Thoughts on Nomenclature in Fictional Worlds

Reading Polygon’s overview of Obsidian’s Tyranny made me realize something that particularly bugs me about lots of fantasy worlds. The way that the terminology works sounds clunky and too much like it comes from our world. For an example from the article, the term “archon” implies that the developers are bringing some Greek in (even if they incorrectly pluralize it “archons” — as I recall it really should be “archontes”). And that’s all well and good, but having a villain named “Kyron” then makes me want to link that back to καιρός, which doesn’t quite seem to make sense. (Or maybe they were thinking of this guy, who’s also called “Cyrus”, which is a less villainous-sounding name).

But its not just the mixed level of attention to detail in etymology, it’s also the way that unit types sound. “Stoneshield”, “Crescent Runner”, “Iron Walker”… somehow these just scream “I’m designing a video game!” rather than sounding like naturally applied terminology. I’m not sure how to bridge that gap (or if it even needs bridging — they are designing a video game).

I’m having a bit of trouble identifying what exactly bothers me about these names. It might be that they’re too categorical — but I understand that real historical militaries did have different troops with different roles, and they were called by different names.

Maybe it feels to me that the names are too clever? It seems like most historical unit designations have typically been very straightforward — “cavalry” just means “horses”, “hoplite” referred to the sort of shield with which they were armed. (Also, making unit types proper nouns feels wrong to me.) If I’m right that that’s what’s bugging me, I’d propose new names more along these lines:

- “Stoneshield” becomes either “shield” or “tower”.

- “Crescent Runners” would simply be “javelins”.

- “Iron Walkers” would be something more like “iron men”, or simply “armor”.

- “Oath Bound” would actually just be “scout” or “assassin”. If armies have non-oathbound scouts or assassins, then it’d just be an adjective, eg “twelve oathbound assassins”.

- “Earthshakers” actually is probably about right, though to me that’d probably read more as an adjective applied to mages generally. (I’m not sure enough about the way that magic is handled with the game or the world to be able to evaluate this one as much, but it’s odd to me that the list given in the article lists only this one magical niche.)

This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.

Finally, invented terminology can be really hit-or-miss for different people. What sounds “silly but plausible” to me might sound unbearably twee to someone else. I might be bothered by accidental faux amis that are untroubling to someone else. The degree to which these sorts of things can end up bothering me might be more a flaw in me as a reader than in any given writer whose invented terminology I just can’t stand.