The Edges Of World-Building: What words mean

There was some writerly advice I saw many years ago about describing your scene in creative ways. Whoever it was said to be aware of what is normal to your characters and describe things appropriately. The example given was on a spaceship: say “The door irised open” and there is some instant colour and description all in one neat little package. After all, there is no reason the characters in your scifi setting could not think that a door “irising” open is anything but normal.

That tiny example re-purposes the word “iris”. What is easily forgotten is that words are re-purposed around us all the time.

How many of you know what “blog” means? I mean really means? It came from the phrase “web log” which came about to describe people logging a journal on the world wide web. Over time, it’s been shortened.

Who remembers their mother or grandmother using the “hoover”? I noticed this one the other day because I noticed a relative referring to “the Dyson“. The Hoover Company dominated domestic electric vacuum cleaners for many years, and so when the only choice was from one company, the company’s name was appropriated as the generic name for the goods it sells. But once the market matured with many companies, using the word “hoover” to refer to any vacuum cleaner began to die out. Now, however, Dyson has seriously upset the market with its new technology and manufacturing standards and so people have begun distinguishing between vacuum cleaners made by them from everyone else.

What about in fiction? There is an almost example in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. The portable, network-connected computers that in use everywhere are first called “lecterns”. Why this strange choice? Robinson never explains it, at least not in the novels. I can imagine, however, a scenario where that might have been a brand name at some point. We can almost see the same thing happening with Apple’s iPad. To some people, all touch-screen tablet computers are “iPads”.

But such terms don’t need to be limited to merchandisable objects.

What do you think when you hear the word “doctor”? To most people, it refers to a medical professional, or a highly learned person. It doesn’t usually mean “warrior”, though. In the “Doctor Who” episode A Good Man Goes To War the viewers learn this rather uncomfortable fact about the eponymous Time Lord. It is a rather sobering lesson for The Doctor and is arguably more alien in this episode than usual. So much so that a lot of his off-screen story afterwards is him erasing himself from the universe’s knowledge of him.

This is a word that was drastically repurposed, and with considerable consequences.

A writer doing world-building should be aware of the nuances possible with this. It doesn’t need to drive the story. But it should be used sparingly. This is because this technique also falls under the problem of invented languages, (criticism of which is readily available elsewhere).


Filed under storytelling, The Edges Of World-Building, world-building

2 responses to “The Edges Of World-Building: What words mean

  1. Interesting post. You can go as far as the original ‘Star Trek’ has that whoosh-squeek of the doors. And then of course, with languages, you have kellicams in Klingon for distance and rels from the Daleks in Doctor Who for seconds. Even if small parts like that appear, it does add flavour to the text and gives an insight to your culture.

    Of course, if you are George R R Martin, you might as well invent a whole new language or two for a saga.

    • Many fantasy authors (and not a few sci-fi authors) invent languages for their novels. This can work remarkably well, but it is also easy to go terribly wrong. In the worst cases, the effect is of a novel that is partially translated. Invented languages simply need careful handling in a novel.

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