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What’s in a Word? Finding Meaning in Context

6 min read

When I first published The Red Khémèresh, I was surprised that there were people close to me who desperately needed a glossary for words I had—I thought—given adequate meaning in context. Maybe because I am an avid Dorothy L. Sayers fan, and Sayers did not hesitate to use either Greek or Latin in her works, it never occurred to me that people didn’t accept or intuit the meaning of words without having to look them up. Rather more seriously, these things threw some readers out of my novella, even with a glossary.

A pile of paperbacks written by Dorothy L. Sayer

I’ll admit something like an unknown word rarely throws me out of a story, even if I take a delightful jaunt away from the book to look something up. I suspect that many readers of speculative fiction are just as able to glean meaning even if the language is foreign, made up, or just new (not that we don’t love glossaries at the back of a book to check to see if we’re right, or merely curious).

For Sayers’ Gaudy Night, I’ll admit I did have someone translate the Greek and Latin for me. Some words I just fell in love with, but rarely get to use, such as Harriet telling Peter in Busman’s Honeymoon, “You are a master of meiosis.” I did have to look it up and was delighted. Meiosis means “expressive understatement.”

Context can fail us.

I grew up learning Afrikaans by hearing it and reading only a few childhood stories. It would come to no surprise if I said that there was a time or two where I did not get the meaning right. Like the word ingewande, for example. In one of my father’s old Bibles, in Psalm 40, it reads: “…en u wet is binne-in my ingewande.” Rough translation, “Your law is within my…” and here’s where I got it wrong. I’m not sure where I got the idea of what I understood, but instead of “your law is in my intestines/gut”, I got “your words are woven through me.” No matter how wild a ride my religious studies have gone, and the various directions it went, that erroneous translation stayed with me. Wrong translation, but inspiring.

It wasn’t till recently that I realized that “bracken”—from Duncton Wood—is actually not broken down leaf litter, but a fern. I don’t mind making mistakes. It’s better than not learning or reading in context.

My return to my glorious compact Oxford English Dictionary wasn’t because I couldn’t guess as to what peripatetic meant (I wrote about this on Twitter), but because I was curious as to the definition of the word. To my delight, it had to do with how Aristotle taught while walking in the place of walking, περίπατος. (Compact OED: Volume II P-Z p. 2135). For me it was fun to look that up.

A photo of the definition of subfusc from the OED

I was inspired. A word I long wondered about but never was sure I got right was “subfusc”. So I pulled out the OED again and found the definition. It is in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, and I heard it a time or two on the show Endeavor. I had tried to look it up, but for a long while I completely forgot that I actually had a compact OED! Of course in context of that favorite book, the definition was obvious. I am still delighted to read, “Of dusky, dull, or somber hue.” (p. 3120). I did know that while reading the word in context, but it was still fun to confirm it. Reading more in the entry of just “subfusc” is entertaining, as you can see—at least it is to me! Maybe to you as well.

But to get back to the idea of reading in context and how people read, the person who read my novella and was thrown out of the book had had pretty much the same education I did. She is a friend close to my age and of the same demographic and background, so presumably our education and reading are bound to have similarities, while not perfect mirror images. She reads books I can’t even begin to get into, and admittedly most speculative fiction is not up her alley—except for Dune, which she loves. It makes my work to aid readers to understand conlang (constructed language) in context something of a trial. I mean, the first page of Dune has, “And if he’s really the Kwisatz Haderach…” Why did the word I use get her all in a bother?

“Peripatetic”, and “subfusc” aren’t going to be deal breakers for readers, I’m fairly certain. Maybe they would trigger a pause or two. Clearly “Kwisatz Haderach” wasn’t a deal breaker; Dune is a rather popular book, with avid fans. I did hear enough from other readers that finding meaning in context is a bit of a lost art, and it does sometimes pull them away from the story. Some of them were not fantasy readers, to be fair (though I’m trying really hard not to think of fantasy readers and speculative fiction readers as a breed apart). It makes me wonder if the delight in looking words up is also a lost art. If I think of Diana and Mary Rivers in Jane Eyre using an English and German Bible to compare so they could learn German, I do wonder what else we may have lost.

I do have a belief in the intelligence of my ideal readers. They are familiar with jaunting off to unknown lands, languages, and cultures. They take nouns and verbs unfamiliar to them on faith, even if they sometimes check the glossary. It’s why we create languages, and some of us learn Klingon, or Tolkien Elvish. Because we can! These strange terms add something to the story, tell us about the characters, the cultures and more.

Here’s the first paragraphs of The Red Khémèresh. Let me know if you think I did not do a good job of giving meaning in context for some of my Gebereshian terms.

The shreds of the book lay in Phayaden’s arms. Each page she had found had been torn by the wind, trampled by a herd of horses into the rocky frozen ground. They seemed like wounded soldiers on the battlefield, or the bodies of the dead. She’d almost walked past them; it was such a useless book. But she knew words had power. Passing one forlorn page, she’d turned back, Bogeh enough—shaman enough—still, to sense the rising echoes of its words.

With her horse following, often breathing warm air on her shoulder or lipping her braids, Phayaden picked up each page she could find. She did not know how the book had come to be lost and torn in the Tashihyel, land of felt tents and horse riders. Perhaps it did not matter how this book of rare rice paper had become strewn across the landscape, of words that only a few in her land could read.

She already owned a precious copy of The Khémèresh by Teyeb and Ushar that discussed things unknown in the ihyel, of the vhagas and other mysteries written for Bogeh like her, or those they called shaman to the north. She feared that many Bogeh did not realize that the ihyel was not just the land, and meant more than their country, the Tashihyel, but encompassed the entire mysterious reaches beyond the borders of their land. It went far beyond even the countries beyond the steppes of the Tashihyel, even as it was also just the earth beneath her feet. Vhagas was a sound that meant more than that which echoed unseen on the other side of the trees, or was found through the smoke hole of any felt gher.

Mab Morris, The Red Khémèresh


Bogeh: [Bow-geh] A Bogeh is a shaman. They interpret the spirit world to those who live in the ihyel. They are highly regarded, and can overrule chiefs.

Ihyel: [Ee-yel] The land, ostensibly the material world. It is our world, primarily limited to the material.

Vhagas: [Vaa-gahs] The spiritual side of the material world. It can be described as the world behind the trees where the spirit of the trees might talk with angels or other demi-god like creatures. It is the part of the whole world that is generally unseen.

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