Calling a Rabbit a Smeerp is one of the items listed in the the Turkey City Lexicon in the section about worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy. It is phrased in terms of making reading unnecessarily hard for readers by adding “unnecessary” strange names for the sole purpose of ramping up the alien flavour. If your alien creatures look like rabbits and act like rabbits you shouldn’t be calling a rabbit a smeerp, but call them rabbits. Makes sense, no?
Supposing your story involved Earth colonists on an alien world. One of the creatures on this world looks like a rabbit. So, let’s call it a rabbit, because we’ve been warned off smeerps.
The worldbuilding confuses me, one reader says.
Another reader asks, Are we still on Earth? Did they bring the rabbits with them?
Reader three wants to know the relationship between the world, which we shall call Pegasus, and Earth. This reader goes on at length about biology and how the animals could not possibly be the same.
It is abundantly clear: the readers are confused and distracted.
And the writer goes: But! I’ve done exactly what everyone says. I’ve avoided calling a rabbit a smeerp.
A lazy-arse solution
OK, so I hear you. Your fauna is not the focus of storytelling (which is a pity, because you can add glorious colour to a story by giving some detail to wildlife of an alien colony, but that aside). There are rabbit-like things that people use for eating or pelts or what-have-you. You don’t want to describe them, and anyway, there are dozens of black and white birds around the world that are called magpie and few of them are biologically related, so why can’t there be different rabbits?
Sure, but make sure that it’s clear that we’re talking about different rabbits. Call them Pegasus rabbits, and everyone will know that they’re not regular rabbits, that they were not imported from Earth, and that they look and act like rabbits and therefore human settlers call then ersatz rabbits.
The real problem with smeerps
The real problem however is not the name. Whether you call the creature a smeerp or a rabbit, the problem is that it looks and acts like a rabbit.
OK, I can see how a creature could superficially look like a rabbit, and be roughly the same size. But its behaviour? Why does it need to look and act like a rabbit? Sorry, that’s just lazy-arse worldbuilding. OK we have a rabbit-like creature that colonists call a Pegasus rabbit, but it’s carnivorous. This presents a serious problem to the dogs that humans have brought and that are essential to the colonisation effort. Which makes the job of dog-keeper not only interesting but vital and dangerous. It makes that the dog-keeper has to be a tough person, likely in possession of a good number of smeerp-induced scars.
See how a character pops out, and a whole section of worldbuilding falls into place? Nothing to do with what I’ve called the creatures.
If people complain about calling a rabbit a smeerp, a lack of worldbuilding lies at the heart of the comment.