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The Gearbox: What’s in a Name?

by on Apr.15, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hey, everybody! I’m back, after a brief hiatus from The Gearbox! For those of you unfamiliar with this column, The Gearbox is the weekly column where I tell you how to write the books I want to read. Please bear in mind that this column is in no way intended to tell you how you actually SHOULD write, as I am an amateur, myself. I simply wish to spur discussions on some of my favorite topics.

Today’s topic: nomenclature.

So let’s say you have a setting where there are dudes with magic, and they use their magical skills to pilot big, steampunk mecha. However, these mecha have souls and can talk to their pilots. The mecha can even be summoned from a stone, which the pilots wear around their necks. Well, let’s jazz that up by putting a character and some marketing text on the back of the book:

Kolo is a “Driver”- a pilot of one of the enigmatic Machinas that can be summoned from Kolo’s “Calas”- a charm which she wears around her neck. When she begins to hear whispers from the Spiritus- the spirit inside her Machina- Kolo’s life is turned upside-down. Can Kolo get to the mysterious origins of the Machinas before it’s too late?

One of my biggest problems with writers in the sci-fi and fantasy genre (and RPG writers) is their ridiculous love of renaming a convention and calling it their own. I’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s basically the way that a lot of anime functions, to be frank, and it is always my first clue to weak writing. The second I hear some overblown name for something that already existed, my gut churns, and I get ready to be disappointed.

Pilots are pilots. Magic is magic. Mecha are mecha. Wizards are wizards. Those names are good enough, and they serve a very important purpose: they are the waypoints of convention that we need to sail through your world. When you’re telling us of a new world that you’ve created from the ground up, there are very few things upon which we can count. There’s probably dirt, air and water. Aside from those things, that’s it. Oh, man, and if we’re in space, there’s no telling what sort of conventions exist. We can’t guarantee that there will be humans. We can’t guarantee that the animals will all be there, though cats and dogs seem to inhabit every world for some reason. That’s why, when you do plant something familiar in your landscape, it is imperative that you call it what it is. Without those familiar legends to your world, we’re lost.

I think that writers have a number of reasons for renaming things that had a perfectly good name. Let me see if I can parse through them.

1) The word, as it stood, conjured the wrong image. You know what? I get this one. I really do. When I say “wizard,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Odds are good that your response was either: A) Gandalf or B) Harry Potter. That’s rough stuff when you’re writing your hard-edged urban fantasy about a geomancer and his buddies who fight the magic mafia. Well, actually, just call the guy a “geomancer.” It’s a thing already, and it’s the right thing to call the guy. Fantasy nuts will know what this guy does, and a lot of them will know how he does it even before you lay pen to paper. Just don’t call him a “Lukor” or a “Caller” or an obscure Latin word. Of course, the other thing that you could do is simply take the word back. Write something involving that word that subverts preconception. For example, I would imagine that, before Harry Potter was written, most people though “Gandalf” when you said, “wizard.” Now they think of schoolchildren. Write confidently. Write potently.

2) The word didn’t sound cool enough. You know why the word didn’t sound cool enough? If you take a look under the hood of your story, you might just find that the plot is boring and predictable. All too often, writers change the words in a deliberate attempt to make us feel lost, like there is something to discover when there really isn’t. Take a good, hard look at your story and ask yourself if the setting has usurped the place of the plot, and if you’re having more fun coming up with ridiculous words than writing real fiction. I’m sorry if I sound inflamed about this, but I’m tired of spending hours to get into a book, only to find out that I’ve just been reading a poorly-disguised cliché.

As an addendum to #1, let me just say that I fervently believe that there are no synonyms in the English language. When selecting a word, always pick the right one for the job. A shaman is not a wizard. Magic is not always the same as essence. I think you should always tell it like it is.

And also, don’t hesitate to be a pioneer! If you actually have a concept that is new to us, great! Now is your chance to coin a new word! If you have a race of merfolk that turn into angels under the light of the full moon, for god’s sake don’t call them “were-merfolk-angels,” or “serasmerfolk” (“Smurfs” for short. Say it out loud and you’ll get the joke.). Don’t think you have to stick to all current conventions and never add ANYTHING.

Does anyone know of any examples of good/bad writing regarding nomenclature?

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Chris

    One thing to think about is that J. R. R. Tolkien created a mythology with all of the names for the creatures in his world. Most of the names he used had already been coined, but they referred to several stories/myths and were not consistent in their descriptions.

    While writing his novels he cemented the definitions that coincide with the names of the creatures.

    Most people who write about elves or ogres, do so using his nomenclature that he defined.

    If you read some old mythology or fantasy books that predate his novels, you would be very confused by some of the nomenclature referring to things you wouldn’t expect.

    [Quote]…though cats and dogs seem to inhabit every world for some reason[/Quote] … That’s awesome.

  • Jim

    I tend to like it when people hijack existing words and make them their own. Philip Pullman did this in the His Dark Materials books. What are usually called “familiars” he called “daemons”, which I liked, because it challenged the negative connotation of the word.

    Evangelion did the same thing with “angels”, possibly in part to challenge the reader into rethinking which side was good vs. evil.

    Of course, creating new words for new concepts is always cool. Pullman coined “panserbjørnes” (which both sounds cool and makes sense when reduced to its roots) for a race of sentient armored bears.

  • Alex White

    @Chris: Tolkien’s ideas were fairly close, though, and served to ground a lot of us in some form of familiarity. In fact, it’s not his elves and goblins that bother me. Everything else he made up to flesh out his world make his novels hard for me to read.

    @Jim: I agree with those examples, actually. I think they fall under the “Smurfolk” clause of my post. They’re both based on two things that have such strong identities that they become a new thing.

    Really, all I’m asking is that you don’t redefine that which does not need redefinition as a writer.

  • Johnnie A

    The Turkey City Lexicon (which every wannabe writer should google now!) has a good description for what you described above: “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp”

    A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

    I recently began (‘tried’ is maybe a better word) to read some of the Robotech novels, and found many instances of “false exoticism” in it, so much I had to take a break from the book. I plan on picking it up again, if only to see how you describe mecha battles in prose form (call it research). I’m sure there are many other examples, but off the top of my head I can’t think of any right now.

    That said, I would also like to point out that there is an exception to this “false exoticism” where it isn’t annoying, and that’s Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN books (which is either four or twelve novels in one series, depends on whom you ask) where he sometimes uses strange words to describe seemingly mundane things, only to use this to play around with the reader’s perception of the story. For one thing there is not one invented word in the entire series; all of these words existed in language somewhere and hint to hidden meanings (Wolfe has something of a James Joyce complex). Or sometimes he uses it to temporarily create a false image. An example of this is the word “destrier” which is an archaic English word for a war-horse and is used in that context many times. Only with reading the novels do you sometimes get the idea that he’s not actually describing a horse, but some sort of genetically engineered clawed animal used in a fashion of a war-horse (the reason for the uncertainty is the fact that the “author” of the books is an unreliable narrator, a story-telling device Wolfe employs frequently).

    Back to writing, however; I tried to avoid such clichés most of the time, but for my current writing project I had to create words for which there wasn’t an exact word in the English language. Sometimes I based it on a name (for the name of a demon-like creature I derived the word from the name of a character from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) but sometimes tried to extract a word from existing words. Sometimes I just made it up. Being bilingual helped a great deal in working with words, though I can’t really say if these words I created sounds “natural” or not. That is something I’ll have to pay greater attention to in the rewrite.

  • Alex White

    @Johnnie A: Once again, I can’t fault a writer for creating a word when no extant words would work. Another good example of Smeerping would be “A Clockwork Orange.” However, the reinvention of those words for that book were really the POINT of the story, so it gets a pass.

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