Buried Tech

Language is full of buried tech.  For the writer of historical or created-world fiction, this poses some interesting problems.

On the one hand, you’ve got the language of tech that hasn’t been invented yet (for historical fiction) or that flat doesn’t exist (for created-world fiction.)  Consider, for example, all the resources of vocabulary and metaphor that come from living in the world after the discovery of gunpowder:  We speak of people going off half-cocked, and of plans hanging fire; we talk of loose cannons; we say that someone has a hair-trigger temper.  None of these expressions make sense in worlds where gunpowder and firearms are absent.  Using them in those contexts is sloppy writing — it may not bother most of your readers, but the ones that it does bother, it will bother a great deal.

Another example of not-invented-yet tech causing language problems:  In a pre-clockwork world, you aren’t going to have people saying, or even thinking, things like “in a few seconds” or “a couple of minutes later” — the resources didn’t exist to divide time into pieces that small.  In most parts of medieval Europe, for example, you’d be lucky to get things pinned  down to the nearest canonical hour, and that only if you were someplace where you could hear the church bells ringing.  (For really brief intervals of time, a person might think in terms of breaths or heartbeats, or in terms of how long it took to recite a particular prayer, such as “a Pater-Noster while.”)

The other language problem you get with buried tech comes from obsolete technology — things that were once common enough to pass into metaphorical use, but that have fallen into desuetude while their metaphorical use continues.  For a good example of this, take a look at this entry over at Making Light, in which the actual mostly-disused process behind the still-common phrase “batten down the hatches” is explained and discussed.  The question for writers in this case is, how long does it take before the metaphor becomes completely detached from the object or process that it once referred back to, so that it can function simply as a bit of vocabulary in its own right?

“Batten down the hatches,” even used in its figurative sense of “to make ready for possible disruption ahead”, still implies a world and a society in which sailing ships once existed; but if you’re writing about a created world in which — for whatever reason — there isn’t enough open water to make sailing ships a part of its past history, can you get away with using “batten down the hatches” in its figurative sense?

My guess is no — not for a couple of centuries.  Possibly longer, if people keep on writing adventure stories about the Age of Sail, and other people keep on reading them.

It’s a fraught thing, vocabulary.

One thought on “Buried Tech

  1. It took me the better part of 100k words to completely break the hours/minutes habit in Disciple. Changing seconds to heartbeats/moments went fairly smoothly. But now there’s such a huge gap in time estimation between “a few heartbeats” and “half an afternoon”… I still haven’t come up with a good fix, unfortunately.

    I also had to cull my anatomical/biomechanical terms. “Adrenaline” in particular keeps slipping through.

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