Mesmerize, magnolia, masochism, and other anachronisms

A while back I was kindly tagged in a tumblr post where somebody was saying that they found my babbling about conlanging interesting. (Thanks, person! I’m really sorry I’m about to make an example of one of your opinions.) In that same post, on a different conversation topic, they mentioned that they found it really annoying when people in historical fantasy said “Okay” because it was anachronistic.

This is a hard pill to swallow for me, I said as I defensively covered all the times in my first draft that “Okay” appears because I didn’t think about it much and wrote the first thing that came into my head. To start off, language is not constructed such that you can easily tell what words are actually anachronistic. Some people are devoted enough to get serious about anachronism in their prose–Mary Robinette Kowal said on Writing Excuses one time back in the day that she has a database of Regency-era words and in her later drafts she coldly eliminates all anachronistic language based on earliest etymological attestations like some kind of “okay” executioner. But many people who will complain about “okay” are probably not that serious! They may well have used words such as “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” and “masochism,” which are not only first attested well after 1700, but are based on the names of specific human beings; your conworld may have foxes as we’ve all accepted that we have to take some shortcuts, but I doubt it had the author of Venus in Furs.

And more importantly to this post, Kowal is writing about English. Kowal has a specific year in which the novel takes place. I am not writing about English! I am writing about Sobonese. “Okay” is exactly as anachronistic to Sobonese as “satire”, “palm tree,” and “the.” None of these words exist in the novel! English doesn’t exist! There is no “corresponding year” to compare etymologies against to even begin to lead words to the guillotine. I guess we can try to compare technology levels, but that gets so hopelessly granular and painful so quickly. Carts never really came to West Africa, even though they had some animals that could pull carts, and the wheel, and trading empires, but there’s carts in my novel right now because otherwise everything would be too bloody inconvenient. (Upcoming: An agonized post about whether my book should have carts?) So do I cut from the fourteenth or fifteenth century?

I don’t want to take away “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” or “masochism,” or indeed “okay.” That’s my point! Words are the keys to very, very specific locks. I am willing to put a flag in the ground that says there is nothing in the English language you could write to replace, in one word, the sweet-scented, milk-petaled, silky-smooth luxury and decadence of “magnolia.” “Magnolia” is a beautiful word and you should be allowed to use it. Words are technologies; they didn’t have camera dollies in ancient Scandanavia but nobody’s suggested Vikings should be told entirely through roving storytellers in stripey pants.

I mean, the actual reason is that for some people “okay” just ruins the atmosphere, and I take atmosphere very seriously; if you can pick every word, you may as well pick words that motion at things you want the viewer to look at. Which is why even though there’s no Polynesia to bring yams from, Akoro (the West African – inspired plane in Geometry of Ashes) has yams. I could make up a convegetable for them to have instead, but that throws away the valuable sentence real estate that could have pointed to West Africa to point instead to I’m really into ecology and have made up a whole vegetable ecosystem. That could also be cool, but it’s not this book. I think this is worth thinking about, because you get to pick whether you value what each “okay” is doing more than its alternative; whether you need to unlock okay and all right just won’t do. Because the meaning of “okay” is all bundled up with every social distinction ever layered on top of “okay.” It’s young and casual and carefree. There’s certainly people in your conworld who, if they were raised in Ontario, would say “okay” rather than “all right.” So why should they say “all right”, since they aren’t saying anything in English in the first place and you only have so much page space to make people understand who they are?

And in general I feel like there are books that you might want to allow to overbalance toward easiness and sacrifice atmosphere. I’ve thought I’d do this with a book about a hunter-gatherer society because people are so reluctant to think, what if I lived in a family band and travelled across a desert my whole life? My hunter-gatherers would shamelessly say “cool” and “okay”. Because you say “cool” and “okay” and we need a little extra wedge to get open a shell we aren’t familiar with and squeeze inside.

And, anyways, that’s like the fifth metaphor I’ve mixed in this post, so my credibility on prose writing is, I recognize, not excellent.