Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Words, Words, Words

Where do you draw the line in using terms with proper-name origins in an alternate world setting?

I recall the anecdote about a Ravenloft author inventing the term "air moss" because "Spanish moss" was right out. This past week's word-of-the-day list includes terms referring to characters in Dickens. While a child-training thief like Gaedren Lamm from Pathfinder's Curse of the Crimson Throne  might be perfectly described as a "fagin," you couldn't actually use that term without throwing every English major in the audience.

Sometimes the call isn't so obvious. It's all right to use "mesmerized," isn't it? "Hypnotized" sounds even goofier in an alternate world fantasy, but the former term has a guy's name in it. On the other hand, "Damascus steel" is right out.

What are some real-world terms that you'd think twice about using in an alternate world setting? And what are some that you think are questionable but okay?


  1. I might have an issue with the word Victorian as used to describe an era.

    1. I find myself on the horns of this dilemma sometimes, as I try to use modern language in these "archaic" settings. I think my fallback position has become, "I'm merely translating into the modern idiom from whatever language the people are really 'talking' in. So, naturally, the people sound modern -- and they _should_ sound modern." I mean, isn't it a bit absurd for those of us writing in the 21st century to be aping Shakespeare ... or even Tolkien?

  2. Mesmerized works because few people remember the origin of the word in the name of a real historical figure.

    The one that drives me nuts is Adam's Apple, because its religious imagery jars in any ahistorical context, and there's no real synonym in English.

    1. I faced the same problem with Adam's Apple, possibly shortly before you did. "Aroden's Apple" just didn't quite suit.

  3. As Robin says, I think it just all depends on how relatable the word is to its real world inspiration, and whether or not people even remember where the hell it comes from. The Spain of Spanish moss is far closer to people than the Saturn of "saturnine", for example.

  4. Using the language of the period is entirely appropriate if (a) you can do it well and (b) it fits the story.

    To me, the best, most recent example is the Starz series, Spartacus (Blood and Sand, Gods of the Arena, Vengeance). Listen to the dialogue. It sounds as "alien" as Shakespeare, but it flows and fits the story and setting so well, that you soon find yourself immersed in it. Eventually, you forget that they aren't speaking like modern Americans (or even Europeans). They're speaking like ancient Romans, albiet in English.

    Now...doing that in a made-up fantasy setting is different, because you're inventing words, rather than applying grammatical syntax and idiomatic phrases that exist, but haven't been widely used in almost two thousand years.

    Tolkien was successful because he was a linguistic scholar. He studied the origins of languages and knew what goes into making new ones. Very, very few authors can do that.

    I think the choice of words to describe fantastic things (or mundane things in a fantastic setting) is very important, but its importance *can* be overstated. The trick is finding the balance between something that fits with the story, aiding in suspension of disbelief without confusing modern readers.

    The Spanish moss anecdote can be illustrative. Would it have made more sense to replace Spanish with a words that describes another location where the moss is found? It might have been a little strange, but "Chultan moss" isn't necessarily any weirder than "air moss." It might have even been easier for the reader to make a quick translation..."Oh, that must be like our Spanish moss."

    Sure, there's a risk of it sounding silly, but that's better than calling it some made-up word that doesn't have any meaning, even in the context of what readers will know about the setting in use. If the author had called it "floth moss" or something, the reader would have had no idea what thatt stuff in the trees was supposed to look like.

    I think point made by Robin and David is valid. This is a situation where we writers earn our pay. It's our job to learn about the words we intend to use. Sometimes we slip up, but we should have a purpose for placing specific words in a sentence. Many times, that means doing the research on where a word comes from, so we don't use it in the wrong context.

    And in the case of Adam's apple...larynx works just fine, even if it is a Latin word. ;-)

  5. For me the biggest struggle is "neanderthal."