Many years ago I was reading a fantasy novel as I was settling down for the night. In it, there was a long description of an old manor house that said the ancient stone walls had Spanish moss hanging from its surface.
Hold on, what kind of moss? How do you have Spanish moss without Spain? This was set in a whole different world, so the use of ‘Spanish’ in that context immediately took me out of the story. Couldn’t this have been described as ‘horse hair ivy,’ or ‘long moss,’ or some other descriptor that isn’t directly based off our world?
I mean, imagine that you’re reading a high fantasy story about two male characters going to a tavern to celebrate. These guys each order a Bloody Mary, call each other ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ a lot, and then high-five each other. That would be a bit jarring, right? That just doesn’t sound like something people in a fantasy world would say, and the Bloody Mary is linked to several historical figures from the history of our world.
Language is one of the best ways to establish the mood of a fantasy story, as well as to reinforce the atmosphere of the world. With that in mind, I thought I would go through a number of words that have direct links to our world in particular. If you’re writing fantasy, you might consider using a synonym for them if you want to avoid a ‘Spanish moss’ kind of moment in your work.
Let’s dive in.
Full disclosure, there are several theorized origins for this word, but they are all fairly recent, linguistically speaking. Perhaps the most popular (and the one I subscribe to) is about the 8th president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, who was born at a place called Old Kinderhook. Van Buren adopted this as a nickname, even using it as a campaign slogan during his presidential run, with the abbreviation of “O.K.” This came to be synonymous with ‘all correct.’ So, the origins of this kind of acknowledgement are specifically tied to our world in a way that wouldn’t exist elsewhere.
Short for ‘fanatic,’ the idea of being a fan of something is a usage that has only come about in the last 150 years or so, and is often attributed to the rise of baseball. Of course, the word ‘fanatic’ has been around for many centuries, but previously it was taken in its literal meaning of a zealot or someone who is obsessed or divinely devoted to a cause.
In an episode of Doctor Who early in Chris Eccleston’s run (“The Unquiet Dead”), the Doctor meets Charles Dickens. When the Doctor says that he’s a big fan of Dickens’ work, Dickens believes the Doctor is referring to a fan that you use to cool yourself. If a person from Victorian England wouldn’t get the reference, your high fantasy characters probably wouldn’t either.
This type of triangular sail has been used all over the world, but the name itself is taken from the word ‘Latin’ due of the usage by the Romans. This kind of sail has appeared in a number of fantasy stories, though it is rarely called something else. Of all the examples on this list, this one is the most in the vein of the ‘Spanish moss’ since it is directly derived from the name of a language used in our world.
Both of these words come from the name of the Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman from the 18th century who wrote about inflicting pain and suffering on others…amongst other things. If you’re describing your fantasy villain, you might want to use ‘cruel,’ or ‘merciless,’ or something without a direct link to someone who (presumably) doesn’t make an appearance in your fantasy world.
You might know this one already, but the term for putting meat and toppings between two pieces of bread was named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich in the 18th century. Often the story goes that he wanted to have a convenient way to eat so he didn’t have to leave the gambling table. While that part of the story is probably apocryphal, the name is still taken from a historical figure.
When it comes to characters referring to the toilet, those from a medieval/renaissance frame of reference would likely refer to them as the ‘privy,’ the ‘garderobe,’ or something else. The term ‘bathroom’ wasn’t used until about the 18th or 19th centuries (sources vary on exactly when), but the meaning was literally the place in which you take a bath. Using it as a synonym for a lavatory came about early in the 20th century.
When someone has the tendency to express themselves in as few words as possible, they could be described as ‘laconic.’ This has a real-world origin. Laconia was the heartland of ancient Sparta, leading to the Spartans being referred to as the Lacedaemons. It’s why the Spartans sometimes had the Greek letter lambda (Λ) emblazoned on their shields. Spartans were notorious for their short, sarcastic zingers. Once a young Spartan complained that his xiphos sword was too short. His mother reportedly told him, “Take a step towards the enemy. Then it will be long enough.”
Another word with its roots in antiquity, ‘cereal’ is derived from the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres. That’s the Roman adoption of the Greek goddess, Demeter, famously the mother of Persephone. If your fantasy world has gods that aren’t Greco-Roman in nature, you might give cereal another name. Something to ponder the next time you’re enjoying a big bowl of Lucky Charms, eh?
But wait — there’s more!
I know that this would normally be the end of a blog of this nature, just getting through the numbered bits, but I think there’s more to say on the subject here. Consider this the bonus round!
The ‘Translated Language’ Approach
Alternatively, if you don’t want to get too in the weeds on checking word origins, you could approach your fantasy world from the perspective that everything the characters are saying and writing is just a translation from the original source. So, if one character says ‘okay’ to another, they aren’t really saying ‘okay’ as much as whatever the equivalent to ‘okay’ is in their native language, which is certainly not English.
The movie version of The Hunt for Red October had a great example of this. All the Russian characters speak Russian until we see the Political Officer reading the Bible. There’s a close up on him, and suddenly he starts speaking English. The implication is that all the characters are still speaking Russian, but we, the audience, are getting the dialogue through a translated lens. The same can be true of your fantasy setting, though it can make justifying plays on words and puns a bit harder.
If you start changing words around, it can be helpful to keep in mind the words that derive from those that you change. Here’s an example: Let’s say that you have a fantasy world that takes its inspiration from ancient Greece. You decide to rename the goddess Hera to something else. That change trickles down to other things.
Take Hercules, or his actual Greek name, Herakles. His name translates to ‘The fame of Hera.’ Change Hera’s name, and you’ll probably want to change Herc’s name as well to match, assuming you plan on having a Herc analogue in your mythology. Furthermore, if you use the word ‘herculean,’ you might want to reflect that change in that root word as well, just so you keep the connection between these related words in place.
Reaching a Balance
If you’re writing in English, you are already writing in a language that has a habit of borrowing words, either in whole or in part. Latin, Greek, Arabic, German, Old Norse, and a bunch of others have all contributed to the English we speak today. That’s the beauty of a living language that changes and evolves over time.
All that’s to say that there’s no way to delve deeply into every word you use in fantasy. I put this before you only to get you thinking about how etymology can be a useful tool in the fantasy writer’s toolkit. Of course, you could attempt to fully recreate the Middle-English vibe, but you might wind up writing something that reads like Chaucer’s original text that’s not going to be terribly accessible to a modern audience.
So, know when to put it down. Ultimately, the use of etymology is in service to the story. If you determine that you absolutely must use ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ in your story, do it.
A fantasy world is supposed to feel real, even if it only exists in the minds of the author and the readers. Establishing that sense of place is, I think, why fantasy manuscripts can get away with being longer than other genres. It takes a lot of textual space to create that world, to bring it to life.
So, if you’re going to go to all that effort to build a world, word by word, dipping into etymology is a way to qualify those words so that you don’t wind up inadvertently tying your fantasy world to our own.
Thanks for reading!