Touché Mr Spartan
In a panel discussion on world building recently, I mentioned the issue of word origins when creating a fantasy world. There are some words that I don’t think you can use in a fantasy setting because of where they came from.
“But Darian,” you might say. “You’re writing in English so surely all English words are fair game? We understand that in our imaginations they’re speaking Elvish or Kalan or whatever.”
But here’s the thing: not all words are appropriate in a made up world that doesn’t have our history.
Technological jargon is an obvious example of words that don’t fit in a fantasy world. You couldn’t use the word “telephone” in a medieval-style world without establishing clearly that they have them and why. But there are other, less technological words that have very specific real-world/Earth connotations.
“Spartan” is a pet one of mine. One of my favourite authors, Jim Butcher, used it as a descriptor in his Codex Alera series and I threw a tantrum. Yes, it is generally accepted to mean sparsely furnished, but the word literally comes from Sparta, where they furnished things very sparsely and thus the term. I had a huge issue with a fantasy world using this when they wouldn’t have had Sparta in their history but my wife felt the more modern meaning was accepted into general usage enough that it was okay. (Yes, these are the kinds of arguments you have when there are two writers in the house. Don’t get us started on the Oxford comma.) Fortunately (spoiler ahead) it turns out that Butcher’s fantasy world includes descendants of a Roman legion from OUR world, where, of course, Sparta is. So it was all okay.
“Touché” is a French word used in fencing that means “You got me.” While most fantasy worlds would have fencing, they wouldn’t have France to describe it for them so…that’s a problem.
Maybe I’m being overly pedantic. I mean, all words had to come from somewhere, right? But for me, there’s a line in the sand between those that feel established enough to exist apart from the origin and those that don’t. If it throws a reader out of the story with a frown and a “what the?” then it’s probably not a good idea.
That said, I’ve been known to slightly re-define words in my own fantasy worlds. As my editor pointed out, “priory” and “prioress” have very specific definitions in real world religion that don’t match up to the way I used them in the Agents of Kalanon series. The Priory of Gradinath is about as far from Catholic as you can get and is not mono-gendered at all. But I just love the word and it felt right. The Kalanon world is its own place with social attitudes and structures that are not exactly as they would be in a similar time in Earth and that means differences in semantics.
So where is the line?
I don’t know, to be honest. But I think I know it when I read it (and then discuss it at great length with Adrienne until she rolls her eyes and goes back to reading her own book). I’m curious about what others think. What words just don’t belong in a fantasy world? Or are there times when a seemingly incongruous word just works? I guess in the end it comes down to the power of the story and how much it makes us willing to believe.