Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Words Fail Me

Writers seldom create words, and only a few do it well. Lewis Carroll makes it work, as does Shakespeare. Larry Niven gave us a gift with “tasp.” Those guys made excellent words. The rest of us generally work with what we’ve got stashed in the dictionary. Callooh, callay!

Fortunately, writing isn’t a job of creating words but of choosing them. Still, even with a decent vocabulary and a little experience leveraging the thesaurus, choosing is often harder than it looks. Every writer must choose the right words based on character, setting, tone, and a dozen other factors. For instance, there are plenty of words I’ll put in the mouth of a pretentious scholar that just don’t sound right coming from his street-raised bodyguard. But there are also words I’m more or less likely to use when writing a sad story, an action story, a western story, and so on.

Your genre influences your word pool—I get to choose “squamous,” “ineffable,” and “eldritch” more often than, say, a writer of Regency romances—but shared-world and tie-in settings can also determine your choices. Obviously, proper names like “Golarion,” “Tattooine,” and “Immoren” are part and parcel of writing for Pathfinder, Star Wars, or the Iron Kingdoms, but so are more common terms like “starknife,” “lightsaber,” and “storm glaive.”

Where it can really start to bake your noodle are the little differences in spelling or usage. In the world of Pathfinder, for instance, “devil” and “demon” are never synonyms. Republic ambassadors never heard of coffee but enjoy a hot cup of caffa (well, until they did, but that’s a whole other blog on continuity). And in the Iron Kingdoms you need to know the difference between “mechanical” and “mechanikal,” because you’re going to need them both.

Then there’s the problem of perfectly common words that you simply need to use much more often in a particular setting. English is arguably the greatest human language because of its enormous size, which provides many synonyms. However, even “electrical,” “galvanic,” and “voltaic” will soon seem insufficient when you’re describing a long battle involving the Cygnaran forces of Warmachine.

What are some of your favorite problem words from a tie-in setting? Do they work differently outside that setting? Or are they unique to it? What are some words you think didn’t need to be created for a setting? Which ones added something that couldn’t have existed without them? 


  1. I like the word "elemental" to mean "primal, basic" but I have to check myself when writing Pathfinder material. It might be taken to mean an elemental creature, or might bring up unintended associations to alchemy and "the four elements." Great post!

  2. That's a really good example.

  3. I catch myself using any of the "ability" words, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma, and cringe. Describing actions or thoughts around these words can sometimes cause issues. I think, too often, writers turn to the thesaurus when they don't really need to, however. A really cool word for something will probably just make your reader stumble over it, breaking the spell that has immersed him/her in your story.

  4. I'm not a big fan of "Battlestar Galactica" in either incarnation, but the word "frak" is probably the best invented epithet around. Most crucially, you can say it like you mean it; it works as a substitute for the other "F" word quite nicely. (And Glen Larson created it for the original series, not Ron Moore.)