nancylebov (nancylebov) wrote,

Judging vocabulary for fiction

Recently, this thread from ellen_kushner had a good long discussion of spinning, with a little about rodents [1] here and there.

The major question was how to indicate in a couple of words that Tiresias was utterly familiar with spinning, and some of the words suggested were what I'd call obscure. I don't think "plying the roving onto the whorl" would have conveyed a lot to me, even in context.

So, I'm wondering about different vocabulary [2] strategies. There's Octavia Butler, who stayed in the ordinary literate range, I think. (I'm doing all this from memory.) There's Scott Lynch, who gave enough explanations in the learning to be a pirate parts of Red Sails Under Red Skies that I didn't get lost. And Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, and E. R. Eddison, who gave enough context to make obscure words manageable, and used them to add a lot of flavor. Then there's Stephen Donaldson, who used weird words in the Thomas Covenant books and gave no help from context. I'm not going to say it worked well, but I'm not going to swear that it didn't work at all.

So, if you're writing, what sorts of decisions do you make about vocabulary? When you're reading, do you have preferences about how words are introduced? When you see an unfamiliar word, do you check on its meaning, or do you do your best from context and etymology and go on from there?

[1] When someone brought up chipmunks as a possibility in ancient Greece, I wondered if they existed in the eastern hemisphere. As it turns out, there are Asian chipmunks, but none in Greece.

I think the reason I was suspicious about the possibility of Greek chipmunks is that I haven't seen much mention of them in fiction, and I've read enough European stuff (ok, mostly British) that if they lived there, I'd probably have seen a mention.

Also, there's something about "chipmunk" that just doesn't sound European. Bingo. It's from Algonquian. They realized that chipmunks are related to squirrels, which didn't occur to me. Aha-- I'm familiar with relatively short-tailed chipmunks, but they aren't typical.

There's just one Asian species of chipmunk, but a slew of them on this side of the Atlantic. I bet they evolved here and migrated there over the land bridge.

[2] For calibration, I could get freerice up to 50, but I couldn't get it to stay there.
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