Xkcd Gets it Right Again: The Fiction Rule of Thumb

I post this partly to ward off having it sent to me a thousand times, but also to acknowledge its general truth. That said, Anathem wrecks this curve pretty handily. But note well, newbie authors: You are not Neal Stephenson. Hell, sometimes Neal Stephenson is barely Neal Stephenson, if you know what I mean.

81 Comments on “Xkcd Gets it Right Again: The Fiction Rule of Thumb”

  1. Its quite sad I have to set a ‘reading budget’ for a book that I’m only getting 3 weeks with from the library. Haven’t had to do that in a long time.

  2. Oh yeah, and I might not even get to Zoe’s Tale before it has to go back either, damn you Stephenson!

  3. That’s comforting. I always thought it was too damn much trouble to think up a new word for “soldier” or “teacher” or “magic”, let alone a whole flock of new words to populate a world. Look! This world is very different from yours, dear reader! Here, they spell magic with a j and two k’s!

  4. If the made up words are consistent and their meaning is able to be divined from context, I don’t have a problem with them.

    Haven’t read Anathem and probably won’t–didn’t get a review copy for some reason and I really don’t like Stephensen for some reason.

  5. Mensely:

    Fantasy. Although to be fair to fantasy, SF gives it a run for the money from time to time.

  6. Most annoying passage in Anathem, from the introductory “Note to the Reader”: “Names of some … plant and animal species have been translated … to rough equivalents … to obviate digressions in which, e.g., the phenotype of the … equivalent-of-a-carrot must be explained in detail.” If he can do this with “carrot”, why not “camcorder”?

    FWIW, I thought it was a fun romp, but didn’t get a whole lot more out of it than that, in part because the central SFnal tricks have been done before, albeit with less philosophical window dressing…

  7. The British mystery writer Reginald Hill always includes the occasional out-of-the way but real words in his books.

    One instance that stuck in my mind: A brother and sister were attending their grandmother’s funeral; their third sibling wasn’t there because ‘It would require haruspication to find his affection for his grandmother’. When I looked the word up, it means divining the future through the reading of entrails. A delayed joke, but a good one.

  8. How does Gene Wolfe fall into this, since he uses real words that nobody knows and readers think he made up?

  9. I recently took a book back to the library, half-read (which I NEVER do. I will usually finish any book I start, even if I hate it, because I’m Like That) because I was so tired of made up words, and names that were fourteen syllables long and had lots of accent marks. I don’t need Fancy Sounding Things to understand that a culture is Very Different From Mine.

    And I had previously liked a couple of books by this author, so I was doubly disappointed.

  10. Almost an exception to this rule, the works of Jack Vance. Much of his work is excellent in spite of his share of made up words, in addition he uses MANY obscure (English) words.

  11. Charlie Dodgson:
    Totally with you on this one.
    Stephenson gets away with it because he’s that good, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting to do a search and replace on all his vocabulary shenanigans.

  12. Steven@11: How does Gene Wolfe fall into this, since he uses real words that nobody knows and readers think he made up?

    Gene Wolfe is probably in that category of writers who are so in love with language that you read them with a dictionary at your side. Decoding the language is part of the fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.

    As a rule of thumb, if the word is used without any kind of contextual definition, then it’s probably a “real” word. One of my favorite bits in his New Sun series is an afterward where there are notes going on about the difficulty of translating languages that don’t exist. Very funny in a Borges/Calvino kind of way.

    I credit my re-reading of Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series just before taking the GRE with my getting ten points higher on the language section than my wife who’s a literature graduate student. I had been keeping a list of words I had to look up while reading them, and one of them was on the test.

    John@8: I agree, most of the books in desperate need of an editor with balls that I’ve read have been fantasy.

    I haven’t gotten to Anathem yet, and while I enjoyed his Baroque cycle, I believe it could have been improved with a stronger edit.

  13. I’m about halfway through Anathem right now. One thing I noticed is that I stopped noticing all the “new” words after about 200 pages. I will admit the first 150 or so it was difficult for me to remain engaged, but suddenly I’m breezing along without any difficulty.

    I think there are two keys here as to why Stephenson is able to get away with it. Context and consistency. Not only does he make it easier to figure out a word by how it’s being used, but he uses the word the same way never forgetting about it and substituting it throughout.

  14. The only thing I disagree with is the fact that the slope of the curve is too gentle . . . it should look like the edge of the Mariana Trench . . . . yeah, I’m lookin’ at YOU Anthony Burgess . . .

  15. mensley@15:

    I always felt that one of the differences between Wolfe and Donaldson was that I could glean the meaning from Wolfe’s context. Wolfe also appears to know the meaning of the words. With Donaldson, I always felt he was writing with a thesaurus nearby and grabbing a word at random without necessarily knowing its full meaning.


  16. It’s worth noting that the alt-text for the cartoon reads:

    Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I’m looking at you, Anathem.

    So, Mr Munroe seemingly isn’t as convinced as you that Anathem breaks the curve…

  17. I still haven’t finished Anathem, but I’ve had the same result as #16 Phil; I now barely notice the odd words.

    However, it is annoying that so many of them are “call a rabbit a smeerf” words, like “speelycaptor” for “camcorder.” To paraphrase Damon Knight (I think), “the alien word for ‘bullshit’ is ‘bullshit.'”

    What is still annoying are the made-up philosophers and scientists who are exactly the real philosophers and scientists of our past, usually right down to the country and city they lived in, and the doctrines/theories they are associated with.

  18. Largely accurate, but as noted above, there are several very notable outliers. Best example off the top of my head that hasn’t been mentioned is Barnes’ One for the Morning Glory. Okay, so most of them aren’t really made up, but are instead malaprops. But…well…just see for yourself.

    “Drawing a pismire from his swash, he stepped over the corpse,
    leaned far out the window, and peered upward. A lone pigeon was still
    circling its way upward, as they will when they look for altitude and
    have a long way to go. It was barely more than a speck, and no one
    knew the limitations of a pismire better than Slitgizzard, but
    nonetheless he tested the lovelock, cocked the chutney, rested one
    wrist upon the other, held his breath, and squeezed the trigger very
    gently. The pismire spat fire. … The pigeon hit the parataxis and
    bounced onto the tiled roof of the clerihew, where it lay still.”

  19. Probability Neal Stephenson Book Is Good / Number Of Words Made Up By Neal Stephenson.

    The more real-world his books are, the more I like them. Although I’m generally big on SF/F, Stephenson always manages to lose me when he pushes too far into the Fantastical Future.

    Diamond Age, ugh.

  20. Steven @ 19: You’re probably right about the difference between Wolfe and Donaldson with regard to language. I’ve read a couple of interviews with Donaldson where he talks about how much he loves discovering cool new words, so I can completely see him trying to figure out how to use new words in his writing so he can share them with us. With Wolfe, on the other hand, I can believe that he’d use them effortlessly in conversation without even thinking twice about it.

    DaveL @ 22: I’ve only read the couple of chapters of Anathm posted online so far, but with the philosophers issue do you think he’s being too cute for the room or trying to show historical distortion over a long time span?

  21. I can’t recall how many words were made up, but I give a pass to Richard Adams “Watership Down.”

    Them rabbits speak all funny like.

  22. DaveL #22: I haven’t read Anathem so I don’t know how it’s done there, but generally it makes sense to change the names of real-world people in fiction. It gives the author freedom to deviate from the real person’s biography without being Wrong, and avoids annoying someone who doesn’t like how he’s portrayed.

  23. Much as I love Stephen Brust’s Vlad novels, his number of Dragaeran words can annoy sometimes. Is a “Dzur” a panther? Fine, it’s their word for it… but why isn’t there a Dragaeran word for Dragon and Phoenix? And what’s a kethna? When I first saw the phrase “salted kethna” I thought it was fish, but no it’s a land creature, but it’s not pork, since there is pork too. But the rest of the English language use is wonderful.

    The other book I had problems with the language recently was Peter Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star”/”Judas Unchained”. Terms like “enzyme-bonded concrete” and “malmetal” and “plyplastic”. The first time you use those, fine. The next time I see “concrete” I’m going to assume it’s enzyme-bonded unless you say, “they didn’t even have the technology to enzyme-bond their concrete.” You don’t need to say it over and over and over. That 2000-page novel could have probably lost a dozen pages just on reducing terms like that.

  24. Does “neepery” fall into the made-up word or the “obscure word that Cassie’s not bothering to look up”?

  25. @ #18 texaspatrick:

    Burgess made up astonishingly few words in A Clockwork Orange. Almost all of them were either derived from contemporary cockney slang or Russian, and he had good reasons for incorporating both.

    General observation on the chart:
    I think it’s accurate. It’s a measure of probability, after all. There are books that turn up in that one-in-a-million kind of way and are good despite the crazy linguistic shenanigans the author is pulling. Mind you, it’s still a one-in-a-million chance, and this isn’t Discworld™.

  26. Just a statistical point:

    Lewis Carroll, Tolkein, Shakespeare, and Stephenson don’t wreck the curve at all. No way, no how. Note that it doesn’t drop down to zero.

    It’s like people who complain when it rains if the meteorologists declared there was a 10% chance of precipitation. If there is a 10% chance, it WILL rain, 10% of the time.

    The curve provides room for the exceptions. So the exceptions don’t wreck the curve. The question all newbie authors must ask: “How good do you think you are? Are you so self-confident you can beat the odds that you are willing to risk it?”

  27. I know what you mean. Sometimes his brilliance overwhelms his brilliance. But mostly, he’s just brilliant.

  28. I didn’t think there were very many words in Anathem that couldn’t be glarked from context. Fraa and Suur were plainly related to “fraternity” and “sorority”, for example. “Praxis” is hardly unknown to English speakers as the root of “practical”. “Concent” feels like “convent” but is closer related to “concentration”.

    I thing I had most trouble with was “Diaz’s Rake”, which I though was like Occam’s Razor. Turns out “The Steelyard” is the Arbre equivalent of Occam’s Razor, and Diaz’s Rake is something else.

  29. The history meddling in Anathem reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay, actually. And since I’ve read a lot of Kay it didn’t bug me.

  30. Grok.

    The single best use of a made-up word in any story ever.

    Didn’t make much sense throughout Stranger, until the word was explained. Then suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, the entire preceding text took on a whole new shape and feel for me.

    The single best use of a made-up word in any story ever.


  31. After some reflection, I confess I’m in the “meh” camp on Anathem. Enjoyable to read, and I finished it quickly, but it somehow left me a little underwhelmed. I think that’s partly points others have raised, and partly that I was never sold on his core sci-fi notion. Which I won’t spoil for anybody here, but he discussed it at length during the book launch: http://www.longnow.org/anathem/

  32. Reading the comic again, I didn’t realize that SF was included too. How about Feersum Endjinn or Riddley Walker for entries furthest to the right of the graph that beat the odds?

  33. That bit about Neal Stephenson sometimes barely being Neal Stephenson is accurate. Much as I heart the first chapter of Snowcrash,and most of the subsequent chapters, I’m not sure if he can end a book. (Can he? I stopped checking after two books did this to me.)

    I’m working on a fantasy novel, so as soon as I saw this I immediately did a guilt-stricken scan of the manuscript. Fortunately, I think all the made-up words tend to be proper names of countries, people, castes, and titles. No weird words for regular nouns. No smeerfs instead of rabbits.

  34. Wouldn’t Shakespeare be the antithesis to this arguement? He is widely regarded to be one of the greatest writers in human history, and he made up more words than any SF/F author anyday.

  35. Pixelfish, Cryptonomicon has a decent ending, imo. Anyway, I love Stephenson for the digressions.

    I was going to wait for the MMPB but now I’m considering ordering the British edition of Anathem, even if it costs 17€. Bah.

  36. @ 28, 26, 22 — In defense of Stephenson: There’s a good reason for having the names different but referring to similar philosophers/scientists in similar timelines… You’ll just have to read to pg 650-700-ish until it makes sense.

    I haven’t finished it yet, but so far Anathem is one of the great SF achievements of our age, IMHO. I’m surprised by the amount of negativity from so many bloggers and “critics.” I wish more authors would spend the amount of time to come up with something as dense and rewarding as Stephenson has here.

  37. #32 Austin

    “@ #18 texaspatrick:

    Burgess made up astonishingly few words in A Clockwork Orange. Almost all of them were either derived from contemporary cockney slang or Russian, and he had good reasons for incorporating both.”

    Granted. I was mostly being toungue-in-cheek (or is that Anthemish: cheeke?)

    That just happened to be one of the first books like that I had run across: i.e., needing a dictionary handily provided in the back. So I didn’t appreciate it for what it was. Kind of like if you picked up something derivative of Tolkien and then later found out you were reading the readers digest version of something: oh . So being 13 and infinitely smarter and more worldly than I am now, I thought he was out of his ever-lovin’ mind.

    I’d still modify that chart: use the chart above if there are made up words. But there needs to be another chart: So many made up words your book needs a glossary . . . you get close to zero even faster . . .

  38. My apologies. I am aware of the difference between poetry and prose, and tend to agree with the curve. Off topic or just tangential? Regardless, me and my puckerguard are moseying away now. :)

    “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
    Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”

    He took his vorpal sword in hand:
    Long time the manxome foe he sought —
    So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
    And stood awhile in thought.

    And, as in uffish thought he stood,
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
    Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
    And burbled as it came!

    One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
    He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back.”

  39. A few people have already touched on this, but it seems to me there’s a pretty clear difference between a 100% Lifetime Original glop of wordage and a Gene Wolfean (or Shakespearean) construct of grokkable cognates and archaisms. The former usually comes off as lazy or arbitrary, particularly when the new word is merely a substitution for another (“smeerf” for “rabbit”). The latter, executed correctly, can create new textures of meaning, or help to avoid unwanted connotations. Wolfe transmits a VERY specific package of information by having his Urthfolk refer to aliens as “cacogens.”

    I’ve only read a chapter or so of Anathem, but it looks like Stephenson does a little bit (lotta bit?) of both kinds of word-building.

  40. I’d like to suggest a marvelous exception to this rule:

    D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo is filled with words he made up and they are a big part of what made the book and his world, the Half Continent, come alive for me.

    Most meanings are gleanable (is that a word?) from the context but he also includes almost 100 pages of glossary goodness.

    My favorite is “furtigrade,” a secret staircase hidden in the cavities of a wall.

    Other gems include:

    brocanders – sellers of secondhand clothing
    biologue – any device or machine that uses actual living organs to provide its functions
    rimple – a curious-looking hairy leather purse made from the entire skin of a small rodent, shaved, with a drawstring at the neckhole, and the skin of one limb sewn back on itself as a loop to fix on a belt.

  41. Stephenson is a weird one. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading him for the first time. I started with Snowcrash, then Diamond Age, and am now about 20%-ish through Cryptonomicon. I have to agree with Pixelfish about his endings (of the two I’ve finished thus far).

    His books are VERY dense, and usually that turns me off. I tend to go through about a book every day or two when I’m on a run, and I just can’t do that with his stuff. Or, more precisely, I don’t *want* to – I might miss some brilliant sentence or phrase (especially with Snowcrash and Diamond Age). In Cryptonomicon, I keep wavering back and forth between wishing it had been two separate books (one WWII-era, one modern), but then realizing that there’s certainly some payoff at some point coming up where it’ll be good to have them all in one. I’m just not generally a fan of constant viewpoint-switching. For Stephenson, though, I’ll put up with it.

    I’ve looked a bit at his other published works (including Anathem), and this is likely the last of his books I’ll be reading (due to storylines), but I do appreciate his work. Worth checking out, even if it’s not your normal fare.

  42. Burgess: the first edition of the book had a) 21 chapters and b) no index. Trying to read it without the index is interesting as it does do what was deliberately intended: instead of “here’s a new language”, you get “I don’t understand these people” until chapter by chapter, you do.

    Orwell had the dictionary; but his point was to show how changing the language changed (or limited) the way one thinks, so you had to be able to bellyfeel newspeak – and you couldn’t without the translation.

    Catch-22 does Burgess’ trick, not with vocabulary, but with context (changing narrator, point of view, time). As you get in, it gets less confusing – which is sort of the point, I guess.

    Outliers that know what they’re doing are, of course, one thing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, of course, sticking to the fat part of the curve is, as always, your best bet (unless you are trying “go big or go home”, in which case, swing for the fences all you want).

  43. Reading this thread made me think: wow, yet another reason not to read Anathem…wait, another…and another! At this point we’re adding lead to a sunken ship, because I’ve found Stephenson too annoying to read, even when he wasn’t making up words.

    texaspatrick 18: yeah, I’m lookin’ at YOU Anthony Burgess . . .

    As Austin points out at 32, if you’re speaking of A Clockwork Orange, he made up few if any of those words. And you can figure most of them out from the context: Alex says he had a pain in his gulliver, then later he says to the bartender “Put a gulliver on this,” referring to his beer, and it’s not hard to figure out that ‘gulliver’ means “head.”

    Which is not to say I didn’t give up after a couple of chapters the first time I read it. I got tired of flipping back and forth to the glossary. The second time, I read straight through with no trouble, flipping to the glossary only on rare occasions.

    Between there, you see, I had a year of college Russian. Most of the “slang” words in ACO are just Russian words approximated with English equivalents. For example, the Russian word for “head” is ‘golová’.

    Steven 19: With Donaldson, I always felt he was writing with a thesaurus nearby and grabbing a word at random without necessarily knowing its full meaning.

    Prime example: “The horses were almost prostrate upon their feet.” He’s just trying to fancy it up, he doesn’t really know and love the language.

    PixelFish 42: Much as I heart the first chapter of Snowcrash,and most of the subsequent chapters, I’m not sure if he can end a book.

    Snowcrash was the Stephenson book that annoyed me (and offended me, actually) so much that I’ve never looked at another book of his. But then I have a knack for picking up a writer’s worst or least accessible work first. First Dick I read: a trashvesty called The Zap Gun. First Russ: The excellent but difficult And Chaos Died (stream-of-consciousness plus telepathy == ow, my aching head! which was, of course, the point). There are other examples.

  44. I recall Orson Scott Card made this point in his book on science fiction writing. Something to the effect of: if it’s bread, call it bread. Don’t call it “merseergha,” unless it’s something that gives the people psionic powers and the main character only thinks its bread.

  45. PixelFish

    Yes, Stephenson can finish a novel. HOWEVER, one has to politely ignore the Deus Ex Machina that suddenly yet consistently manifests itself somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of the way through the story.

  46. Oh look, another isn’t-fantasy-stupid “rule” knock. Not to mention a little dig at cyberpunk. Saying that you don’t like apples, so apples are bad is hardly advice I find very interesting.

  47. “Eric on 01 Oct 2008 at 2:39 pm

    “Wolfe transmits a VERY specific package of information by having his Urthfolk refer to aliens as “cacogens.””

    Hi Eric – I’m a huge Wolfe fan, but I never picked up on the significance of ‘cacogens’ (no doubt one of the many things I’ve missed).

    What does it mean? Just did a google search, but all it returned were references to the books.

  48. BK 58: ‘Cacophony’ is “bad/chaotic sound.” ‘Euphony’ is “good sound.” A “pathogen” is something that causes, um, pathology. ‘Hydrogen’ “makes water” (when you burn it).

    I’m assuming that you’d rather figure this out for yourself than be told directly.

  49. Wandering through the local Borders last week I found Anathem and immediately gobbled it up. I loved it — unlike some books I had a hard time putting it down.

    It has an amazing amount of nothing much happening except one or more main characters discussing philosophy, and instead of this becoming a yawnfest I was fascinated by it.

    I thought the ending was at least done well enough that I didn’t feel as I had after Snowcrash or Diamond Age — after those it was “huh, what, where’d the book go?”. This was more “Oh good, that fits”.

    On an unrelated note, will I be seeing Zoe’s Tale in my local, Adelaide, South Australian Borders anytime soon?

  50. I’m impressed that Stephenson didn’t just use search and replace when writing Anathem. He apparently remembered all that new vocabulary and kept it straight as he was writing. I conclude that, because I spotted a few places where he screwed up and used an English word instead of it’s Arbran equivalent, in contexts where search-and-replace would certainly have made the switch.

    I rate Anathem above The Baroque Cycle but below Cryptonomicon. However, Cryptonomicon is all kinds of wonderful and on my list of five favorite novels. Anathem is just very good and lots of fun.

  51. Heh. Surely Mieville also gets a pass on this one too. Though one could argue he doesn’t make *that* many words up, just draws words to our attention we hadn’t seen used before. But the words he does invent are exquisite.

  52. Hey, I need to add Vonnegut to the discussion of good books that invented words with “Cat’s Cradle”. not only did it add to the world the many concepts of Bokononism, it introduced us to the concept of Ice-nine, which some of us are still struggling to create.

    As for Anathem, I’m not even going to look at it until the holidays, at least. Last winter I started reading the first Baroque cycle book and fell quickly to the bottom of that pit. for the whole winter. And into spring.

  53. How about Feersum Endjinn or Riddley Walker for entries furthest to the right of the graph that beat the odds?

    Feersum Endjinn has very few invented words; it’s just that a lot of them ar spelt odli.

    Not sure whether Shakespeare actually invented a lot of words – might just be that his works are the first place they’re written down.

  54. BK @ 58–

    Think about eugenics. You might call someone who contributes desired traits to their offspring a “eugen.”

  55. I second lolcab‘s Monster Blood Tattoo love. Normally I’d agree with the idea that a lot of made-up words are a bad sign, but Cornish’s Half-Continent vocabulary is so well rooted in words we already know or can at least guess at, and so manifestly do describe things that we don’t have in our world, that it just makes the book richer and more believable to me, instead of pointlessly confusing a la smeerp.

  56. Stephenson’s doing something specific with his made up words in Anathem. You’re free not to like what he’s doing, but there’s a clear reason for why “camcorder” is “speelycaptor” but “carrot-like-object” is “carrot,” and why there is often a one-to-one relationship between Saunts and Earth Savants.

    If you’re early in the book, that reason is not yet clear. But he didn’t just make up some new words to sound exotic, yo.

  57. This was brought up in the XKCD discussion thread, but I think it bears repeating here:
    …In other words, we could have told you that one of our characters paused to strap on his quonglishes before setting out on a walk of seven vorks along the main gleebish of his native znoob, and everything might have seen ever so much more thoroughly alien. But it would also have been ever so much more difficult to make sense out of what we were saying, and that did not seem useful. The essence of this story does not lie in the quantity of bizarre terms we might have invented; it lies, rather, in the reaction of a group of people somewhat like ourselves, living on a world somewhat like ours in all but one highly important detail, as they react to a challenging situation that is completely different from anything the people of Earth have ever had to deal with.
    ~Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, in the introduction to Nightfall.

    They put it very well: there’s no need to make up words for concepts that are well described in whatever language you’re writing in. The sense of an alien culture should come from the culture actually being alien, not just humans in alien suits using funny words. Making up words that serve no purpose serves no purpose but to alienate your readers, and detract from whatever story you may be trying to tell.

  58. The late Gary Gygax loved using old and obscure words, and there were people who accused him of making those words up. Some he did—‘heka’ and ‘dweomercræft’ for example, but those were either adapted from other words—‘heka’ from ‘hekau’ while ‘dweomercræft’ is assembled from ‘dweomer’ and ‘craft’. Others were just old; ‘dweomer’ for example, from the same root as gave us the ‘dimmer’ in ‘dimmerlayk’ (magic play).

    What made it necessary to translate Gary into English was his unique and variable grammar and composition. He was infamous for his run on sentences, his changing subjects in the middle of sentences, his unique applications of commas, colons, and semi-colons, and his facility with getting off-track in his writing. He could, in short, get a little overly fond of his voice. A trait he was aware of, at times noting his need for good editing.

    As you can see, it’s not just the usual suspects that engage in neologistic assaults. And if neologistic wasn’t a word before, it is now.

    “Bob’s first encounter with a phytedeath patch was painful, resulting in a long time abed waiting for his feet to heal up. For Bob had a serious case of athletes foot that day, and so lost a majority of his soles to the fungal predator.

    “The fact the particular species was commonly known as ‘Noshing Satan’ because it usually ate one’s soles along with the infestive fungus helped to make matters even worse.”

  59. Ordinarily, I love it when people make-up new words by combining fragments of others – especially when they pun, and even more when they conjugate. There’s a band I like whose lyrics are made almost entirely out of gibberated words and phrases, but which nonetheless, and inexplicably, make some strange kind of sense when you hear them.

    But so far – and I’m only twenty pages in, so this is a very provisional impression – Anathem is reading like one of those dreadful Fantasy novels that I’d otherwise flee in a heartbeat.

    Also, Gaiman aside, anyone with a hint of scots in their blood will recognize “neepery” as the doin’s of neepheids, or turnip heads. I say this as one who satisfies both meanings.

  60. I can’t believe no one mentioned Frank and/or Brian (ugh) Herbert in this context.

    If a work of fiction requires a glossary, forget it. If a work of fiction requires a glossary and doesn’t have one, the author gets a complimentary beating. If your reader has to stop and backtrack or look it up in a glossary, you’re doing it wrong.

    But I couldn’t get past the first chapter or two of Snowcrash so what do I know…

  61. Wait, I just thought of an exception: Douglas Adams, because it didn’t matter what his non-words meant and they added to the hilarity. If you really must know exactly what is going on when the flodging mattress vollued or gupped, well, maybe you should get outside more.

  62. Thirding lolcab’s Monster Blood Tatoo forwarding- If you had any experience with German, Italian, French or, most usefully, Latin, you could probably trace where DM Cornish got most of his words, and their meaning.

    Other words are simply altered versions of our own, and their meaning in our world is usually linked tot he meaning of his.

    Ex: “Lahzar”;People who are surgically altered to posses incredible abilities, and who spend weeks unconcious after the operation. These people are thus said to rise from the dead so Lahzar=Lazarus, the dude who was resurrected. Or rose from the dead. Or something. But you get my point.

    Additionnaly the author came accross this particular blog and wrote a little on it:
    In reading the aforementioned blog and its associated comments, I too had the guilts for insisting on such circumlocutions as pediteer instead of “infantry” or leonguile instead of “cheetah” etc etc etc… though I tell myself I have good reason to alter these: sometimes the existing word/s are too our-world specific in their etymology or too modern-sounding to be appropriate in the H-c. I do not know the origin of every word but those I do I change – language is key when making otherworldliness, the dilemma is knowing when to reinvent, how much to reinvent and when to just go with the real stuff… I certainly won’t be re-doing the parts for a flintlock, for example, they are perfectly acceptable as they are, cheers.

  63. OK, I know this is WAY late, but had to share.

    We were trying to describe Stephenson’s Anathem and the neologism we came up with was “monk-punk.”

    Happy Whatever Winter Holiday you celebrate!

  64. Question: Do words relating to fictional substances, but are not entirely new concept-words, count as made-up? I ask because in Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, if you count truly made-up concepts as words, then you have only 3 or 4, like pezon means person in your gang who follows you, capa is something like the godfather, etc. But, if you count made up substances, then you are WAY over the 5 word mark with witchwood, white iron, elderglass, wraithstone, etc.

  65. “pezon” and “capa” aren’t really made up; they’re slightly shifted Italian (“paisan” and “capo,” respectively).

  66. I know this is a long-dead discussion, but since it was so recently resurrected (and I just finished Anathem) I hope it won’t break protocol too much to add a little note: Having read this thread (avoided it earlier to avoid spoilers), I wonder whether Stephenson is dismayed about the high percentage of comments on Anathem made by those who have only read part (in some cases, a very small part) of the book. ChrisP and Michael B Sullivan tried their best to set us straight, but here, as in the rest of the Internets, they are the rare exception. I found the “odd vocabulary” of the book a little annoying at first, less annoying by page 200, and found that it made perfect sense by the end–and I kept my mouth shut until I got it.

    Hey, I’m going to take a crack at coining a new aphorism: “Opinions are like assholes–no one will thank you if you display yours prematurely.”

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