee-coco were divided into groups by their chosen Purpose, and this influenced their work and thinking processes. Varin is my mega-world, and it has groups (castes), and subgroups (Great Families of the nobility), and sub- subgroups (leadership orphans/Household brats)! But why not? We have far more ways to label people, both to good and to notably ill effect.

How do the people in your world label each other socially? Are there general categories of people? How do those people get subdivided and labeled? Who gets scorn? Who gets the prestige?

It's something worth thinking about.