This week we asked our participants to talk about Words they first encountered in genre
Here’s what they said…
For the longest time I thought that meerkats were something Andre Norton dreamed up. When I finally saw the word in another context, my immediate reaction was that strange sense of dislocation you get when you realize that the world isn’t what you thought it was. It seems like such a tiny shift, really, but when 18th-century philosophers talk about the sublime, this is the kind of thing they mean. We don’t often associate the sublime with single words, but then, we don’t often find out that words we thought were only real in their context actually have reality and meaning outside of it.
Most of my encounters with unfamiliar words didn’t have quite as much impact as that. Of course I was young at the time, and might be excused for thinking that a word I’d never seen before, in what was a science fiction novel (The Beast Master, if I recall correctly) was one that the author had made up. It also taught me not to take such things for granted, and to look up words like “sept,” just in case (from Citizen of the Galaxy).
Still, as you might tell from my examples, it’s been a very long time since I’ve come across an unfamiliar word.
For instance, I was already familiar with the word “alembical” (from Alembical 2, a fine collection of novellas edited by Lawrence M. Schoen and Arthur Dorrance) only because a bad translation program had once translated the “still” of “are we still on for tomorrow?” as “estamos alembique para mañana?” I looked up the unfamiliar Spanish word and found out that while it was indeed the word for “still” it meant the making-moonshine kind, not the grammatical-usage kind.
What interests me more nowadays is how writers will play with the denotations and connotations of words to create what I’ll think of from now on as the “meerkat effect,” that sense of dislocation that serves to tell us that we’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s not so much that the words themselves are unfamiliar or unusual, but that they’re being used in unusual or unfamiliar ways, sometimes in different connotations, and sometimes simply as though they meant something else.
In Dave Duncan’s excellent West of January, for example, it takes a while for you to realize that temporal words now have spatial meanings, and vice versa. When you do, the thought of how long it took for humans to adapt to their new surroundings by changing the meanings of such fundamental words – well, it can give you the shivers. Or, if one were in the 18th century, it would cause one to experience the sublime.
Sometimes it’s simpler, but equally disconcerting. I hope I’m not giving anything away, but the toads in Julie Czerneda’s A Turn of Light, may not actually be toads, though it takes a while for the reader to figure that out. In The Stone Prince, Fiona Patton uses gender-specific titles such as “Duke” and “Prince” as though they were gender-neutral – as I do the word “Brother” in my own Dhulyn and Parno novels.
I’d have to say that I definitely play with the connotations and denotations of words in my own writing far more often than I deliberately sprinkle in unusual or interesting words. In the book I’m working on right now, for example, I’m playing against the denotation of the word “barrack” by using it instead of the more common word “squad” to mean a group of soldiers. But I’m also playing against the common connotation of the word “Inquisitor” by making them good guys. Sort of.
I do think that the appearance of unusual or interesting words might happen to anyone by accident. Most of us have jobs that involve specialized vocabulary, and we might easily use a word unfamiliar to someone else without being aware of it. Occasionally I’ll use what I think is a perfectly ordinary word and one of my beta readers will ask me if I’m sure it “means what I think it means,” and I have to assure them that I am, and it does.
I’m not about to start a debate on ebooks vs. physical books, I read and enjoy both, but one thing I will say that my Kindle has going for it is the “Vocabulary Builder” function. As I’m going through a book, if I come across a word unfamiliar to me, I can highlight the word and the Kindle will pop up a window to define it for me without me having to leave the page or close the application. It will then add it to a list of all the words I’ve ever looked up. I can then go back at any time and view this list. Having used a Kindle for a while, the list has grown, and it’s full of all kinds of funny and unique little words that I don’t often see.
I’ll preface this by saying that these are words that I haven’t frequently come across. Others who are more prolific readers than I may be familiar with these. I’ll trust that the reader not groan at my ignorance too much, here. That said, I’ve picked out five of my favorites, which I’ll quickly define for you:
- execrable: adjective \’eks?kr?b(?)l\; “extremely bad or unpleasant”
- chicanery: noun \SHi’kan?re\; “the use of trickery to achieve a political, financial, or legal purpose”
- portent: noun \’pôr?tent\; “a sign or warning that something, especially something momentous or calamitous, is likely to happen”
- desultory: adjective \’des?l?tôre\; “lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm”
- tenebrous: adjective \’ten?br?s\; “dark; shadowy or obscure”
Part of the reason I like these five so much is because they’re seldom used (at least by my own reading), although they describe things we frequently read or write ourselves. Neal Stephenson recently bemoaned the dark direction that science fiction has taken in the past couple of decades, and regardless of how you feel about that, we see it often. “Execrable” is a fantastic word because it’s not one of the usual adjectives you see, but it works very well to describe those darker elements in plot, characters, or setting that is common. Both “portent” and “tenebrous” are in the same camp, I think.
The usage of “tenebrous” comes from Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot:
“For the small children, bedtime is come. Time for the babies to be packed into their beds and cribs by parents who smile at their cries to be let up a little longer, to leave the light on. They indulgently open closet doors to show there is nothing there. And all around them, the bestiality of the night rises on tenebrous wings. The vampire’s time has come.”
King does a superb job of setting the tone. He sets up a comfortable setting that parents will know well, and then he contrasts it and makes the reader understand the peril that they’re in. “Tenebrous” is used to great effect, and the scene doesn’t feel cliché.
I first came across “portent” in Clarkesworld issue 85, October 2013, by Gwyneth Jones in her story “The Ki-anna”:
“The scarred Ki woman fascinated him, he hardly knew why. The portent he felt in their meeting (had he really met her?) was what they call a “transit hangover.” He must sleep it off.”
Dread is conveyed succinctly. Continuing with the theme of character descriptions, “desultory” tells us a lot about someone and what we might expect from them. King used this twice in ‘Salem’s Lot:
“The man in the other bed was reading a magazine and looked up at them desultorily.”
“They ate at the picnic table and afterward they sat smoking, the four of them, talking desultorily of Boston’s fading pennant chances.”
What a word of utility! In the first instance, I imagine someone who might be just this side of lazy or uninspired. In the second, the word describes a group of friends, care-free, enjoying relaxed company. The difference in meaning between the two lines is pretty small, but I think there is a noticeable difference in King’s deployment.
By now, you may have noticed a theme: I like words that can multitask. Words that can pull double, or even triple duty, are favorites. It’s a strange position to be in, really. The technical aspect of my job (I’m a network engineer by day) requires that I be verbose, but the fiction writer in me understands the importance of saying more with less. That I focus on short stories as an editor/reader/writer makes the importance of brevity all the more significant.
These are just some of the unique words I’ve come across that are a great, and vitally short, way to convey to the reader things common to speculative fiction. While three of them are adjectives, they’re not the cheap or trite kind we usually come across. The two nouns I’ve referenced add their own flavor as well. The utility of such words is most evident when we clearly see how they’ve been used to reduce word count or to eliminate a sentence. Strategically placed, these are the kinds of words that pull a lot of weight. And you never see them coming.
“Eidolon” – I first encountered “eidolon” in Dream-Land, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The first stanza of which reads:
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.
This is one fruitful poem!
Coming from a Greek root, “eidos” means “form”, it seems to have begun modern English use in the early 19th century.
It has two meanings:
- an idealized person or thing.
- a specter or phantom.
I also proffer a third, the connatative sound it produces in the context of a poem: “idle-on”
Poe, like his literary descendants, seemed fascinated by dreams. H.P. Lovecraft used the word many times, in his dreamlands story “The White Ship”, and his straight up horror classic, The Outsider:
“the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation”
Indeed, Clark Ashton Smith, also titled one of his stories “The Dark Eidolon.”
I just started reading it, and though it doesn’t actually appear in the text (I did a search), I can’t help but think about the word “eidolon” while reading what Clark Ashton Smith called “[the] ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos,” The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson.
“Eidolon” is a powerful word, with powerful connections. It’s kind of like “doppelganger,” but with more dream and more horror.
When I was in high school I was introduced to the work of Douglas Adams and became an instant fan. One of the things I loved about Douglas’s work was that it challenged me. His similes were masterful, and he always chose the right word. Being a kid still, I didn’t know a lot of those words, so I read him with a notebook and a dictionary beside me so that I could learn them. Because it was all even funnier when I understood. Words that Adams taught me included promontory, pram, and ineffable.
I hadn’t had to do that in a long time, until I read China Mieville’s The Scar in 2005. I hadn’t read Perdido Street Station, and didn’t even realize that The Scar was a sequel. I loved it with many-tentacled hearts, but damn did he give my vocabulary a run for my money.
While digging through notebooks, I found my vocabulary list from that reading. Some of these are pretty pedestrian–you can probably tell I never took the SAT. Some of them he seems to have made up, or at least I couldn’t find a definition for them. Enjoy!
I encountered this when reading LeGuin age 16 and I had no idea what it meant. Mostly when I met words I didn’t know it was easy enough to infer from the context what they meant and I got careless and rarely checked them but this one – I had no clue. Being lazy I just skipped it but it nagged like a sore tooth until eventually I had to look it up. I had to look it up again today: it’s one of those words I still cannot make stick in my memory. Even though what I’m writing at the moment features a whole buttload of hegemony my brain refuses point blank to associate the word with any Latin, Greek (yes, I know!) or other anchor it might have stored away somewhere so that I have to constantly check it. Autarchy is another one. My lazy brain says “Well, something like self rule, obviously…with some added something perhaps if we’re talking about states” and so the whole sorry mess of my inner memosphere rolls on. Curiously most of the words that feature as SF-learned words that I can never recall are all associated with politics and hierarchy. They’re usually things for which I go around muttering that there should be a word for this kind of thing. Probably I will at one point waste entire paragraphs describing hegemonies, autarchies and other stuff like that which I don’t have an official concept link for. Then I shall reinvent the wheel and feel a good day’s work has been done.
Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series is packed with space opera action and interstellar intrigue, but it also introduced me to an important new word for my science fiction vocabulary: “ansible.” (Judging by the red zigzag underlines, the dictionary in Firefox was also ignorant of the word. I’ve now enlightened it.) To quote the almighty Wikipedia:
“An ansible is a fictional machine capable of instantaneous or superluminal communication… Ansibles occur as plot devices in science fiction literature.” Ursula Le Guin is credited with coining the term in ROCANNON’S WORLD in 1966.
In old murder mysteries, you cut the phone line. In modern mysteries, you kill the wifi. In space opera, you knock out communications satellites.
I’ve now used “ansible” in a number of my stories, too. It’s a handy word for when you’re isolating your space-faring characters and putting them through hell.
I learned the word “granary” from one of Anne Rice’s books — The Vampire Lestat or Queen of the Damned, I can’t now remember. The phrase was “Egypt is the granary of Rome,” and I remember wondering if it had something to do with canaries before looking it up. I think I was 11 or 12 at the time.
When I was 7 I learned the word “plight” from The Hobbit and promptly used it in my first poem, which was an address to the moon peppered with Thees and Thous I learned from a children’s digest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I think I also learned the word “bough” from The Hobbit; I didn’t know how to pronounce it. Heck, while I’m plundering my memories of that most-beloved book, I think I also learned “melancholy” from it, though I was convinced it was pronounced “meh-LANK-oll-ee” for an embarrassingly long time.
I picked up “scintilla” from The Fionavar Tapestry and “Brigadier” (bri-GAY-dee-er) from Doctor Who novelisations (which I read without knowing they were spun off a television show), where I also learned that all-important word, “polarity.”
Cuirass. One of those words that doesn’t tend to come up in everyday conversation around the water cooler. (Unless you have a way more awesome job than mine, anyway.) A word that tends to appear more often in text than out loud. Which means I spent a good chunk of my life not knowing how to pronounce it. KEYE-rass? CURE-us? Queer-ass?
As it turns out, it’s kwi-RASS. Which is close enough to how I’ve been pronouncing it in my head that I don’t feel too foolish. But there are a lot of words that I’ve come across in my reading that I haven’t been so lucky with. Some words I wouldn’t dream of trying to say aloud. Some words I only recognize contextually. Some words are completely brand new and I have to take a moment to look up what they even mean to begin with.
That’s part of the annoying fun of reading so much fantasy and sci-fi. You get to experience an expanded vocabulary, encounter more words that don’t tend to be found in random day-to-day speech. Haplogroup. Paradigm. Torus. Caldera. Brachytherapy. Conflate. I learned a French phrase the other day, thanks to a fellow SFF fan, that describes someone wasting time on minute insignificant details, that literally translates to “sodomizing flies.” Enculage de mouche.
Which I need to find an excuse to use in a regular conversation at some point, and soon, because that one’s too good to waste!
I have to go with the obvious answer here — in my opinion the great master of words is J.R.R. Tolkien. He was a linguist with a poet’s ear, and that is an unbeatable combination in a writer. There are parts of The Lord of the Rings where the prose is so extraordinary that I always emerge slightly drunk after reading them.
I was a teenager when I first read The Lord of the Rings, so there were a lot of words I’d never seen, and I was greedy for them all. The older words, which helped give the story its authenticity but which were never overused: delve and dotard, bier and gibbet. The words that looked modern but had an extra, secret meaning: fair and fell, stout and sore. The beautiful sound of some of the words and phrases, even when I had no idea what they meant, like carcanet, which turns out to be a jeweled headband, and Éowyn’s triumphant cry, “Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion.” Dwimmerlaik can be chased through the Oxford English Dictionary to “demerlayk,” which means “dream-like” or “illusion,” but even before I looked it up I just loved the way it sounded, the way the whole phase rings out, almost but not quite iambic.
I especially liked the way Tolkien brought his readers along into this world. He simply assumed that you would understand these words, or like them enough that the occasional archaism wouldn’t throw you. He was inviting you into the community of people who loved words, and it was when I read him that I decided wholeheartedly that I wanted to join.
The other writer whose way with words I admire is John Crowley. Through reading him I discovered words like minatory (menacing), mumchance (struck dumb), and sempiternal (eternal). My favorite is septentrion; it literally means seven plowing oxen, but refers to a northern constellation and has come to just mean north. I once saw it on an ancient map, which made me happy. I wish I knew where he finds them — he seems to have access to some fantastic word-hoard all his own.
When I first opened Dubliners in college, it was like unwrapping a package. The cover told me very little, just an unoccupied staircase going up, conveying possibilities and wonder. And on the first page, two gifts: gnomon and simony.
It was not to be the first time I learned new words from a book. Most notably, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun offered such as autochthonous, teratoid, and nidorous. His words evoked something in me even before I reached for the dictionary. I have seen complaints about authors using unusual or academic language, but those weighty words can create atmosphere, rhythm, and vivid imagery. In Wolfe’s case they help create a world which is alien, yet rooted in our ancient past.
Words are the tools of our trade as writers — sometimes used with purpose, other times appearing on the screen like strangers. Sometimes when I see a word I’ve typed in I wonder, is that actually a word? Does it mean what I think it means? Words like crepescular or binnacle appear on the screen, and I have to trust that I know what I am writing and that my readers will follow me into the world they create. That’s all any writer can hope.
Words I have learned from science fiction: Mindmeld. Hive mind. Psi powers. I must have learned telepathy and teleportation from SF. Mutant. Android. Cyborg. Nanotech. Genemod. AI. Starship. FTL. STL. Stargate. Space elevator. Warp drive. Fandom. Fanzine. Alien. Sentient. Post-holocaust society. Radioactive wasteland. There must be a zillion more.
The easiest way to check SF words is to open Brave New Words: the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff Prucher. Opening it at random, I find: Jump. Jumpship. Jumpdrive. These are all words I know and have not encountered outside science fiction. Opening to another page, I find: Torch drive. Tractor beam. Transdimensional. Transgalactic. Again, these are all words I know. At one point I went straight through Brave New Words and discovered I knew almost all the words and their meanings.
Some of these are words made up by science fiction writers or readers. (Jumpship.) Others are mainstream words that are far more commonly used in SF than in mainstream society. (Telepathy.) Some are mainstream words that have been redefined by SF writers. Alien actually means foreign or a foreigner. (Check the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The young American Republic was not worried about space aliens.) In SF, it has come to mean people of another species, most often from another planet. Sentient means “responsive to or conscious of sense impressions.” In SF, it has come to mean a thinking being. Mutant, first used in 1903 per my Webster’s, is “relating to or produced by mutation.” In SF, it usually means a person.
Today we have a problem in talking about SF language, because the barrier between the SF community and the outside world has become permeable or maybe come down entirely. Scientists who have read SF bring SF ideas and words into their work. Is a word still science fictional, if people are using it about the real world? Movies and TV have introduced SF ideas and words to the entire culture. The SF meaning of ‘alien’ is now the standard meaning. Is it still an SF word? I would say, yes. The mainstream or mundane or real world is a lot more consciously science fictional than it used to be, even though the common meaning of ‘science fictional’ is ‘unreal.’ ‘Fanzine,’ however, has moved away from its SF roots, though Webster’s still cites SF in its definition. At this point, I am not sure that ‘fanzine’ is an SF word.
Still, written SF uses SF jargon more densely than the outside world does, even in science fiction movies. This is a complaint people make about SF stories. What the heck do all these words mean? How can you tell what’s going on?
I love them, because they mean building a background and adding information can be done far more quickly and tightly. ‘Genemod’ tells you the story’s society does genetic modification and does enough of it so the society has a shorthand term. ‘Stargate’ tells you the society has some kind of very-long-distance teleportation.
I’m willing to lose some readers in order to keep using SF words. Though it’s not clear how many readers I lose. The eight-or-nine-year-old son of a friend read through my Lydia Duluth space opera novel and liked it a lot. He had no trouble with the vocabulary.
So, what words do I use? I am not an inventor of SF vocabulary. I use what other people have invented or found. In my hwarhath and Lydia Duluth stories, I use star gate, singularity, FTL, STL, space elevator, nanotech, genemod, AI, alien, and total cost accounting. This last is a term I invented, though the concept already exists. It is accounting which includes the entire cost of an enterprise, including use of natural resources and damage to the environment. In traditional accounting and economics, these are known as ‘externalities,’ and are not counted. Many activities become net losses, if you figure in the external cost.
My use of singularity is idiosyncratic and not true to science. I had to find someway to get my characters to the stars. My word is closer to Vernon Vinge’s idea than to the singularity in the middle of a black hole. It’s the place where rules breakdown. A jump point.
I suppose the one area where I add unusual words to the science fiction vocabulary is accounting. My day job was accounting, back when I had a day job, and I think it’s an underrated art. So I put it into my fiction, which means I use terms like ‘profit and loss’ and ‘total cost accounting.’
Of course, when I write about aliens, I make up alien words. But I assume we are talking about English words here.
- Fiver: someone over 125, Kathleen Ann Goonan, “Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl”
- Postequine: postequine is to horses as posthuman is to people, Bruce Sterling, “Tall Tower”
- To awesomize: to make something awesome; future advertising-speak from Charlie Jane Anders, “The Day It All Ended”
- Dorians: faces that are used to represent the result of data analysis about the projected outcome of decision-making. From Karl Schroeder’s story “Degrees of Freedom”