Writing Question

Are you bothered by out-of-context language in fantasy

  • Nope.

    Votes: 2 16.7%
  • I never noticed it before.

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Depends on how good the rest of the story is.

    Votes: 5 41.7%
  • Hell yes!

    Votes: 5 41.7%

  • Total voters


Ran bridges next to Kaladin
So, I've been reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. I'm sure everyone here is familiar with it. And I came across this line of dialogue: "What on earth do you mean?" I'm not sure how to handle such lines -- either in my own writing or in someone else's work. As far as I understood it, we are not on Earth. On the other hand, he doesn't capitalize "earth," so it's not a proper noun...in which case, he means the equivalent of "What on soil do you mean?" On another forum, I read some criticism of an author's use of "Adam's Apple," because the "Adam & Eve" mythos didn't exist in that world.

How do you feel about such things? Does it take you out of the story, however briefly, or do you assume that these words are just substitutes for similar terms in these fantasy worlds? In other words, is Lynch just using "earth" in place of whatever the people of Camorr would call it?

I'd love to hear the group consensus, if there is one. This kinda shit keeps me up at night!


Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
I am extremely bothered by it to the point of obsession. Part of me has accepted that it is more or less impossible to avoid entirely - the more I study etymology, the more I encounter innocuous words with very specific origins rooted in our culture (lazy example: Vanessa was a nickname made by Jonathan Swift, so if that name appears in a fantasy world, I immediately think about Swift). It was my goal to avoid all such words in my own writing, but I have settled for avoiding all the obvious ones, and any obscure ones that I happen to catch. It's limited how many linguists will be reading my work anyway.

To cease talking about myself for a brief moment (alas, brief is as long as I can last), I do think any good fantasy writer should avoid the very obvious ones such as "Adam's apple" in your example. It might not bother some readers, but it will annoy others, so why risk the immersion? Either avoid it or show your skills by creating a new term that fits your world. I'm not good enough to make up my own terms, I admit, so I usually just dig into history (the brief moment's over, if anybody didn't catch that) to find older counterparts to what I need; e.g. I felt that "school" was too modern and too Greek to fit my Germanic culture, so I dug out the Anglo-Saxon "lore house" instead and use that when needed.


Super Moderator
Staff member
As a reader I can honestly say that those kind of things don't bother me in the slightest.

Made up (repeatedly used) swear words annoy me. Out of context words, nope!


Journeyed there and back again
Honestly, it just depends if I notice it. Adam's apple and earth don't bother me nearly as much as, say, Sanderson's use of the words surgical and concrete in WoT.

Sneaky Burrito

Crazy Cat Lady
Staff member
I notice this stuff all the time. Like one of Sanderson's books that had "wow!" in the dialogue. Or one of the JV Jones Sword of Shadows books where a sound was described like "shots being fired" and she didn't mean arrows (and there were no guns in that world).

If I am noticing it, it breaks immersion which, to me, is a bad thing.

I could put up with it in Prince of Thorns because of the nature of the world Mark Lawrence created. But somewhere that Western civilization never existed?

That being said, I'm sure there are references I don't notice. Biblical stuff, for example. A lot of that has made it into our everyday language and I might not even realize the origin, since I have 0 religious training. I notice classical references more (Platonic friends, "bread and circuses," stuff like that).

Diziet Sma

Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
It bothers me very much but it equally annoys me silly, unpronounceable made up concepts. I guess it must be terribly difficult to get the balance right.

Davis Ashura

Told lies with Locke
It bothers me when those oddities occur, and I try to avoid them in my own writing as best I can. I'm sure there were slip-ups and some readers didn't like the medical jargon I used in some scenes in my series. However that inclusion was purposeful because a) I wanted to demonstrate that the people of my world had a civilized culture that prized knowledge, and b) that's my real life profession so I had to put some of that knowledge to use.

There were a few instances that made writing in my world a challenge that I specifically remember. First, metal isn't readily available to the people of there, so I had to cut out any descriptions that referenced metal eg) no one steeled their resolve. I also described a live oak with Spanish moss but I had to do away with the Spanish moss part and just describe it as a gray moss.

Darth Tater

Journeyed there and back again
I agree with Sneaky, Diziet,and Davis. It bugs the Shizzle out of me and as SB said "it breaks immersion".I see it as sloppiness. That being said, I usually forget about it soon afterward. Unpronouncable names of characters, cities, objects, etc. frustrate me to no end. Even if the author puts a key at the end of the book. I just make up silly namesin my head but again it disrupts the immersion. Water is water, a boy is a boy. So why must a river be named Djabrzyglbtz? Or a child be burdened with the name Ahleinxijr?


Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
As a reader I rarely pay attention to such small things. Authors are humans too, they cannot realistically write a perfect 250k words text. For me it's more about the over-all quality of the book, its story, tone, pace and such.

As an author I don't think about such matters. There are like a thousand things you need to get just right, and most of them could be improved by some attention to detail, but I cannot really spot the mistakes I am making unconsciously, can I? So I just go with it. My current level of writing professionalism, experience and skills won't improve by hunting for 3 odd words in a 200k text, they'd improve by writing another 200k words, so that's what I do instead. Striving for perfection could be as much a trap, as laziness, procrastination or fear of inadequacy - ask Patrick Rothfuss. It had killed far more books than any other thing. You can only catch so many mistakes, your editor and proofreaders can catch only so many mistakes - I accept that fact about my works and also for the works of the authors I read. Still, every author has his own process and rules. So there's that.

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
Honestly, it just depends if I notice it. Adam's apple and earth don't bother me nearly as much as, say, Sanderson's use of the words surgical and concrete in WoT.
Cement always bothered me and I tried to avoid it in my own writing until I finally looked up the etymology and discovered it's from the 14th century. Same with concrete apparently. Depending on how it's used though.

Wow as an expression of amazement also goes back to 15c Scottish, which sure surprised the hell out of me. It did not wow me though, because that usage goes back to 1910.

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
I included the above information not to be pedantic (which I am often accused of being), but because I find it fascinating to discover how old a lot of modern-sounding phrases are. For instance, tonight I wanted to write that a character felt like a hack, meaning a pale imitation, but thought that sounded too modern. So I looked it up and its meaning in that sense goes back to "hackney" (as in a broken down horse for the carriage) in 1570.

So yeah, words and phrases that throw us off oftentimes are on us rather than the author.

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
I'm just going to keep adding words/ phrases I find as I write tonight. I should probably point out that my novel works in a sort of 18-1900s world, which is why I can get away with more apparent anachronisms than most fantasy writers.

"To a T" has been observed since 1766 and perhaps as far back at 1607.
Terrorist not until 1944, though "terroristic" (which spellcheck does not like) goes back to 1844
First aid: 1877
Stress, as in distress, 1300s. In the psychological sense: 1955.
Surgery (not quite @Darwin's "surgical," but close) - 1300s
Coma 14c, while comatose is 1755. I have to say, this one surprised me.
Gamer, as in athlete (random, I know), goes back to mid 15c, though meaning someone who plays video games: 1981. But someone who plays D&D: 1975.
Array, as in order or position of things/ troops: 14c. As in a tool (Star Trek's sensory array anyone?) still unknown. Damn.
Grit is protoGermanic, but meaning pluck goes back to 1808.


Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
Seeing the word surgery reminds me that opposite pitfall exists too. I've seen in fantasy books the word "chirurgeon" in lieu of surgeon, ostensibly in the belief that it is the older spelling (or maybe just because it looks more fitting for that time period). Surgeon is the original spelling in English though, and chirurgeon was an attempt by linguists to make the word spelled more like its Greek origin (so it is a deliberate attempt of making the spelling seem older and more original - like an authentic forgery?).

It's the same line of thinking that forces us to spell "island" with an s. While I can forgive the attempt above because at least it was the correct etymology (and it also failed, so there's no consequence), it's really annoying that a completely unrelated and unpronounced "s" got thrown into "island" due to Latin snobbery. The only thing it does is cause confusion.

Maark Abbott

Journeyed there and back again
It depends, really. One thing I noted with Forge of Darkness and Fall of Light was that the word 'inhuman' is used a lot. Surely it should be intiste, given that the tiste aren't human? Mayhaps the words are used to make it easier for the reader to grasp that which the author conveys.

Myself, I try to personalise phrases like that to my characters a bit. So instead of 'what on earth?', one might exclaim 'what the dick?' instead. He's an alcoholic, it's easier not to query it.

Ryan W. Mueller

Journeyed there and back again
One of the problematic ones is "firing" an arrow. I can't decide in one of my books whether I should keep it or not. This is a world that's set in our far-future on a different world, so I feel that some modern phrases would stay around.

Overall, I'd prefer modern language to language that's trying to sound like it fits the era and comes across stilted.

One of the things that irritates me is when the language being spoken is obviously not English, and yet characters are making English plays on words. It doesn't make me hate the book or anything, but it is mildly irritating.


Journeyed there and back again
Honestly, it just depends if I notice it. Adam's apple and earth don't bother me nearly as much as, say, Sanderson's use of the words surgical and concrete in WoT.
100% this down to the examples I was going to use.

I don't think it will ever bother me as much as what Sanderson did in WoT because it was such a huge series written in a very specific style and time period so to speak and Sanderson completely butchered it with some of his word choices. He didn't butcher the series mind you, but definitely jarred me as a reader at times.

All that said, most of the time I probably don't even notice it or think about it. I am very much more concerned with an interesting plot and characters I am interested in.

And while I know we are talking about books and writing, one thing that has started to bother me lately is movies where they are in a country with a predominant language and they all speak English. The most recent example would be Wonder Woman. They spend some time in Germany during the WW1 era where they are discussing secrets and military things and they are all speaking English. I find it hard to believe they wouldn't be communicating in their native language.


Journeyed there and back again
Since the problem is that these anachronisms pull readers out of the story, the actual date of origin of a word seems a lot less important than the perceived origin. To some degree, authors should be able to determine for themselves which words "feel" more modern than they actually are.