I’ve been thinking a bit about nomenclature in fiction lately. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about words and names derived from real-life people and places.
But first, credit where credit is due. While this sort of thing has bugged me for years, I’ve been thinking about it lately due to a post by Peter Ahlstrom on Brandon Sanderson’s boards. (Have I mentioned Sanderson enough? Go read Warbreaker.)
The characters don’t speak English, so what we read is a translation into our language. [. . .]
I do think it’s a good idea to pay attention to anachronism when using metaphors and idoms, but that’s also something that can be taken too far—for example, trying not to use any words with latinate roots because there was never a former empire of that type in the universe you’re writing in. That would probably be impossible because English is what English is, and the book is written in English.
-Peter Ahlstrom, assistant to Mr. Sanderson
He was talking about a turn of phrase used in the Mistborn trilogy, but the point obviously holds for a much broader spectrum of fiction. And it’s one that has bugged me for years. When, in my Zosias campaign, the gnomes developed rifled guns, I didn’t call them rifles and I didn’t call the process rifling. The process is called spiraling. This was due to the belief that “rifle” comes from the name of the inventor of the process, though my google-fu is having trouble coming up with a reference for that. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should have just named it after Rifle Bottleblower.
Most of the time, I think, Ahlstrom’s point holds. For the most part, making up a new name for something just because the etymology doesn’t hold up in court is pointless and confusing. Most of the time I just gloss over it these days.
But I still think there’s a place for it. Renaming something basic can add flavor to a setting — if you don’t mind the confusion — and I think that, used sparingly, it makes a great spice.
Even so, in Zosias I’ve mostly taken to naming the troublesome ones after Bottleblowers as a form of lampshade hanging. That’s mostly my friend and co-developer Michael’s fault. The Bottleblower clan of gnomes has been a running joke for years now. (Seriously, I don’t remember the last time we ran a gnome that wasn’t part of the Bottleblower family . . . )
Eh, so there you go. Have some random thoughts.