Caveat Scriptor

Writer, beware.

One of the things I love most about writing fantasy is world creation, exploring a world where anything can happen — as long as it follows your rules. Fantasy writer Orson Scott Card has explained world-building better than I can, so I will limit my thoughts to word-building — the invention of names.

It was word-building that first dragged me into the messy world of fantasy. Before I ever read Tolkien, I was making up languages and drawing maps. Reading Lord of the Rings was a confirmation of what I already knew: there were other worlds to explore. All I had to do was stick my flag in the ground and start naming things.

In the advertising world, people are paid to make up new words. What they realize (most of the time) is that we are all neck-deep in words these days — slang, product names, new terms for things that didn’t exist an hour ago. On an average day of reading, I may run into half a dozen words I’ve never seen before — because they are so new they haven’t made it into the dictionary.

Usually I just Google unfamiliar words, and most of the time figure out what they mean in the context I’m reading. I also see a lot of things they might mean. When I Google dax, I learn that it may refer to the German stock index (Deutscher Aktien Index), a hair-care company, a character on Star Trek, a company that makes eco-friendly products, a singer, an actor, a really funny guy, and (apparently) a transsexual prostitute.

If I’m writing a story, there are characters who need names. In fantasy, writers are expected to come up with fantastic names — the kind readers will immediately recognize as from an invented world, unpronounceable names with apostrophes, hyphens and weird consonant clusters: B’dafnor-Sfydm of Rgti. I may also need to name places and objects that exist in my personal universe. This is a lot of fun for an onomaphile like me.

But I have learned not to trust myself. From dax I learned that somebody, somewhere has most likely already used my cool invented word. I need to know what it might possibly mean, outside of my cool invented universe. I would not want my warrior elves eating lixo for breakfast and find out that it means ‘garbage’ in Portuguese.

Not long ago I was writing a story and needed a fake email address for a character. I was thinking about Google, and suddenly hit on an idea: Google + girl = googirl. Very clever — or was it a little too clever? Surely someone has thought of this before…

After checking the Urban Dictionary entry, I decided to come up with a new name. I may be naive, but I’m not stupid.

Even big companies have learned this lesson. Nike decided to call name a women’s running shoe Incubus a few years ago. Before the boxes hit the shelves, someone gave them the bad news: an incubus is a mythological demon who rapes women while they sleep. Not a good choice.

Lesson: don’t expect American Heritage, Google, Wikipedia, or your editor to catch all of these unfortunate words. Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) is an important resource, though about half of the entries appear to be sexual slang, like googirl. After looking up several words, you may begin to feel that your characters are all doomed to be porn stars or prostitutes.

Another large percentage of neologisms are computing / video game words. You can still have a troll in your forests, but readers may picture him at his keyboard, typing inflammatory comments on the forum. Your elves could be eco-terrorists still living with their parents, your wizard may be a social deviant, your goblins will be mob bosses with lots of goon-underlings, and your male fairies may be effeminate, but not necessarily gay.

Most writers wouldn’t make the mistake of naming a character P’nis or creating a race called the Vagin, but it is good to be aware of the possibilities of more innocent-sounding words. I always look words up to see what hidden connotations they may have. The problem is that an English dictionary doesn’t reveal foreign meanings, and with most online translators you have to know what language you’re looking for. I know several languages, but not all of them. My bookcase holds dictionaries for all of those, plus a few others.

But I like to be thorough. A name I’ve made up could have an unfortunate meaning in Polish or Farsi – or any of the 6,802 languages I haven’t studied. I’m not worried that readers in New Guinea will find obscene or offensive meanings in my character names, but I would like to find a resource that will let me search the most common languages. So far, I haven’t found one. It’s also a good idea to run a word by a few literate people. Naming a character can take days.

Bestowing a name is not to be taken lightly. A name is not just a label that can be peeled off if you change your mind. It is the soul of a character. Once you have placed it on your creation, it informs their behavior in ways you do not consciously realize. A warrior-knight named Bob will speak, think and act differently from one named Al’zandor or Ginto. Bob will disappoint, Al’zandor will be boringly predictable, but Ginto may surprise. He has humble roots, but a great determination to succeed.

P’nis of the Vagin race may not be happy in the chaste order of monks you have planned for him. Never mind. Put him in a different story — the one with Googirl and the transvestite prostitutes.

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