Words that don’t belong

[— Karen Myers —]

I belong to the school of thought that believes that anything that throws a reader out of a story, that breaks his trance, is a bad thing. Typical offenses in this regard are contradictions within the story world, conflicts with how reality works or actual historical circumstances, and character inconsistency (“…but the man you’ve described would never do that!”)

You know what else can break a reader’s trance? Ordinary bare words. All by themselves.

It depends on the circumstances…

To keep this post unified (if not super-short), I’ll refer just to some of the problems I encounter in my faux-Regency faux-London, created fantasy world (not alt-history), for my not-yet-released Affinities of Magic series. My world-building goals in this context are to use the background familiarity of the reader with Georgian/Regency British social/economic/industrial context/conventions as a shortcut so I don’t have to explain everything while allowing me to add an Industrial Revolution of Magic theme to the world (a sub-genre sometimes referred to as “Science of Magic”).

Words (and phrases) have a history of their own that is apparent to some readers, and that can interfere with the illusion of the world that you’re trying to build. While many readers may not notice, I have a background in etymology and dead languages, so anything that strikes me as out of place, anachronistic, or just plain wrong really irritates me, and I try to eliminate it from my writing when it doesn’t belong in that created world for reasons. I figure if it bothers me, it will bother at least some of my readers, too.

Let’s start with the most obvious — Character names. In a fantasy not set in the real world or some explicit alt-variant of it, you probably shouldn’t call your characters Tom, Dick, Harry, and Mary Sue. Not even Imogene. Or Ishiro. The naming conventions of the society are their own thing, just like the rest of the language, and while you represent the language as “English” so the reader can, you know, read it, actual real world names have all sorts of connotations, and you don’t want that shadow to follow your characters around and interfere with the illusion of the world they occupy. I’m using a naming convention of mostly single name and more-syllables-implies-higher-class (gods at the top with six), with a practice that allows one-or-two-syllable nicknames for informal or pejorative usage.

Historical/Political/Economic references. The world I’ve made has its own geography and its own nations, and thus its own history. None of that needs to be gone into in any great detail for my story, but the influence of that shows up in subtle ways. For example, the political sphere, if exposed, needs leaders, heirs, functionaries, bureaucracies, laws, military, universities, and so forth which need to be consistent. The capital city of an empire was probably the main city of one particular kingdom some time ago, and may have lingering fortifications, etc., now incorporated inside the suburbs, and places called “New” this or “Old” that.

In particular, it’s not just that countries have different names than their suggestive rough models — it’s that the difference in history impacts everything. Is there an equivalent of China or India? If not, do people drink tea? Maybe that’s not a word that should be used, and you end up keeping the customs of tea but calling it something else, like tisane. Think of all the changes produced by the discovery of the New World. If you want, say, tobacco or coffee, you need to use different words (and thus implied trade sources) or else you will constantly remind some of your readers of continents or oceans that may not exist in this world, or have not yet been fully explored, and all that contingent history. Spices and other commodities have individual histories, and those histories are inextricably tied to their names. Ditto for mineral resources, textiles, and all the other commodities of foreign trade.

And then, there are so very many things that are named for historical people or that are actually based on foreign languages that you may not necessarily notice. If you keep the thing, you have to do something about its name to keep educated people from being disturbed by its presence still wearing its serial number in a world where such people and foreign languages don’t exist.

Let’s take the example of some of the terms having to do with transportation that I have to consider using, in my faux-Regency world.

  • Hansom (name of the architect who invented this form of a cabriolet)
  • Cab (the abbreviation of cabriolet, itself derived from French for something that leaps and bounds)
  • Brougham (a type of closed carriage favored by a Lord Brougham)
  • Stanhope (Named for the Reverend who first commissioned it)
  • Barouche (German/pseudo-French term going back to Latin “bi-rotus” (though actually 4-wheeled)).
  • Berlin, Berline (German/French named for the Prussian capital)
  • Landau, Landaulet (German/French named for a German town)
  • Gig (Metaphorical, named for a whipping top, something that whirls)
  • Trap (like a Gig on springs (c.f., rattletrap))
  • Chaise (French, for the chair-shape). British usage is often just “Chair” in the context of a horse-drawn vehicle.
  • Coupé (French, for “cut” — the interior has one seat across, not two facing seats)
  • Phaeton (Greek, metaphorical reference to the son of Helios who drove his father’s sun chariot for a day, lost control, and had to be struck down by Apollo to keep the earth from burning up)
  • Curricle (Latin, metaphorical reference to something that runs)
  • Buggy (Not just used in America, but carries the whiff of America (and hence New World))
  • Hackney (Named (probably) for an English town and applied to both a particular type of carriage horse and the practice of hiring horses or vehicles)

…and there are lots of other terms (and Regency slang) I didn’t include. Notice, in passing, the terminology that continues into the automobile era. In genuine Regency usage (e.g., Jane Austen), the specific term used for a man’s vehicle provides clues about that person’s character, just as we would draw conclusions about someone who drives a Corvette vs a Buick.

Even though I don’t expect my readers to be conversant with all of these distinctions, I still can’t use most of these terms. Why not? They are in obviously foreign languages or named for foreign places. They refer to gods or actual historical people who are not part of my world. I would be comfortable using “gig” , “trap”, and “hackney” unchanged, as well as “dray” (freight wagon) and “cart”. I’m creating an equivalent for the Brougham named for a main character’s nickname. All the rest… ALL OF THEM… need some sort of substitution, or I will be forced to make do with generic terms such as “carriage” or “coach” or “wagon”. (Since I’m not Georgette Heyer, many of whose characters are into competitive carriage driving, I can make do with fewer terms.)

Even “Coach” isn’t safe, being named for an Hungarian town via German, but it’s old enough that it has in my opinion become so naturalized in English that it has lost the flavor of its foreign origin.

To keep this post from going on forever, let me also just touch on problematic metaphors. Let’s say your character in a medieval fantasy tells his friends he wants to “focus on his problems”. Does the use of “focus” in that phrase bother you? It should. To me, it screams two things: Latin, and Lenses. That’s part of the penumbra of the word. Maybe my readers don’t recognize the source language, but they probably associate it with cameras, and lenses that can be focused weren’t available in a medieval context. So the meaning of the metaphor is perfectly clear to the reader, but the term used may (and should) strike him as anachronistic and/or linguistically suspect.

Writers who recognize the massive influence on English technical vocabulary from Latin for terms of civilization/religion and Greek for terms of science/philosophy, not to mention some important bits of Arabic from their rescue and extension of Greek manuscripts, and want to simulate that in a more nativist way can follow the alternative German model of using only non-foreign words (e.g., sauerstoff vs oxygen) for technical or scientific nomenclature. This can be done using Old English, too, and I’ve seen a few fantasy writers try it. It accomplishes the goal of avoiding outside-the-story-world linguistic references, but it is definitely clumsy. Few of us have the polish of a Tolkien using the language of Rohan for its names and history.

There’s also no use in taking easy shortcuts and counting yourself clever. I’ve just stumbled over “toed-and-heeled” in reference to dancing, as if that were any less suggestive of the standard cliché just for being reversed. That author might as well have used the original cliché instead of calling even more attention to it by this modified version.

Have you encountered trance-breaking terms in your reading? What sorts of words strike you as problematic in your own writing?

51 thoughts on “Words that don’t belong

  1. “Cover me.”
    “With what?”

    “That rabbit is dynamite!”

    “It’s a simple matter of weight ratios.”

    Of course, they did it on purpose.

  2. I recall reading a book once that used the phrase “gene saipa” (with apostrophes and umlauts and other marks used to convey foreignness), and explained it as some distant tribes way of saying “I don’t know”. Then the author used the word “voila” and I gave up.

    But I am more likely to be thrown out by things like putting modern sensibilities into a Regency story, or describing an area I am very familiar with, and getting the details wrong (pro tip – don’t talk about the Jacksonville Police Department in your book about North Florida, ’cause we have Sheriffs).

    1. A high Medieval character (1066) who was an atheist, who knew he was an atheist, and that was a big plot point. *THUMP* Book cover closed and book returned to sales table. Nope!

      That ranked down there with the story that had a priest (Catholic) unbaptizing the MC because the demon attacking the MC only bothered Christians, not pagans. That one hit the top of the bed, because it was a library book and I didn’t want to pay for it.

  3. It’s a tricky subject, to be sure…but I feel that I am more likely to be thrown out of a book where a historical (alt, fantasy, or otherwise) character uses words like “okay” than using Earth based terms for carriages. That is to say, I totally get the reasoning behind not wanting to use terms like cab, or hansom, etc–but the flip side of that is when an author makes up a word to cover those, and it’s either not given a good enough explanation, or it’s too jarringly foreign. I think there’s a balance there. After all, you can’t entirely avoid the problem–or you would be writing entirely in a made-up language. 😀 Same with names–if it’s a full on fantasy world (ie, high fantasy or sword and sorcery, for example) then yeah, naming your character Tom might be a bit jarring. (But it depends on what Tom is short for.) But for a fantasy world that clearly has roots in our own history, such as a fantasy Regency style world…I think you would be perfectly fine using more “Austen-esque” names and I, for one, would not be too bothered by it.

    But overall, for me, personally, it’s the use of modern slang in inappropriate settings that irks me the most. While the earliest known record of the phrase “OK” was in the 1840s or something, it was still quite a long time before it became part of the everyday slang of Americans in particular–so having it pop up, say, in a historical novel set in 1810s England will make me wall the book. There are others I’ve encountered, but brain is not awake enough this morning to recall the specific examples. I will give fanfic a *little* more of a pass on that error…but not much.

    1. I keep seeing “hugged” in Regency-set novels, and “in cahoots” in Regency mysteries. I wouldn’t absolutely rule out either of those phrases dating back that far, because I haven’t checked for them, but I just find them really jarring. More jarring are the attitudes: I was reading what I can only describe as a Regency noir, and the raffish former military officer who lived in a bad part of town kept reacting to suffering poor people, forced prostitution, etc, like an upper class 21st century American woman. His terminology was fairly period correct, but his attitudes weren’t hard-boiled enough for a man who’s presumably seen worse in the Peninsular War.

      1. “Hug”, of course, is an old word (1500s), though the etymology is unknown (like “bug” (insect) and “rug” (textile) and “hog” (swine) and “pig” and “dog” and “frog” from the same period. They’re reasonably old, but all obscure in origin, and many theories have been spun to account for this possible coincidence.

        “Cahoots” (1800s) is French (and the Regency is a little early for it). There are disputes about the particular source word….

        I agree entirely about squeamish modern points of view in period contexts — very bad.

    2. YES! I binned a book and never looked at the writer’s work again after a Regency miss, sheltered, never left England, etc. called the male object of her attention ‘maverick’. An anachronism, and even if it weren’t, a term very unlikely to be known by such a person.

    3. I’ve known people thrown out of books by perfectly period-accurate obscenity because it hadn’t changed in a thousand years, and they couldn’t believe in a slang term that hadn’t changed in a millennia.

      1. One of the few exceptions I’ve found to this overall rule is a series like the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries–which the writer (who is a Roman history scholar) consciously chose to use a style of language that more resembles Raymond L Chandler’s hardboiled PI mysteries (because Falco is a kind-of-hardboiled (actually rather soft hearted, heh) AD 70 version of a PI). But she gets the other historical trappings–including general cultural attitudes–correct (at least, correct enough for me, admittedly I am not a Roman scholar) so it just…works. But she also isn’t using modern slang or terminology–it’s just the narrative *style* that comes across as “modern.” And it’s made very clear early on that Falco (the narrator) and Helena (the deuteragonist) are both oddballs in their respective levels of society (and in Roman society in general) and both often face unpleasant fallout and consequences from their oddness. It was a clever way for the author have two main characters with relatively-modern-sympathetic outlooks (and, most importantly, likeable pretty much across the board), without actually making them anachronistic and jarring. And both had actual sensible, plot-related reasons for turning out as odd as they are, largely due to how their families viewed/raised/treated them. (I don’t want to give away spoilers.) It works out really well, in fact, since much of their oddness drives the B-plot personal issues they face throughout the series.

    4. I want to second this. To each his own, and if you (Karen) feel you can carry it, more power to you, but I think you’re running into the equivalent of what Orson Scott Card called “Calling a rabbit a schmerp.”
      Sure, in another world, in the far future, the small, long eared rodent who eats grass is not a rabbit. But when you consistently call it a schmerp and the description is rabbit like, that itself will throw the reader out. So, mention once that the rabbit isn’t a rabbit. It has a long fluffy tail, or the genetics are quite different, but colonists called it a rabbit, and so rabbit it is. Then carry on.
      In fantasy worlds with wholly different languages…. well, you’re writing the fargin thing in English. So assume most things were translated, okay? And if you’re going for a regency feel, use regency language regardless. Otherwise you’re going to be throwing your readers off.
      Yes, there should be SOME made up words there, that are consistent with another language, but preferably they should be for things that either don’t exist or are very different in that world. (Like Diana Wynne Jones calling prettybread to a sort of pizza without tomato sauce. Which amused me, because until cross contaminated by the US culture, pizza in Portugal had no tomato sauce.)
      The point being, a new type of relationship; a certain type of magic deed/power; a dress that is just weird enough but common there. Those should be new words.
      Oh, and the characters’ names while consistent if coming from a completely different culture would not be our names. That does annoy me. Biblical origin names, say, in a world without Christianity (Or Judaism.)
      But that is very specialized.
      Look, by making your world resemble the regency you’re already bending the plausibility. A few cabs and such aren’t going to bother me. They just add to the “regency” feel.
      Now, if obsessing about linguistic not-really-issues is how you psych yourself to write, that’s different. Carry on. (I obsess about historical details no one else would notice for the same purpose, so no stones thrown.)

      1. Oh, this is why my hermaphrodites are “he” — because on first approximation visually they sort of look like males — and because though I could make up a pronoun easy as falling off a log, the book is written in English, not in their language. (They don’t have he or she for humans. Kind of like that exotic world of Finland.) And continuously inserting a weird pronoun just throws people off. (Which is something the neue linguistas should remember, too.)

      2. The general fantasy gimme is that you get to have horses and cattle and beer, etc., without change because they don’t have that penumbra of a specific place and time. So no one is calling rabbits something else.

        But the things that do come with the penumbra (Hebrew-origin names, trade goods unobtainable in that world, vehicles that memorialize particular people or reference old stories, etc.)… those things throw at least some of the readers out of a story.

        Now our individual levels of detent on what bothers us may vary, but at the extremes I imagine we agree. We all recognize some sort of Medieval World as a possible gimme for a fantasy world (though religions & wars at the edges need to have serial numbers removed) and we can recognize other possibilities, too (Barbarian World, Industrial Revolution World) as being generalizable, given enough care about what we call things in that world. It’s less a matter of inventing new words than avoiding the serial numbers of existing terms.

        1. I do worlds with Christianity and have fun with patron saints. Because I not only object to modern, even early modern, saints, I find it hard to put in medieval saints tied in with known historical events.

          And I don’t like them all invented.

      3. Yeah, I agree on the Christian name thing. I thought Tolkien did a really good job of avoiding that, while still giving us the same feel–you’ve got a bunch of seemingly very traditional English names amongst the Hobbits: Sam, Rosie, Ted, Ned, and various others, Sam isn’t short for Samuel but Samwise, the flower names are just that, and I would bed that Ted isn’t short for Theodore and Ned isn’t short for Edward, but rather something else. And then, of course, you get things like Frodo and Bilbo.

        1. That’s because Tolkien could drop into other languages; For example, Samwise is a direct relation to the old English “samwis”, which means “simple” or “half-wit”. Most people’s vocabulary isn’t THAT extensive, including mine. 😎

  4. Obligatory link to Poul Anderson’s reductio ad absurdum on the topic: https://ashenfactory.gitbooks.io/uncleftish-beholding/content/

    There’s also a wikipedia article on Uncleftish Beholding which explains some of the vocabulary.

    I’m not quite as systematic as you are, Karen. My rule of thumb is that if it’s an item name recognizably based on a real world person/place name, I need to not use it (“Inverness cape” becomes “cape-coat,” “homburg hat” becomes I don’t know what yet), ditto if it’s a quoted foreign word/phrase I learned from Dorothy Sayers. 🙂 “Raison d’etre” would be out, but I don’t think I would automatically exclude “landaulet” or “curricle.” On the other hand, I’m actively excluding claret and burgundy as clothing colors, just lumping them together under wine-colored. Meerschaum…I struggled a bit with that for the faux-regency mystery, before deciding that it wasn’t absolutely a given that the male lead smoked a pipe, and if so, he could smoke a cherry wood of his own design.

    Names, I mostly just try to keep them sounding okay with one another. In the Jaiya metaseries (with a faux India setting), the Jaiyan characters had a mix of vaguely Semitic names with Israeli or Egyptian inspirations, plus vaguely Sanskrit-inspired names that might or might not have real world Indian counterparts. In the Star Master books (humans are descended from an ancient Egyptian port city that got mass abducted by space demons), most people have names mutated from ancient Egyptian words, and a few have faux-Greek names. The one guy (in my new release *Spider Star*) who insisted on having a faux-Magyar name gets lampshaded as, “gee he must come from one of those minority groups.”

    My main concern with the current WIPs is dictation friendliness and “atmosphere” friendliness. The steampunk/Gothic Dunedain thing mostly uses continental (German, French, Latinate) names that wouldn’t jump out at a secularist native English speaker as Christian/Jewish/Muslim in origin. The faux-regency mystery thing is insisting on mostly very banal, stereotypically English names, so I’m rolling with that for now.

    1. The thing about the Poul Anderson text is that it really was this way when Greek was pressed into service for technical terms esp. in science during the Age of Invention.

      That is, the people doing the writing were groping for words to use for technical things. If the thing described already had a name in another language (e.g., French), then they used that. If not, if this was a new thing, then they created the needed name as a neologism from Classical (not modern) Greek roots to use instead. The only difference for the Germans is that they created their neologisms from German roots. It’s an arbitrary distinction.

      When we write in a created world, and need words for technical things, we have a similar problem, except three-fold instead of two. Namely, is there already a word? Can I use that word without disturbing the reader of this created world? If not, can I invent a neologism using the local language (its simulation in actual English)?

      1. These days we invent so many things so rapidly that we usually name them by stringing existing words together, because there’s no time for anything else: “lower left ball joint bushing retainer clip”. And people who deal with such things daily will give them nicknames, often by acronyms. And pretty soon, you’re speaking NASA-ese.

        1. Going back a half century or so, Samuel Clemens did an essay on German words, with Kochpotdeckelensendung (spelling approximate–it’s been a long day), meaning “the decoration on a lid of a cooking pot”. (I read the essay in German II, and it was auf Deutsch. Mein Deustch ist sehr schlect. Namely, it’s rotten. So, I navigated Bavaria 30 years later by point and guess.)

          1. Er, my reading of the essay was that long ago. Mark Twain is immortal, not Mister Clemens. 🙂

    2. FYI… as a pipe smoker in a community of same, I caution you to be aware that “cherry wood” for pipes is not as simple as it sounds. Cherry stems are common for porcelain bowl pipes with horn bits (German — think lederhosen), and cherry bowls are sometimes used rustically, like corncobs, but the word you really want is “briar” or (less commonly though accurate) “briar-root”. Happily, briar grows in lots of places.

        1. Cherrywood and applewood are both used for pipes, and arguably have a bit of an aromatic flavor, but both of them do char, and so they are not permanent pipes, any more than corncob pipes are.

          Briar, which chars very slowly, is the classic wood for pipes. The bit is made of something smooth (horn, in that period). When the wood is unspecified, it’s always briar. Briar is sometimes decoratively carved or might have silver or other inlays. Might be carried in a case, or just simply in a soft pocket.

          The other choices for the 1800s are:

          (1) clay (they get hot and they break so they are cheap & disposable — some inns will keep your own clay pipe for you so you don’t have to carry it around.) The long kind (“churchwarden”) isn’t very portable. There are also very short thicker ones, the length of a cigar, which are sturdy enough to jam in a pocket — the sort of thing a laborer might use on a break like a cigarette. The clay is not glazed, and will get grimy and blacken from dirt.

          (2) meerschaum (“sea-foam”), a white mineral that floats and is easily carved. They make good pipes (they don’t char and aren’t as hot to hold, and the pipe juices gradually soak thru the bowl and make a lovely layered amber finish) but they are fragile and usually are carried in a case.

          (3) calabash, a gourd with fittings in an inverted bell shape, with an inserted bowl filler made of meerschaum. Lightweight and fragile. Something of a novelty.

          Feel free to contact me any time with technical pipe smoking questions. (or anything else).

  5. A perfect example of what you are describing hit me while reading this. It threw me out so badly, that I had to force myself to read the rest of it before jumping in and commenting. While you may be (and I am most certainly not) an expert on dead languages, and etymology, I am an expert on the middle ages, and before, especially military science. This brings me to the fact that Coffee is NOT a new world product, and was in fact reserved to the military (who chewed the beans much like modern roasted espresso beans dipped in chocolate… except of course for the fact that chocolate IS new world) of the Persian empire, as well as the later Caliphites.

    1. This is sort of my point… There are lots of potential landmines like these. I don’t want to make up words en masse (within reason — my “bacteria” become “small-lifes”) since a little of that goes a long way. But there are lots and lots of fields one doesn’t think of as technical which have specialized vocabularies, and when you pull a word from one of those from the wrong place or time period, you can’t rely on all of your readers not noticing.

      The real issue is that they blame you, the author, and they’re not wrong. You don’t want them thinking of you as unreliable in that way.

      There’s no one best way to handle the issue. I’m using a mix: (1) invented terms when I need a technical vocabulary (that isn’t modern or allusive), (2) slipping in new variants that correspond with naming conventions (like naming a “Brougham” carriage equivalent for a POV character — that’s like an Easter egg for a domain expert reader), and (3) settling for lack of detail and using an unobjectionable generic term (e.g., “carriage”).

      What I won’t do (except by accident) is use a period/place-specific term in a created-world when I expect that the period/place penumbra comes with it. So, “coach” is OK (almost everyone has forgotten about its origin) but “Berliner” or “Phaeton” is not. Trade goods like “coffee” come with the penumbra of place (and sometimes period) of origin, and that can clash with the created world, too. In that case, a substitute technical term for my created world is better.

      1. I feel your pain. Some of my characters are essentially magical vets, and some of THEM can perceive right down to the DNA level. Which they don’t have a word for, and there’s only so many variants I can do on “teeny spiral thingies I can’t physically see”.

  6. I have to be very, very careful about technology metaphors and slang in some of my books. They are so common in modern speech that I have to stop and check to see “would that have existed in the [number]th century? No? So what would the culture use? Or does the concept just not exist at all?” It’s a little surprising how many of those I have to trim out, re-work, or eliminate completely. Fish, water, and so on.

    1. There’s a range, of course.

      On one hand, fruit trees are all that is required for windfalls or low-hanging fruit.

      On the other, you don’t have strong suits until you have bridge, which you don’t have until you have playing cards, which you don’t have until you have cheap papers.

      1. The online Middle English Dictionary with quotes is very useful.

        Same thing with dil.ie, eDictionary of the Irish Language, with all the Old Irish roots and quotes and such.

        If you poke around enough, you can find those ways to say things. And sometimes you can even use Latin keywords in eDIL.

        1. I once read a historical set in the Middle Ages where the author knew that deserts would not come naturally to the mind of a British woman, so she had her describing them and talking of a man who found water in one at length to describe how a man looked. . . rather than racking her own mind to describe the man’s expression in terms of the era. Like, oh, a storm-tossed mariner who saw land, or a storm caught traveler who saw light in the dark, or a farmer in a drought who saw a raincloud.

        2. I actually pay for an annual subscription to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) online. And very useful I find it…

          If you are a certain age, you will remember when the OED 2-Volume tiny-print-with-magnifying-glass was offered as a come-on for the Book of the Month Club. (I had friends who took out multiple subscriptions so they could resell them). Of course, the OED’s moved on since then (decades ago) and my eyes can’t deal with the tiny print edition, so the online version is great.

          1. I still have the print two volume edition. It’s dangerous. I start looking for what I’m supposed to look for, and thirty minutes later . . . It’s TV Tropes for logophiles!

  7. Mulan (animated) was a very uneven film. One I remember was crowds being addressed as “Citizens!”

    Nope, not a republic of any kind, an empire. But “Subjects!” doesn’t have the same ring, especially from another mouth than the emperor’s. Never did figure out an equally ringing word. Perhaps it should have been narrower. “Villagers!” since it was a village.

  8. Also, avoid terms that smack of science and pseudoscience while discussing magic. In particular parapsychology.

    Teleportation spells should have another name. (WIP uses “leaping.”) And I’m still working on it, but I don’t like “force” for invisible attacks of pure, well, force. Because that’s physics.

  9. Tidbit re. “toed-and-heeled”: the original is not just a standard cliché; it was actually a specific dance sequence, a variant form of polka, called the Bohemian or heel-and-toe polka. It wasn’t one of the choreographies by that name you can see on YouTube, but a simple couple dance with four alternating measures of hopping and placing your foot (heel down then toe down) and polka. I am sensitized to this because I’m a dance historian; to me it would jar unless the author had a world with a couple dance history that included a history of polka from the 1840s onward.

    You can see a description of the heel-and-toe/Bohemian here:

    1. Oh, I know. I’m a trad fiddler for Scandinavian dances (https://bluerose.karenlmyers.org).

      One of my blog’s “Irritated Reviews” hammered a really bad Highland Romance novel for (among many other things) having dancers in the 1500s doing couple dances and counting to 3 (knowing nothing about the history of the waltz).

  10. I have to laugh… you know how I sneered above at the German “Sauerstoff” for “Oxygen”? Well, I just found out what Joseph Priestley (the discoverer of the element) named it first.

    Wait for it…

    “Dephlogisticated air”.

    It was Lavoisier who christened it “Oxygène”, which name eventually stuck, despite opposition from the English re: priority of discovery. The fact that “phlogiston” became outmoded as a concept didn’t help the defense.

  11. David Drake once had problems with a publisher when he described Roman Shields as being made of plywood.

    Of course, the Roman Shields were made of laminated wood which is the actual meaning of plywood. 😆

    1. He also took some flak for having Roman soldiers cussing like modern GI’s, with f-bombs and scatology. He then pointed out that actual period Latin cusswords would mean nothing, and since many of them draw on different things, translating them wouldn’t have any emotional punch either (“son of a smelly sheepskin” being one). Sex and scatology being common bases of malediction in many cultures, he argued that the modern ones would carry the emotional weight of an angry soldier’s outburst better than either way of representing what a Roman soldier probably would be saying. (And the f-bomb traces its ancestry into early Germanic, coming from a verb for “to strike”).

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