Thursday, May 1, 2014

Which Words Belong in a Fantasy Novel?

The short answer, of course, is it depends. Fantasy is a broad genre, and some novels are set in real-world historic times, and others are contemporary or even futuristic. Many fantasy stories take place in secondary worlds that have no connection to the "real" universe at all. With the latter kind of novel, one could argue that the characters aren't "really" speaking English, but the language used by the author can evoke a particular voice or tone that will appeal to some readers and not to others.

It's not uncommon for someone to ask questions about fantasy language use in writer's forums. Many people seem to think that writing epic or high fantasy in particular requires the author to write in a sort of faux version of Ye Olde English where no one uses contractions (except, maybe 'tis and 'twas) and verbs and nouns are inverted.

'Tis a most wondrous thing that you show me. How came it to be here?"

I'm pretty sure I'd chuck a novel where everyone spoke like this across the room in short order. To be honest, I can't think of any fantasy novels, high or otherwise, where people spoke like this. People often cite The Lord of the Rings as an example of the "old high fantasy style," but actually, Tolkien's characters did not all speak with the same voice or diction (Samwise even said ain't sometimes).

One approach is to have characters speaking relatively modern English, but to remove words and phrases that reference concepts that wouldn't exist in the world where the story takes place, along with words that simply sound too modern to most readers.

The line can be fuzzy at times. Is it acceptable to use a word like "collaborate," which didn't enter the English lexicon until the 1870s (according to the OED) if your story is taking place in a typical quasi-Medival/Classical/Reinaissance era mashup? Might the use of such a word knock some readers out of the story, even though it's taking place in a different world and is, in essence, a translation of whatever word they'd use for the concept?

I'd be inclined to leave this word out of a historic fantasy set in the 1700s or 1800s, since the people would in fact be speaking something very close to modern English, and the presence of a word that had not been coined yet in their lexicon would stand out more than in a historic novel set in, say, Saxon times, or in a secondary world fantasy.

But that's me. And this is the problem, really. There's no approach that will make every reader happy. And no matter how carefully I (who am most assuredly neither a historian nor linguist of any kind) research word use, mistakes will slip through. There's also the issue of misconceptions that are so well established they might as well be reality. For instance, some people say the use of "modern" curse words like "shit" and "fuck" throw them out of a pre-industrial setting, but they're fine with the use of the word "bloody" as a sentence enhancer. Actually, the previous two words are about 100 years older than the latter, though none are as old (in their current form) as many suppose (dating back to around the 1500s-1600s).

Here's a list of words that are more recent than most readers and writer assume. It's by no means exhaustive, but it includes some words that often appear in fantasy novels.

Doll: While the term was used as a female nickname from the 1600s, it wasn't used to describe the familiar children's toy until the late 1700s. The word "poppet" is much older and was used to refer to human-inspired figurines and toys (and I am guessing is closely related to the word puppet).

Feudalism/feudal system: This term and historic concept only dates to the 18th century. That's right, it's a term that was coined by historians to describe a social system that existed centuries before. People living in the middle ages did not refer to their sociopolitical system as feudalism. Makes me wonder how future generations might refer to our society.

Improvise: early 1800s. I have no idea how people referred to making things up on the fly before this word entered the English lexicon. Did the concept even exist?

Interested: Only from early 1700s. The term interest to refer to a legal claim or a concern dates to the 1500s, however. Interesting (as in something that arouses interest) only dates to the early 1700s as well.

Leggings: Dates from the 1750s, and originally referred to an extra outer covering that protected the leg, but it's often used in place of words like trousers, pants, britches etc. in fantasy or historic novels. I think Ayla and Jondalar were wearing "leggings" in the Earth's Children books.

Nice: An old word dating to the 13th century, but it originally meant foolish. By the 1300s, it meant fussy or fastidious. Its modern meaning only dates to the late 18th century.

Slums: The word came into use sometime between 1805-1815. It's not clear that the concept of slums as we know them now, or the strict stratification of neighborhoods along socioeconomic lines, existed in Medieval or Renaissance cities, but slums are present in most of the fantasy novels I've read in recent years.

Smallclothes: Also dates from the 1750s and referred specifically to a men's undergarment, but it's often used as a generic term for the underwear of both sexes in medieval-type fantasy settings.
Stake, as in to stake a claim: mid 1800s. Stake out only 1940s era.

Uniform (as in a noun to refer to something worn in a military or professional context): From the mid 18th century. The use of the word as an adjective to denote sameness is older. Yep, prior to the mid-18th century, soldiers did not wear uniforms.

Vaguely as an adjective for doing something in a vague manner: only from 1780s, though the word vague is much older.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using these words in a fantasy novel if they describe something that does exist in your world. Unless you're shooting for a very historic feel.

Words that are a lot older than many people think. 

This list is no more exhaustive than the other one, but it includes words that might cause some readers of a Medieval to Renaissance-inspired fantasy to raise their eyebrows.

Booze: From the early 1600s.

Committee: Dates back to the early 1600s, and could either be from the word "commit," or could be a revival of an earlier Anglo-French word. This came as a surprise, since committee seems much more modern to me than words like collaborate or improvise.

Funk: To mean bad smell (from a dialectical French word for smoke) dates back to the 1620s. Referring to a bad mood from the mid 1700s. Referring to a style of music, from the mid 1900s. However, the word is so strongly associated with the music (or the concept of quirky coolness) in people's minds, that they often assume the original meaning is modern too.

Obtuse: Dates to early 1500s, and of course means dull or blunt. However, the use of the word to mean stupid or dense is nearly as old.

Quirk (meaning a peculiarity) dates to around 1600, though quirky as an adjective for someone with lots of quirks only appeared in the early 1800s.

Snot with reference to mucus: 1400. Using the term as an insult only dates to the early 1800s.

Warp (meaning to bend or twist out of shape): 14th century.

And finally, a vanished word, I wish were still in the lexicon: snite, which was an Old English word meaning to pick or wipe one's nose, and very possibly the ancestor of the word "snot."

Sources of word ages:

 Can anyone think of any other words that are much older or younger than most people assume?

Oooh, I just thought of one I completely forgot to put in: Escalate. Now I always assumed that Otis Corporation named their movable staircase (invented circa 1900) an escalator because it escalates things, but in fact, the word escalator was coined from scratch to refer to the invention, and the verb "escalate" was back formed from this noun sometime in the 1920s. So it really is an anarchistic anachronistic (though it well may be anarchistic too :)) word.

It's a darned good word, though, and another example of a really new word that references something that wouldn't exist in a fantasy world, yet it feels old.


  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing that. I don't write fantasy, but it's always fun to see where words come from, or how old they are.

  2. Some good research here. So some extent, of course, it's the perception that counts, but it can be tricky when different readers will have very different perceptions. I think as long you don't throw too many people out of SoD too much, it's not the end of the world (unless that's what you're writing about, of course).

    On uniforms - some soldiers did wear uniforms earlier (the Romans, for instance) so if your culture's army is like that, uniform would be the best word to use.

    Some of the earlier high fantasy authors used Ye Olde style throughout, with varying degrees of success. William Morris wrote in a kind of 15th century style English - he did it very well and made it a stylistic feature of the books. Once you get used to it, it's very easy to read. Some others, such as Hodgson and Eddison, didn't handle it as well, although their books are still worth reading for the stories.

  3. I think if someone does something well and consistently, it's easier to get used to it. The problem is, so many beginning fantasy writers think they "have" to write like this, and they do so poorly and inconsistently.

    "On uniforms - some soldiers did wear uniforms earlier (the Romans, for instance) so if your culture's army is like that, uniform would be the best word to use."

    True, and of course, there were things like tabards, liveries, colors, coats of arm, and rank insignias that soldiers used to denote their loyalties and affiliations earlier than the modern use and concept of the word "uniform" appeared. I think a novel set in ancient Rome, or a similar sort of culture, would get more translational license with reference to the use of a relatively modern English word for the concept than a novel that's set in something more Medieval or Renaissance, however. Of course, it's possible for a fantasy world to have a system where people actually do wear uniforms for some reason (Maria Snyder did this in her Poison books, where the government is a sort of dictatorship instead of a monarchy), and in that case, making up a word for the concept of a uniform might be like calling a rabbit a "smeerp."