Creating terms

In the fantasy story I’m working on, my main characters are islanders faced with a more technologically advanced invader. These invaders bring things which you and I would know the words for, but which my islanders don’t. In the scene in question, I have this.

Rising above the helmets of the warriors were ranks of bows and pikes. In the midst of them, towering gray animals, like horses swollen to the size of whales, with a swollen snaking vine growing from the center of their head and wicked tusks jutting from their mouths. Each whale-horse glimmered with scales of green lacquered steel. The black huts on their backs brushed the overarching trees.

So, would you be annoyed if, for the battle scene in question, I use the phrase “whale-horse” instead of elephant?

Did you know you can support Mary Robinette on Patreon!

14 Responses

  1. Livia Llewellyn

    Well, Native Americans had no word to describe their first sight of Spanish Mustangs – they called them “medicine dogs” or “magic dogs”. So “whale-horse” makes perfect sense to me. However, I think you could get a variety of responses here, both for and against the term, so I suggest doing what you feel most comfortable with for the scene.

  2. Peterbilt_47

    Well, presumably then, the story is being told by one of the islanders? As long as the narrator has other points of consistency, where they are trying to describe other strange-to-them things in terms they understand, I think it contributes to creating a sense of reality.

    I think I would also need that sort of thing to get into the mindset/diction of someone who would describe a trunk as a swollen, snaking vine. Because even if you’ve never seen one before, I think it’s hard to mistake a trunk for a vine, and I find myself a little distracted, after I’ve pieced it together, wondering “does the narrator really think there’s a plant growing out of this thing’s head, or is s/he just using poetic license?” And if they don’t know what a trunk is, where do they have the word “tusks” from? Wild boars on their island?

  3. Wordly

    Yeah, it’s a conundrum. They get out into the ocean far enough to see whales, surely they’re not really that isolated, so there may be trading and news and drawings about foreign animals. Unless they see washed-up carcasses of dead whales, I suppose.

    Also, if invaders have brought elephants over to the island, it can’t be that far of a trip, so the islanders shouldn’t really be all that isolated. Although, maybe it could be; I don’t know. But in a short story, that’s an awful lot of blah-blah, besides not being what you want.

    Can islands support grazing animals, so they would know about horses? Of course, there were those tiny elephant fossils found on an island, but I don’t think elephants are grazers; just tossing it out there.

    I’d think they would see that these were living things, and equate the trunk to a snake or worm or something like that. Unless they need to be vines for the story, of course.

    My short answer would be: No, I don’t think I’d be annoyed. 😀

  4. Peterbilt_47

    You know, I’m thinking you could get a lot of detailed speculative feedback on what kind of world these islanders live in. Which reminds me of the endless debates about What Would Happen If, on the letter pages of various superhero comics.

    And after awhile, it can feel a little pointless, like “Oh, my God, just shut up and read the story, it’s imagination.” But that’s exactly why people get so wrapped up in it, is we’re very involved in creating that world in our heads.

    And even though those kinds of things are really tangential to the story you’re telling, and only bubble at the back of your readers’ minds while they’re reading, I think it’s so important to have an internally consistent universe that goes far beyond the boundaries of the story you’re telling. That, to me, was one of the great geniuses of the original Star Wars trilogy. There were constant, vague references to things that never came on camera. And there was a continuity to them, that encouraged the audience to set the story in a much larger universe of their own imagining. For all the many things I disliked about the prequels, I think the biggest was that they seemed to spend all their time “explaining the joke” of the first trilogy. I wanted the same feel of people living in an expansive reality, of momentous events that I would never know about having set the stage for what I was seeing. But the fairy tale was much more hermetically sealed than the first three movies.

    Whoa. Long answer to a question about whale-horses.

  5. Vy

    I think it would work if you have a character dub them “whale-horse” rather than having the author do so.

    “Great googly-moogly! What are those THINGS?”

    “I don’t know! But I’ll call them whale-horses, by Jove!”

    Or whatever. 🙂

  6. Chris Billett

    That’s a really hard question. I’ve seen this kind of thing done very badly, and quite well. I’m struggling to think (other than occasional bits of A Song of Ice and Fire) where I’ve been impressed, and am I guess I won’t slag off ones that didn’t convince me right here, but it’s definitely a very interesting conundrum!

  7. Peterbilt_47

    I like Vy’s idea- I think it’s more convincing if the term is introduced as a line of dialogue. That way, the reader can imagine someone just trying to come up with a term on the spot; something that might not fit exactly, and might be kind of goofy, but hey, it’s what they could come up with.

    When a narrator says it, they have the implied luxury of considering their words, which lends it a kind of import, gravity, and “officialness.” Which I find a little bit of a stretch for introducing “whale-horse.”

    Jeez, third comment on this. I am wayy into this whale-horse thing.

  8. -e-

    I agree with peterbilt above, in that, while I find “whale horse” delightfully evocative, the “vine” inclusion threw me… especially as it immediately conjured the color green, which then tied into green scale armor, making me think the “vine” must be some part of the costume. Honestly, I didn’t get the vine/trunk thing till I read the comments.

    oh, and Happy Anniversary, by the way… hope the day was splendid.

  9. Eric James Stone

    I like the “whale-horse” thing, but “swollen snaking vine growing from the center of their head” is wrong. Obviously the character couldn’t describe something as “snaking” unless he’s familiar with snakes, so the obvious comparison would be “a snake growing from the center of their head.” It has the advantage of removing the repetition of “swollen,” too.

  10. Mary Robinette Kowal

    Excellent, the consensus seems to be for keeping whale-horse.

    The story is in deep third person POV, so the narrator reflects the POV character’s thoughts enough that I think I can get away without having to insert dialogue. Though, that’s a good idea, at this point in the story my POV character is sporting a mouth injury and can’t speak. La!

    Eric and -e-: Strangely, I went with vine because the vines that I think of are grapevines which can be thick, grayish brown and elephant trunky. Ironically, I was trying to avoid the use of the word snake because I’m loosely basing this on Hawaii, which had no snakes until quite recently.

    The horses were brought with an earlier wave of the invaders so I’ve already established that they know the name of this exotic beast. BUT I’d totally hadn’t thought about comparing the elephants to wild boars.

    Maybe tall-boar might be a better name?