Unfamiliar words

A common problem in fantasy and science fiction stories is drowning the reader in made-up words at the start of the story.

In fantasy, this most often takes the form of a few paragraphs of High Fantasy Names, both of places and people:

It was the seventh day of Rilrak, and Vesnalorm the Mighty, Ess'lor of Nyeang, stood in Yerale Pass by the broad swift-flowing Undh, looking down over Warawe Valley to the golden towers of Soelmwar. "Alas," thought Vesnalorm; "King Dukeko will die this day at the hands of his brother, Lllarod, and his sister, Ightch, and his cousins Nudah and Worler, if my Knights of Banismos do not act quickly."

(In the worst cases, all the English nouns and adjectives are left out: "Vesnalorm, Ess'lor of Nyeang, stood in Yerale by the Undh, looking down over Warawe to Soelmwar. 'Alas,' thought Vesnalorm; 'Dukeko will die this day at the hands of Llarod, Ightch, Nudah, and Worler!'" And so on.)

In science fiction, it's sometimes the names of alien stars, worlds, species, and individuals, or sometimes unfamiliar technobabble ("Quick! Stabilize the dynethro coupling to provide a mekanon field so we can bypass the Vokk generator and keep the mesospace engines from granulating!").

Either way, it can cause readers' eyes to glaze over quickly, and erect an impermeable interest-repelling wall between the reader and the story.

But sometimes I read a story that, despite being full of unfamiliar terms, draws me in and keeps me interested.

Of course, the line between interesting and offputting use of unfamiliar terms can be in the eye of the beholder. I think we've published a couple of stories that I thought did a great job, but that at least a couple of readers said they couldn't get past the opening paragraphs of. And certainly Karen and Susan and I have disagreements about this kind of thing in stories we're considering.

So, a question for y'all writers and readers: what techniques do you feel work best for making use of unfamiliar terms inviting rather than offputting? Or at least for softening the impact of the new words in the opening paragraphs of a story?

(Names courtesy of the Fantasy Name Generator; for a particularly enjoyable set, try the Bad Name Generator on that page. See also the Random Tolkien-Elvish Name Generator (which supplied me with the name "Almarëkilyanna"); an unrelated non-Tolkien Elven Names Generator; another unrelated non-Tolkien Elf Name Generator; the Tamriel Rebuilt name generator; and, while I'm here, the Random Title Generator.)

10 Responses to “Unfamiliar words”

  1. Debby

    I have no solutions just a hear, hear! As a non-regular reader of the genre, I thought I was the problem; I just couldn’t force myself to concentrate. How nice to hear that good writers guide me into the dream world.

  2. Haddayr Copley-Woods

    I don’t know what techniques they’re using, but Cory Doctorow and Ben Rosenbaum’s novella _True Names_ is filled with techie jargon, some of which is probably understandable to programmers, but NONE of which is familiar to me, and they are writing it with enough explanation I either totally understand it or I don’t care that I don’t exactly understand it.

    I guess their technique is to make me really care about the characters and be willing to let myself steep in the technobabble and see it as part of the delicious depth of the story.

    I am not saying this because I love Ben, although I do. I am saying it because it is true.

  3. BC Holmes

    “What’s it going to be then, eh?

    “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassooducks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspaper not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they would put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet it with knives in it, as we use to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”

  4. Mallory

    Hook me first – give me the minimum babble over the longest time and make your created words easy to pronounce and suggestive of the idea or object they might reflect in my world – this allows my natural tendency to bend language to *get* it. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to tell the story of a character first, less a story of the world and allow the worldbuilding to occur as naturally as possible.

  5. Vardibidian

    If the Clockwork Orange excerpt was intended to refute Jed’s position, I don’t think it does. If the purpose is to provoke a sense of alienation, that’s one good way to do it. And, of course, Jed goes out of his way to point out that this is a problem in some stories but not in others.

    More generally, I have lost patience lately with a mindset that says that writing rules must be absolute: either something is outlawed for all circumstances or it that thing must be terrific without any drawbacks whatsoever. It seems obvious to me that having lots of made-up words at the beginning is a drawback. If you’re writing a story, you may want to be reminded of that. Most stories will have drawbacks of one kind or another, even very good stories, but that doesn’t mean you want more of them.


  6. John Wright

    The art of injecting strangeness into a tale of wonder is like cutting a diamond: a proper stroke will bring out the brilliance, and an awkward stroke will shatter the diamond.

    Let me offer two examples, in an opening line, of a single strange word or phrase that tells the reader he is opening a curious door into a world not his own:

    “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    Such is when it is done well. Invented words should have invented roots: something that implies the word grew up from the world. The fact that hobbits live to one hundred and eleven years is peculiar, and something of their rustic quaintness is implied by the neologism “elventy-one.” If it is not something country gentry say, it sounds like it should be. Again, the fact that the clocks strike thirteen hints that the future world of 1984 has gone to a decimal dial, with all the unpleasant associations of revolutionaries who revise calendars, making it Thermidor of Year One, and so on. It is done poorly when the newly-coined word has no roots and tells you nothing about the world involved.

    It is poorly done when the reader cannot intuit from the surrounding words the meaning of the invented word, or when the invented words does not sound like an authentic word the people of your world might invent. I hate to dispraise one of my favorite books, but when telepathy in WRINKLE IN TIME is called “kything” it sounds phony. There are no roots to that word. It is a meaningless string of letters, not something a modern girl would say.

    When the same ability is called “Night-hearing” in William Hope Hodgson’s monstrous work THE NIGHT LANDS, it sounds authentic, or when it is called “Peeping” in Alfred Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN, or when it is called “our prison-yard whisper” in Robert Heinlein’s TIME FOR THE STARS. In E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, telepathy is done with a psychic instrument called a “Lens”, and the verb is “Lensing” (‘he Lensed to her’); Ursula K. LeGuin, in her Hainish novels, calls telepathic contact “Mind-speech”, and the verb is “bespoke.” (‘She bespoke him’).

    These words have a resonance, something that invites the reader to fill in what the author left blank. Hodgson implies the art of mind-reading is a thing of darkness and mystery; Bester implies that it is like a Peeping Tom, an intrusion; Heinlein implies secrecy; Smith uses a word that implies the powers of the mind are being focused, a with a magnifying glass; LeGuin implies a quiet, peaceful art.

    Even when the coined terms have no relation to our language, they should have a relation to each other. In Zimiamvia (so the otherworldly poet E.R.Eddison assures us in MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES) the citadel of Zayana is called Acrozayana. We might not know what an Acrozayana is, but to an English-speaker, it echoes words like “Acropolis”, and sounds like something whose walls and towers rise above ancient and unconquered Zayana.

  7. Jed

    Thanks for the comments! Keep ’em coming; I’m still interested in hearing more thoughts about this stuff.

    I also have plenty more to say, but for now just a few quick responses:

    Debby: Interesting to hear from this perspective; thanks. On a side note, I’m hesitant to say “good writers” in such a blanket way; I suspect that non-genre-readers draw the line (between confusing/eye-glazing and good) in different places from genre readers. Among other things, regular genre readers usually want a certain amount of unheimlichkeit to appear early on, and may be disappointed if things look too normal.

    And, of course, it’s not just a genre-readers/non-genre-readers distinction; everyone draws the line in different places. One example: Charles Stross’s story “Lobsters,” which (after the first few paragraphs) is full of what I’ve taken to calling Strossian eyeball kicks–one ultra-high-tech idea after another, hurled at the reader in rapid succession. I adore it, and a bunch of other people do too, but I’ve heard from a bunch of people who found it impossible to get into.

    (Another related topic here is the whole accessibility-to-new-readers thing: it’s hard for sf to be both enjoyable for people steeped in the genre and accessible for people who aren’t. A tough problem.)

    Haddayr: That’s great! That’s exactly the kind of reaction I like to hear about this kind of thing. I’m looking forward to reading the story.

    Mallory: I’m mostly with you, but I get a little dubious about words that are suggestive of real-world stuff–it’s easy to slide over the line into talking about klights saddling up their zorses. (See also my fictional translation entry from a few years back.)

    V: I interpreted BC’s note as an example of doing it well, but I may have misunderstood. BC, can you clarify? Fwiw, I thought it was mostly done very well in A Clockwork Orange, although the first couple of paragraphs are a little dense in that regard–but iIrc, when I relaxed and let the words just flow over me, it all started to make sense. Although probably by the time I read the book I was already familiar with a bunch of the terms. (On a side note: BC, I read your comment just as I was about to start watching a movie version of Emma, which is funny because a while back I wrote a story that mixed Clockwork Orange with Emma.)

    John: A bunch of good points; I agree with nearly everything you say here. But I have to disagree with you about “kything.” “Kythe” is a real word, a variant spelling of “kithe,” a mostly Scottish word meaning “to make (or become) known.” It’s been used in English since the 12th century. So that’s an interesting subtopic: the author can carefully choose a word that’s intended to have a certain effect, but readers may not have the relevant background to be able to interpret it properly.

    Speaking of telepathy terms, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Cordwainer Smith’s terms “hier” and “spiek”–they’re effective and clear, but they never quite felt like the kinds of words real people would come up with to me.

  8. Tamara

    Amy Thomson’s novel The Color of Distance comes to mind as an example – it has a much higher alien word density than usual for a good book, but it somehow worked for me.

  9. Shahina Ali

    what does Zaryan / Zarayan mean ?

  10. Jed

    Thanks, Tamara — I’ll take a look.

    Shahina Ali: No idea, sorry.

    I was going to say “Btw, for anyone who Googled for [unfamiliar words] and found this entry, please read the entry before posting questions about what specific unfamiliar words mean.” But then it occurred to me that anyone who hasn’t read the entry won’t read the comments either. So I think I’ll just ignore any future comments here that ask for definitions of unfamiliar words.


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