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World Consistency: On the Origins of Words

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Mindfire, Jun 27, 2015.

  1. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    So I know it's generally good practice to avoid expressions that are anachronistic or that refer to things that don't exist in a fantasy world. (E.g. A character in a medieval setting shouldn't say "a lightbulb came on" in reference to having an idea.) But I'm stuck on what appears to be a grey area. We now commonly use the word "gulag" to refer to a prison or labor camp, typically a very bad one. But the word originally comes from a Soviet acronym, a fact most people don't know. So can you use the word gulag in a fantasy setting because of its common meaning? Or would that be anacosmic (I invented a word!) given the word's specifically Soviet origins?
     
  2. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    If it's an acronym, no, I'd say it doesn't really belong. But recently made up words in general I think could work as long as it fits. There are countless modern phrases that aren't era specific so they could be used in any setting. However, if you are using Gulag as the starting point for the name of a fictional place or person, then I think that's absolutely fine.
     
  3. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    A fictional place. Namely an actual prison.
     
  4. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    Then I think it works.
     
  5. DeathtoTrite

    DeathtoTrite Troubadour

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    I would probably say no, but I just finished a course in European History where we read excerpts from gulag archipelago, so I might also be a bit biased.
     
  6. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    I would use Gulag as part of the name, but combine it another word. Or change up the spelling and pronunciation a bit. Guloge, Galag, Galug, Golug, etc.
     
    TheMirrorMage likes this.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Yeah, it's a gray area, but I think you can get away with using it. The word itself carries with it some baggage that you can exploit. When you say a place is a gulag, it conjours an image and a feel that's hard to find in another word. I doubt that the word's origins are well known enough to throw people out of the story. For me, it sticks out as a Soviet word, but I wouldn't give it a second thought if I read it in a fantasy story.
     
  8. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    I can't say I have ever heard 'gulag' refer to anything but the Soviet prisons, so I'd probably find it anachronistic -- or anacosmic :) -- to use it in a non-1900s Russian-ish setting. But that might just be where I grew up? Or my age, I guess? I was born the same year the USSR fell, so maybe it fell out of colloquial use and just got relegated to the history books? Dunno.
     
  9. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Same here, but it may also be age dependent (I'm even older than Opiucha), so if I read it, my associations would go straight to the Soviet era prison camps. I wasn't even aware that the word is used as a reference to bad prisons in general until just now.
     
  10. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    I might be mistaken, but didn't they use gulag in Star Trek 5; when Kirk and McCoy were sent to Rura Pente??

    "Welcome to the gulag Rura Pente. There are no walls, no guards, no electronic frontier..."

    If klingons used it... I don't see why it cannot be used in a fantasy setting.


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
     
  11. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    Some words have connotations that are hard to look past. Take the swastika for example. Before the Nazi's adopted it as their symbol it held a positive meaning to other cultures (and still does) and was even used in the United States for a much different reason. People hear the word swastika and immediately think of Nazi's, white power groups, etc.
     
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I think we debated this topic recently in a thread on the writing questions forum...

    My take remains the following:

    Unless you are writing historical fiction/fantasy, your characters probably don't live on earth or speak English. You're using English to translate their words to your reader. Why are you trying to be historically accurate? Why not use the best words to convey the connotation that you desire?
     
  13. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    To be honest, I know what a gulag is and would look past it, most likely without noticing because it would impart the right mood. However, as an etymological idealist, I would suggest you use the word 'gaol.' Either way, I think you're fine.
     
  14. Bropocalypse

    Bropocalypse Dreamer

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    I have wondered this myself, but I feel that it's an inescapable fact: The meaning of words change constantly, and there is no reason to worry over their usage. In a fantasy setting you may avoid the use of phrase-turns of most type, since they arise from long-forgotten but specific inside jokes(Unless you want to do the Pratchetian thing and reinvent the causalistic wheel, so to speak). However, even words we think of today as being normal were much different in meaning yesterday, and so it will be in the future. Before the invention of the telephone, "hello" was an expression of surprise, not a greeting. How that has changed!
    You're the author. Write for the feelings that you understand, and others will follow your word.


    'Gaol' is simply an alternate spelling of 'jail.' They are pronounced the same.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    So, you have a prison camp with forced labor. That's bad as it stands. Why not just call it a prison? Let the description, the character's descriptions, create the necessary feeling. It feels like using "gulag" is a way to create the feeling without devoting many words to it. By saying "gulag" I'm hoping the reader suddenly gets a whole raft of associations.

    Well, maybe the reader does and maybe she doesn't, and maybe she has a misunderstanding of the word and gets something I didn't intend at all. In which case, I really ought to be having my story, rather than the word, do the work.

    BTW, points for Useful Word Invention with anacosmic.
     
  16. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    Thank you for assuming that I didn't know that.

    The spelling difference can have an effect on the reader. 'Gaol' feels older and creates the impression of worse conditions, unless you're in Australia or Ireland, I suppose. The word 'jail' makes me think of clean, orderly cells with a few minor criminals or drunks in them, while 'gaol' makes me think of the dirty, terrifying conditions in 17th century prisons where one was as likely to die of disease as to be executed the next day. I think the usage of that spelling would work in America. Elsewhere, it would just be read as what it is, so, no problem there.
     
  17. Bropocalypse

    Bropocalypse Dreamer

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    Sorry, I was operating under the idea of providing it as an alternative to 'gulag,' and that you might have spelled it that way for that reason. I don't think it's common knowledge; most readers would not know the pronunciation.
    In any case, no information I provide is done so with the intention of making you look dumb. I apologize if it seemed otherwise.
     
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