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Using the right words

Terri-Lynne DeFino (aka bogwitch64) is one of my favorite people.   If you already read her blog you'll know that in addition to being kind, friendly and full of fun, she's also extremely smart.  I'm delighted to have her come visit today, and have her share some of that wisdom, so without further ado, please welcome my LJ friend and fellow Apex blogger, Terri-Lynne DeFino.
Using the right words  (Terry-Lynne DeFino) 
A couple of weeks ago, Jon guest posted on my blog and asked if I’d like to do the same. Well, sure! It’s always fun to play at someone else’s house, meet the family, pet the dog, feed the goldfish. Thankfully, I know much of Jon’s LJ family. I already feel at home.
We are all, or mostly, writers here. Words are part of our lives in ways they don’t exist for others. We don’t see them simply as a collection of symbols that make sounds, sounds that, put together, mean something, that when added to other sounds convey information. For writers, every word is a piece of a picture, a feeling, an idea planted in the mind’s eye.
Jon’s guest post, he wrote about using pop-culture references in to your story to enhance this evolving picture. It garnered all kinds of responses, both in favor and against. It made me think about the little things that make a difference in writing, in creating that picture; or shattering it.
etymology: [et-uh-mol-uh-jee]–noun, plural -gies. 1. the derivation of a word. 2. an account of the history of a particular word or element of a word. 3. the study of historical linguistic change, esp. as manifested in individual words.
Whatever genre you write in, etymology plays a role. Consider a simple word like HELLO. If you are writing in any other culture but 20th century (1883 forward actually) USA, it’s not a word you can use as a greeting. It was coined specifically for use with the telephone. And while it may or may not have been used to get someone’s attention before that, it would never have been used as a greeting. Thus, when I see it used in a historical set before the 1880s, fantasy, or even science fiction set in a non-earth setting, it bothers me.
Another one I see often is O.K., ok, okay—however you write it, whichever legend you believe true, the etymology of the word gives it a specific time period in earth history. Using it in your fantasy world just isn’t going to be authentic. Just like you can’t use the word shanghai to mean abduction in a science fiction setting with no connections to earth. It evokes a specific culture in a specific place and time. Can Queen Guinevere and King Arthur have a troublesome relationship? No, they can’t—because the word did not exist for them, and neither did the notion as we know it. It makes a difference. When in doubt, look it up
Oh, come on! You say. That’s pushing things too far! I have to disagree, because while there are many who won’t notice the difference; there are many who will. Considering those who wouldn’t notice such things wouldn’t think twice about it being done right either, which side would you prefer to err upon?
Finding the appropriate slang, colloquialisms, idioms and curses for your EARTH world/time period is easy enough. But how do you do invent them for a fantasy world? Science fiction? How do you make them authentic for your culture, your characters without seeming contrived or, worse, lame? Many in authority will say, “Just avoid them entirely.” Part of me agrees. But a bigger part of me says that a world without idioms is not an authentic word. You use them every day and don’t notice. THAT is how they have to be in your story. Unobtrusive. Resounding. Almost invisible.
So how do you do it? Consider environment, culture, morals, religion. When coming up with an idiom, a curse word, whatever, consider what would be insulting to a character from the environment you’ve created or are borrowing from. What would be frightening, embarrassing, lewd? You can even use the etymology dictionary to see where an idiom like kick the bucket* actually came from, and it could well spring an idea for your own version of that idiom; one that evokes the one you want to use but can’t.
Damn is an exception to the curse rule. It is a fairly generic word, like most of the others in this post, unattached to a particular time or place or event. When you petition your gods, government, or old gran to damn something, it’s pretty universal.
As Jon wrote a couple of weeks ago, using a pop culture reference can be effective, but tricky. It needs to be done right. Same goes for slang, etc. When in doubt, keep it out! Because there are plenty who will notice. And you can be certain that experienced publishers/agents/editors are going to be among those plenty. 
*kick the wind was slang used for “being hanged.” You can work that one out. The bucket came in as a derivative of that, as in making the soon-to-be-executed stand on a bucket, and then kicking it away. 
Terri-Lynne DeFino (alias,
[info]bogwitch64) lives quietly in rural New England with her cats, kids, and husband despite her delusions of being Empress of the Northern Hemisphere. In sane moments she is a writer, mother, cat-wrangler, sparkle queen, and occasional laundress. Her debut novel, Finder, is scheduled for release in October, 2010. 

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( 66 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
Thanks, MG!
Jun. 30th, 2010 05:23 pm (UTC)
So very true. Great post. I couldn't live without the OED. I remember you caught one of mine once, backlit. I never would have thought about that one.
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
It's amazing, the things we never even think about. Words you'd never think, "I can't use that!"
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jun. 30th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Jun. 30th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 30th, 2010 07:10 pm (UTC)
Relationship was one I had no idea about. The word relationship existed--it just didn't mean the same thing to Arthur and Gwen that it does to us. Another one I was made aware of is lifestyle. That wasn't even a concept until the 20th century.
Jun. 30th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC)
1. What do you mean "delusions"? Does this mean you have no authrity over the world and that the emperorship you gave me is fictional?

2. This is one of the bettr posts I'e seen, mainly because it goes one step beyond the "writing for beginners" philosophy that most writing posts seem to favor. That online Etymology dictionary is going to b a priceless reference and one heck of a time sink. It's not often someone shows me something I haven't seen before...
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
Your--uh--Emperorship is--uh--totally--uh--Hey! What's that shiny thing over there!?

Glad you liked it Gustavo. It's one of those things many think is pressing the matter too hard, but there is no denying that doing it right is all around safer.

The dictionary...sigh. Sorry about that. I know, it's amazingly interesting to find out where all our favorite swear words come from, but I trust it'll wear out it's novelty soon enough. ;)
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Jun. 30th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
What a stimulating post!

I... hmmmn. I'm not sure I agree on all particulars, as you can stretch the argument to say that on such-and-such Fantasy world, they wouldn't even be speaking ENGLISH, and therefore, everything you read is a translation out of some sort of RunespeakElfgarble into English, idioms and all.

With historical fantasy, of course - Arthurian fiction, etc - I can wholeheartedly side with you. Little irritates me more than the word "Okay" stuck into some early 19th century prose. But in a completely Fantastic world, contemporary slang just doesn't bother me as much. Or rather, "Hello," is okay, although I'd shudder at "shanghai". I suppose we all have to draw our lines somewhere.

What a fun post, Your Bog Witchiness! THANK YOU!
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you, lovey! We had a long talk about this up on Martha's Vineyard, during VPX (Viable Paradise--a fantasy and science fiction writer's workshop.) Apparently, the unofficial line drawn between words acceptable and not is anything in use before about 1700. Generic words--like all of these--are fine. It's when you evoke a very 'earth' concept that it gets tricky.

See, I'm one who would use common curse words, had I not been told it's more often frowned upon than any other kind. People swear! Especially those I often write about. It's as hard to have a world without curses as it is to have one without idioms. I can make up the idioms, but curse words?? They're the trickiest of all!
(no subject) - csecooney - Jun. 30th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 30th, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jon! I'm blushing over here with all your kind words. It especially makes me all warm and fuzzy to know you think I'm smart! Yay! My ruse is working! ;)

It's a pleasure and an honor, sir!
Jun. 30th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
The pleasure's all mine, Terri :)
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
I love things like the origins of "kick the bucket." I noticed last year that a bunch related to guns: flash in the pan, for instance. And I agree about creating idioms for your fantasy world. sartorias has nice ones in hers; it's something I definitely enjoy, reading her books.

I haven't made any up of my own, that I can think of, though--how about you guys?
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
Yes! Yes! Could you imagine using the idiom, "She's just a flash in the pan" in a historical set in 300 BC? My mom was reading a book set in "Biblical" times wherein one character told another she had to "get with the program." Really??? UGH!

I've made up a bunch of idioms over the years. I think a world without idioms is a much less realistic world. They're just...there! We use them constantly and don't even know it. The trick is, once you make them up, establish them as idioms, you have to use them consistently! Otherwise they seem contrived.

Thanks, F!

Jun. 30th, 2010 07:41 pm (UTC)
Very interesting- I had no idea about the word "hello". I'm constantly expanding the vast reaches of what I don't know. Kind of scary really. But yes the obvious anachronisms and misuses of words can certainly kick me out of a story. Great post :) Thanks for the dictionary link too!
Jun. 30th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! Glad you liked it.

You'd be amazed how many people have said to me, "I didn't know that about hello!" It's so...common! But there you have it.

Use the link well and wisely. It's priceless. Aren't I benevolent? ;)
Jun. 30th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
If I were writing in English about a medieval English husband and wife, I wouldn't have them use words such as "thee" and "thou", even though I well know that the word "you" was reserved for strangers rather than intimates.

The word "silly", used to mean "holy" in medieval English, but I would feel a bit "silly" referring to a saintly character with it.

The word "villain" meant "farmer". But I would be perfectly happy in my fantasy world to use it for the bad guys, because I am writing in English. Modern English. It doesn't matter that "hello" came from the telephone IMHO. Now, it just means "greetings" in English, or "ciao" in Italian.
Jun. 30th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC)
See, if I saw the word 'silly' in a book set in medieval England, it would bug the britches off me.

With words like villain, it all depends upon the evolution of the word, and when it came to mean what. Pagan simply meant "peasant" and heathen meant "one from the heaths." They evolved to mean non-Christian over time to the point that few know what the words originally meant (like villain and silly.) However, they came to mean the words WE know then as far enough back to be acceptable.

Draw your line and stick to it--wherever the line may be. :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jun. 30th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Jun. 30th, 2010 08:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 30th, 2010 08:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks! And agreed. Idioms, slang, what have you, will evolve, but it still has to be understandable to a 21st century reader. And, if you think about it, how long has a world like sh*t been around. I have a feeling it's not going anywhere soon!
(no subject) - out_totheblack - Jun. 30th, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jun. 30th, 2010 08:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 30th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
What you explain here is one of the first things I worried about when I was creating my fantasy world. I started worrying that my world never had romans, so I would have to scratch every word with a latin root. And that's quite a list.
Jun. 30th, 2010 10:20 pm (UTC)
Not at all. As Peadar said above, it's ALL translated. Latin is one of the base languages that make up the English language. Even though English is considered a Germanic language, there is so much French influence (long historical explanation redacted =D) that the latin base is hardly foreign.

Generally, if a word came into existence the way you wish to use it before about 1700, you're fine in a fantasy world. In fact, I bet a lot of other words we use would be technically not quite right. It's the ones that specifically call to mind a time and/or place and/or event that can't possibly have been the same in a world that is not ours that things get sticky.

Guy Gavriel Kay borrows hugely from different cultures. The Lions of Al Rassan borrows heavily from Spain. The Last Light of the Sun from the Norse/Vikings. In stories like that, you can certainly borrow terms, customs, even words that evoke the sense of what you want to get across. But if you're writing about a Germanic sort of hamlet set in a 1500's sort of setting, your character could well be a mädchen, but she won't say she's "going to the loo."
Jun. 30th, 2010 10:45 pm (UTC)
And this is why in my very first book of my Panthan Series I made sure it was well known that my fantasy kids take pop-culture classes. ;-) This way I get to be young and old depending on the age of my Panthans. lol Great post, btw!
Jun. 30th, 2010 10:48 pm (UTC)
Ha! Now THAT is the way to do it! :) Thanks, lovey!
Jul. 1st, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
What a great post. I love this sort of attention to detail!

of course, I've been struggling when writing the Jane project to keep it authentic but not stilted, and given the demands of verse, I've occasionally used a contraction - something that simply wasn't regularly done in writing during Jane's lifetime.
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:20 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kelly!

Very cool, the contractions thing. Like the whole Jane Project itself!
Jul. 1st, 2010 12:46 am (UTC)
That's so true what you say! And in Japan (to the best of my knowledge) the hello greeting on the phone is still separate from a personal greeting.
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:22 am (UTC)
Mooshi-mooshi? :)
Thanks, Eric!
Jul. 1st, 2010 05:06 am (UTC)
In an aside, when my siblings and I were all young (if you can call an age difference reaching towards twelve years as youngish, anyway, considering my eldest sister attended C. W. Post College at the time)) damn was the only oath that Nana would let us use around her, as a dam holds back water.

By the way, that etymology link is so bookmarked. Thank you.
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! It has saved me a LOT of frustration.
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Jul. 1st, 2010 11:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jul. 2nd, 2010 03:17 am (UTC) - Expand
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