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Fantasy dictionary and style guide


I've come to the conclusion that what the field needs is a dictionary, or at least a spelling guide, for common fantasy terms. Words like scry and geas and sword fighting and spellcaster and so on. Some of them appear only in unabridged dictionaries (I just subscribed to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, and discovered by accident that if you say you want the free 14-day trial, they offer you two free months if you switch to a year's subscription, so it comes to 14 months for $30); others appear only in foreign-language dictionaries; others are compound words that don't show up in the dictionaries at all (which I usually assume means they're open compounds, to be spelled with a space in the middle, but I'm always a little hesitant about that).

I imagine the publishing companies that produce lots of high fantasy and/or lots of D&D tie-ins probably have style guides that list preferred spellings (and sometimes usage) for all such words; I wonder if such a company could be imposed upon to post such a guide online for public use.


That could be a lot of fun. Especially putting together the citations. (And whenever you wanted to show that a certain usage was not correct, you could cite The Eye of Argon.)

Sort of like Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland, only without the sarcasm?

I still haven't read Tough Guide to Fantasyland, though people have been recommending it to me for years. But my impression is that that's more like encyclopedia, with descriptive entries for concepts, whereas what I want is more like a dictionary, with entries focused on the spelling of words (and perhaps to a lesser degree their meanings and usage). So there might be a fair bit of overlap in the choice of entries (I'm not sure), but the content of the entries would be very different (I think).

whoops, I forgot and commented this to LJ earlier.

anyway, what I said was that I think you should write it and make a little money. I suspect a publisher or two would be interested.

Ah, I see. Your impression of the Tough Guide is correct; I find it useful in avoiding (or at least minimizing) genre stereotypes on my part. One of my favorites:

STEW (the Official Management Terms are 'thick' and 'savoury,' which translate as 'viscous' and 'dark brown') is the staple FOOD in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, inside or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in CAMP you are likely to be attacked without warning (but see BATH) and in an INN prone to be the centre of a TAVERN BRAWL, Stew seems an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak. But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food. The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables. Do not expect a salad on the side.
Hmm. Now I'm hungry.

I’ve always figured the STEW and the LEATHERY-WINGED AVIANS were somehow connected.

Interesting idea. But, uh... at risk of blatant editing heresy, why is it needed? To me it does not especially matter if some stories feature sword fighting while others are about swordfighting; seems like a stylistic choice of the author. And scrye and Geis definitely seem to me to belong to the same category of words as magic/Magick/majik and fairy/faerie/Faery; that we don't know exactly how we're supposed to spell them is almost part of their mystical otherworldly nature. ::grin::

It's fine for a style guide to say "this is an item best left to the author's discretion" or "there are three standard spellings for this word, all acceptable." But it's good to have standards even if they're flexible standards. For example, much of the time it's not an intentional stylistic choice when an author does this sort of thing; much of the time, the author is just uncertain how to spell the word in question, or doesn't care how it's normally spelled. In my opinion, consistency of spelling (as long as it doesn't get in the way of other things) is good.

I would definitely query the spellings "scrye" and "Geis"; "scry" and "geas" are words, just like any other words, and in the modern world there's general agreement that standardized spelling is a good idea. (And yes, dictionaries frequently give alternate acceptable spellings; if a spelling is standard enough to be in our dictionary, it's fine with me.) I disagree that not knowing how to spell them makes them more mystical. In most contexts, I would also query "magick" and especially "majik"; those spellings may be appropriate in some contexts, but not in most contexts.

Think about other words and more off-the-wall spellings. Would you find it at all odd or jarring if a fantasy novelist insisted on writing about wizzurdz who like to cast spelz to fight draggginz and oarchks? They wave their majikk wahnhs and the mis-tickuhl N-R-G makes everything gloh, and then the deaminz appear. And so on. It would be impossible to read (unless it was done for comic effect).

You could say that all of those are stylistic choices of the author, and that the misspellings add to the mystical otherworldiness; but you could also say that the author either doesn't know how to spell standard English words or is being intentionally goofy.

So the reason I need such a guide is exactly the reason that I need a dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style handy when I'm editing; it's to help provide consistency, in the absence of intentional authorial choices.

It certainly seems like something that a speculative fiction periodical could easily start creating, if they don't have one already. Say, aren't you involved with a publication like that?

Seriously, a guide to house style is easy to develop -- just start a list of acceptable and unacceptable spellings/*spellingz, and add to it as you go. Allow web-based submissions, exercise editorial control, and you'll soon have a usable spellbook spelling guide.

You obviously need to allow authors to consciously break with house style or any standard dictionary, but it certainly doesn't hurt to confirm that the decision to do so is both conscious and rational.

Hmm—I think I didn't provide enough context for this entry. It was really just me musing in reaction to coming across several words (while I was editing a story) that weren't listed in our standard dictionary.

SH already has a style guide, though a minimal one, and I can certainly add any words I want to; I can make a decision about whether it should be "scryed" or "scried," for example, and I can write down that decision for future reference. (And on a side note: at least in the fiction department, every decision about what goes in the story is, in the end, up to the author; I never require an author to make a particular change.)

But I was thinking that if someone else has already done the work to make those decisions (ideally based on common usage), and if they could be convinced to release the information to the public, it would both save me some time and allow a certain degree of standardization across publications (if they wanted to use it).

What I really ought to've done is dropped a note to various editors asking if they have such a style guide, rather than just musing about it here.... :)

But if I don't find such a guide that can be made publicly available, I may well think about starting such a project myself. Though it'll probably end up on the back burner with all my other projects. I have a mighty big stove at this point.