They Don’t Have a Word for It

Some writing problems are problems across the board, no matter whether you’re writing mainstream or genre fiction: Point of view is tricky, and requires careful thought; the middle of a book is dreadful and disheartening; getting in the necessary exposition is hard work.

Other problems are genre-specific.  Take, for example, the problem of vocabulary and word choice in those genres where the stories being told are not set — or are not entirely set — in contemporary consensus reality: science fiction, fantasy, historical or alternate-historical fiction.  If you’re a writer working in one of these genres, there are going to be some words that simply aren’t available to you — at least, not if you’re a careful and word-conscious writer who doesn’t want to lose, or at least severely distract, some of your readers.

For example:  In a pre-clockwork society, timekeeping is unlikely to subdivide the day into pieces smaller than an hour or so; even an early industrial society isn’t going to break things down that finely.  Your characters aren’t going to have the vocabulary and headspace to think about doing things “in a minute” or “after a few seconds” . . . they might think about “in the blink of an eye” or “after a few heartbeats,” but they aren’t going to be pulling out their watches to check.

Likewise, your pre-industrial characters aren’t likely to think about things like nerves and adrenaline, because (absent some highly developed magical healing arts or the equivalent) they aren’t going to know about them.  Depending upon the state of medicine in that time and place, they’ll be lucky to know about the circulation of the blood.

Also, the English language as it exists in contemporary consensus reality has got all sorts of buried history and technology embedded in it.  If a character in your story wears his or her hair in a mohawk, or if a particular must-visit destination is a mecca for some group or class of people, then the history of your imagined world contains, by implication, both Islam and the Iroquois Confederacy.  If a character is a loose cannon and prone to going off half-cocked, then either you’ve got a post-gunpowder world or you need to rethink your description.

How long, you may ask, does it take before all the associated concepts and implications wash out of a word and leave behind an all-purpose bit of vocabulary?

As is so often the case with writing, the answer is “it depends.”  Generally speaking, the further back in time, or the more obscure the concept or technology, the closer the modern term is to becoming generic.  Also, a lot of your readers are never even going to notice or care about the issue.  On the other hand, some of your readers are going to be the sort of word and history nuts who pick up on this stuff and get thrown out of the story by it.

In the end, all you can do is know your audience and know yourself.  Then go with what feels right.

2 thoughts on “They Don’t Have a Word for It

  1. Avoiding anachronism is definitely a worthy goal; especially if you are aiming to write a historical series. Even if the majority of your target audience will not care, the class of accuracy buffs tends to overlap significantly with the class of online reviewers, so this free advertising of your first book is likely to be strongly influenced by the opinion of the few.

  2. What trips me up is that, pre-telephone, the default greeting WASN’T “hello”. Good morning, good afternoon, the person’s name… I find myself having to go through with the “find” tool just to make sure none have slipped in.

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