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Obscure Words

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As a lover of words and etymologies, there mere sight of interesting words often gives me creative inspirations. Because my memory is terrible, I have several documents for writing these words down so that I can recall those creative inspirations later. The most important of these, and indeed one of the most useful documents on my entire computer, is "List of Obscure and Fictitious Words," a list of real and made-up words and phrases (and some other things) that previously captured my interest. Over the years it has grown to 86 pages, and continues to grow almost every week, slowly accreting into a dictionary like no other in the world.

I thought it would be interesting to do an occasional series of highlights from that list. Normally these will be standalone posts on social media, but for starters I figured this week's Curious Tale Saturdays article would be the perfect place to begin. So I picked one of the words in the file completely at random. Here it is, followed by a bit of discussion about why I found it interesting.


Functionary: A person who functions in a specified capacity, especially in government service; an official.

This is a great example! By itself a completely ordinary word, the reason I find functionary so interesting is that it serves a very important role both in my fictional worldbuilding and in our real-world "worldbuilding."

One of my favorite things about real-world institutional and organizational structures is their diversity, including and especially the diversity in which roles are conceived and labeled. In newspapers, we have the editor, a role basically unique to news organizations. In the navy we have the captain, a concept generally reserved nowadays (notwithstanding its other military uses) for the person in command of a ship or a team. At restaurants we have the chef; motion pictures have a director; orchestras have a conductor; and so on. And these are just senior-level roles; all of these types of organizations also have diverse labels for lower-ranking roles.

Sure, sometimes these terms are used by different organizations; that's not the point. The point is that I love that our society is richer than it would be if the job titles in every organization were based on the generic corporate model—a world where instead of editors and chefs and conductors everybody's just a "Floor Staff II" or "Vice President of Whatever." This diversity persists even though, to my vexation, the corporate world in its decades-long conceptual encroachment upon the rest of society has steadily gobbled up many outposts of diverse labor terminology.

I find this real-world worldbuilding deeply satisfying. A diversity of terminology lets us view our world at a higher resolution. The variety it offers paints a fuller picture of the breadth and depth of our civilization. Ultimately, it brings our conceptual perceptions closer to reality. Even if, in operational terms, a director and a conductor and a captain and a chef are all the same thing—a boss—the terms reflect that the work itself is indeed different. Manager II is abstract and meaningless, but vintner is a visceral word that evokes imagery and smells and tastes and cultural mores immediately.

By the very same token, when it comes to fantasy worldbuilding a diversity of terminology is also important. Just a couple weeks ago I was working on a scene from ATH Chapter 1, and, in a scene involving a team of people, I decided to delete the word servants—even though there was nothing strictly wrong with it—and replace it with caterers. That's because "servant" is such a generic term, and it completely belies the diverse ecosystem of roles that it takes in older societies to maintain the operations and households of higher-status individuals. I mean, hell, Henry VIII had a waferer, a person in charge of making wafers. That's real. I want Relance to be the same way. I want it to feel viscerally plausible. To put it another way, if you had a staff of fifty servants, and you needed something, you wouldn't call for your "servant." That's not how people speak. It's not useful. You'd call for your groundskeeper or your mechanic or—if you're doing it right—your waferer.

I chose "caterers" because I found that term more precise; in this scene, each of the three people in question are acting in a capacity closer to that of catering to that of serving. (Note, here I'm talking about "catering" in its more generic sense of serving needs, not the narrower but more common sense of "remotely supply food.")

But I went beyond even that. Even though I had changed the word to something much less commonly used, and thereby increased diversity, I found my real success by going farther and individually identifying the role of each of the three caterers: a groom, a cook, and a husband. So not only had I created a more precise term to describe the group of them; I went ahead and spelled out the individual roles. I found that very gratifying, and to me it made the imagery a lot stronger.

When a writer says "...and three servants came along," it doesn't paint much in the reader's mind. We all know what a servant is, but it's such a generic idea that it doesn't really give you any idea of what those servants are doing. When pressed to think about it, you can probably imagine some of the tasks upon them, but by labeling individual roles you make this invitation to imagination much more explicit to the reader. You get them thinking. A cook? Makes perfect sense! Meals must be prepared! A groom? Well, that's trickier for a modern reader; here I'm using it in the sense of "the person responsible for the care of the group's horses and wark." But, once you get it, the description is very clear. And a husband? That one's even trickier still; here I am using it in the very narrow British sense of "one who has the care of another's belongings in a managerial sense"; I chose that term in particular to let the reader infer that the husband is the senior of the three caterers.

(Incidentally, while the Prelude had no annotations, footnotes, or glossary, ATH probably will. It's stuff like this that would get a note, so that readers don't have to do the two-step of not only looking a word up in a dictionary but then having to identify the correct definition.)

What a thorougher picture this paints! In a group of nine people, you know now a lot more about what the three caterers are spending their time on. The cook is making sure everyone's fed. The groom is tending to the animals. And the husband is laying out clothes, preparing the anointing oil, cleaning equipment, keeping the paperwork, and managing the other caterers. If I had said "servants," you would scarcely have thought about any of this. This is what I mean when I say that, if you only remember one thing about The Curious Tale, it is that Relance itself is the story.

My appetite for colorful, precise terminology for labor and other roles is insatiable. I'm always looking for interesting words to have at the ready. Functionary is one of these. That's why I wrote it down in my personal dictionary.

Bonus: Tam o' Shanter

Since the article's a bit short this week, here's a bonus word from my list!

Tam o' Shanter: The traditional Scottish bonnet worn by males. (E.g., Flintheart Glomgold) Sometimes abbrv. Tam.

(Double Bonus Fact: If you hear Scottish folksongs that refer to a "bonnet" or a "blue," they're usually referring to a tam o'shanter, particularly around the time of the Jacobites.)

Despite being randomly picked, this is a great example for the bonus round, because the explanation is quick and simple.

First, notice that I often craft or add to these definitions myself. The dictionary didn't mention Glomgold; that was a personal example for my immediate recollection. That's an important aspect of "Obscure and Fictitious Words": It serves me; it's a working document. As such, it can do whatever I need of it. We often think of many things in life as these impenetrable authorities, but it serves us better—certainly, it serves me better—to know when to comply with the rules and when to stake out on my own.

As for the term itself, I recorded it in my dictionary because it's one of those objects that comes up for me from time to time, particularly because of my interest in Scottish culture, yet I'd never had the proper name for it. And I'd known I didn't have the proper name. Hats are a microcosm of everything I described above: There are a zillion different kinds of hats; it's not all fedoras and baseball caps.

Well worth an entry in my dictionary.

Tune in Next Week

I hope you enjoy this feature when it premiers on social media—Facebook and Tumblr. Tune in next week when I talk about how I deal with fantasy stereotypes when it comes to writing The Curious Tale.

Until then, may you be a functionary in your own success and wellbeing. Happy Independence Day for my American readers!

I would love your feedback on this article!

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O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!