Mark Twain once said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how words create the world – particularly in Fantasy writing.
When we build a world, we build it with language – and I don’t just mean literally creating your own language, like Elvish or Dorthraki – I mean that words, in all their glorious particularity, are what give color, texture, and ‘reality’ to a fantasy world.
This is true in the real world too. Recently, I came upon this lovely article in The Guardian (I highly recommend reading it in its entirety.) It’s about the lost lexicon of nature words. As we become an increasingly indoor society, we’ve stopped using language to describe the multitude of tiny marvels occurring out of doors. The author, whose book comes out this month, has taken time to catalog the many delightful word coined to describe natural phenomena. He mostly focuses on the rural U.K, but references others who’ve done the same work in Africa and the Middle East.
Here’s a few gems from the article:
Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named. Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for “the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight”. Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.
Some of these words are just so gorgeous, and so succinctly right, as Mark Twain would say, I really want to start using them in my own speech! They would also make great fantasy character / place names!
I think what makes a fantasy world feel real – or, conversely, generic – is the vividness and specificity of its language. We’ll never forget The Yellow Brick Road – ‘the gold road’ etc… wouldn’t have had the same hold on the imagination. The flavor of the word itself conveys the flavor of the place / person / thing the writer means to convey – think the Starks of Winterfell or the Lanisters of Casterly Rock.
It’s not just quaint nature words either – word-play is alive and well in the modern world, often used as the engine of marketing – after all, isn’t “luxury” mostly just conveyed in turns of phrases? “Hand-tooled leather,” “cask-aged in oak,” “princess-cut,” are not so different from “ruby-red slippers,” “phoenix feather core,” or “Valyrian steel.”
One right word can go a long way. As I try to write a Gaslamp Fantasy (i.e. fantasy set in the Victorian era) one of the challenges I’ve run into is that real Victorian language would be mostly unintelligible to the average reader. But just one well-placed period word gives the “feel” of the era, without bogging down the story. A young governess doesn’t take a job, she accepts a “situation;” our heroine doesn’t look out a window, she peers through the “casement;” you don’t clean the fireplace; you “polish the grate.”
Play with words! I think the grand unifier amongst writers is that we love language – not in an abstract, intellectual sense – but with giddy, puppy-like enthusiasm. In my seemingly endless rounds of revisions, I’m trying not to forget this.
So in conclusion, I’ll end with this gem: a query letter, written in 1934, by a young copywriter, Robert Pirosh, who wanted to become a screenwriter. Needless to say, it got him the job, and he went on to a long and successful career in Hollywood. I think it is one of the greatest examples of word-love ever written:
I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.
I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.
I have just returned and I still like words.
May I have a few with you?
What are some of your most-loved words? Please share in the “Comments.”