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Readers Opinions Wanted: Unfamiliar Terms

In today’s First Page, Laura Kinsale brought up a question in the comments regarding unfamiliar terms in a story.

I have a question, as a writer, about one of the comments. This isn’t a loaded question, or any sort of commentary on this excerpt itself, it’s input for me.

DS said

I had to look up "drafts on collection" to find out what he entrusted with,

As a reader-and I think I mean a romance reader here, vs say an SF/fantasy reader where world-building is more common in the genre-when you come across a term you don’t understand, do you tend to feel uncomfortable until you look it up? Are you willing to trust the author to define it for you in context?

I tend to do the latter as a writer, try to define the term in context without spelling it out in a dictionary sort of way. But having lost my ability to read as a non-writer many moons ago, I was intrigued by DS’s comment.

Which would you prefer, for an unfamiliar technical term like "drafts on collection?"

To try to figure out the meaning from the context? To stop and look it up? To avoid the term entirely? For the author to describe it in more detail, even if that is info-dump? To just go on, not being quite sure?

I’m sure there are many different attitudes about this but I’d like to hear some of them.

For me, I prefer the term defined by the author within the story. When a foreign language is used, I like it translated for me. In a paranormal/fantasy/science fiction romance, I want the author to explain the new terms within the text. I don’t mind looking up singular words that are new to me in the dictionary. I will say that anything that takes me out of the story likely means I will be putting down the book and that may mean I will get distracted by any number of things. What about you readers out there? How do you feel?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

49 Comments

  1. Keishon
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:22:52

    To try to figure out the meaning from the context?

    Context works fine for me. I am a reader who doesn’t like everything spelled out or dumped in a dictionary like fashion while I’m reading. Distracting. Karin Slaughter does this, sticking in explanations, and it sticks out each and everytime.

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  2. Heather Massey
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:33:14

    If the term is defined within the context of the story, great, but I also don’t mind looking things up. Other times I will just note that it’s a worldbuilding detail and unless it’s crucial to the story’s outcome, I don’t worry about it. I like the authenticity of unfamiliar technical terms.

    In many SF stories, there are technical details so complex no amount of Googling will get me the information, so I’m used to having to just proceed without any kind of layperson explanation. If it goes on and on, it gets frustrating, but I gravitate toward character-driven stories anyway.

    I happen to like a learning curve in my fiction, but I can understand how it’d be a distraction for others.

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  3. hapax
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:33:55

    I would argue very strongly that this is exactly one of those things that define “well-crafted writing” to me. If the writer cannot convey to me in context *what I need to know for this story* about a “fichu” or a “garderobe” or a “gallowglass” (not to mention a “cryochamber” or a “DarkeSong”), then that passage needs to be re-written, or the word not used.

    It was Gene Roddenberry, I think, who pointed out that in a police thriller the hero doesn’t pick up his .357 Magnum and start explaining “this here is a hand held projectile weapon, which I operate by means of ‘pulling’ the ‘trigger’, this particular model was developed in the 1930′s and is favored by law enforcement types like me for its superior stopping power and precision shooting.” Instead, he just picks it up and shoots it. Roddenberry argued that a phaser should be written about in exactly the same way.

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  4. Ros
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:35:47

    I would never stop to look things up in a dictionary – I have learned by far the largest part of my vocabulary from reading, and I find the easiest way to work out what a word must mean is to see how it is used. I do have quite a big capacity to live with unknowns, though – I don’t mind, for instance, if foreign words are not translated for me, even if I don’t know the language. I trust that the writer will give me enough context to know what I need to know.* From reading romance novels, I can now murmur endearments in at least four languages. ;)

    I occasionally google things (not vocabulary, but places, things etc.) that are unfamiliar to me, but I would generally wait until I’d stopped reading anyway, rather than let them pull me out of the story.

    *The one exception here is Dorothy L. Sayers who always presumed that her readers were as well-read and well-educated as she. I have even got out my French dictionary to work through some of the letters she leaves untranslated. I believe the publishers insisted that she give a translation of the one that contained the crucial clue to the murder in Clouds of Witness.

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  5. Maili
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:41:09

    When a foreign language is used, I like it translated for me.

    I recently read a rom novel that’s riddled with Romaji words (which, incidentally, were never translated nor explained) and I found this so irritating.

    It’s too much like an old work friend who liked to pepper French words in his conversations for no reason than … well, I don’t know why he did it. I found it pointless and perhaps, pretentious. I just can’t imagine doing this myself, peppering Gaelic throughout English. It just doesn’t make sense.

    I think it’s better to – unless it’s a common loanword in the English language, such as tycoon or déjà vu – have it in English. If the author wants it there for a reason, she or he ought to make sure the reason is sound.

    ~~

    For the rest, it depends on an author’s skill in making clear what it is in context. If she or he can’t pull it off, then explain – even though I generally dislike info-dump.

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  6. Keishon
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:43:29

    @hapax: Agree with you. It is about skill.

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  7. Pearl
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:43:31

    I agree with you and trust the author to explain in the context. Despise getting torn away from story to look stuff up.

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  8. hapax
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 14:44:09

    *The one exception here is Dorothy L. Sayers who always presumed that her readers were as well-read and well-educated as she.

    Heh. That is true. I recall hearing that there were readers who, not quite up on their classical Latin, weren’t quite sure if Harriet accepted Lord Peter’s proposal or not.

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  9. Sandy James
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:01:08

    I also agree that I enjoy learning what a term means in the context of the story. Good authors “teach” without “preaching.” I know I struggled with this when I wrote my romance based in the harness horseracing world. The sport has a language all its own, and I didn’t want readers to feel left out because they didn’t know what “hopples” were or what a “claiming race” was all about. I also didn’t want to lose any autheticity, so I used the correct terms and tried as seamlessly as I could to include the reader so she could learn the new terms right along with my poor confused hero. :-)

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  10. Sandy James
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:02:32

    @hapax

    It was Gene Roddenberry, I think, who pointed out that in a police thriller the hero doesn't pick up his .357 Magnum and start explaining “this here is a hand held projectile weapon, which I operate by means of ‘pulling' the ‘trigger', this particular model was developed in the 1930's and is favored by law enforcement types like me for its superior stopping power and precision shooting.” Instead, he just picks it up and shoots it. Roddenberry argued that a phaser should be written about in exactly the same way.

    Loved this! :-)

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  11. ellen
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:03:43

    While I typically keep reading and ‘trust the author’ to explain later, I do tend to look up things I am unfamiliar with. This could be because I teach American Studies to 9th and 10th graders and I am always looking for new ways to relate info to the students. By doing a little research I have found a boat load of stories that I use in context with my lessons.

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  12. Janine
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:14:38

    I don’t like to stop to look things up in the dictionary, but I also don’t like to have things explained to me. I prefer to figure things out from context. Otherwise, I often feel that the author isn’t respecting my intelligence. I am smart enough to figure things out if given a few clues, and I want feel that the author trusts me to understand.

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  13. GrowlyCub
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:14:41

    I really dislike the translations. I understand why they are doing it, since so many people do not understand foreign languages, but I usually find that if it’s that important, they ought to just have the characters say it in English and be done with it. Most often, the foreign language is used incorrectly (I speak 2 well, 2 more passable, and can read another 2) and that’s really embarrassing for the author, editors and the publishers and takes me completely out of the story. As a reader I feel disrespected that the author thought it important enough to include the other language for ‘color’ but not enough to ensure they get it right.

    As to unusual, specific terms, I’d prefer they either not be included if the author thinks they may be an issue for most readers or if it’s integral to the story, the explanation should be in the text in an unobtrusive way.

    So what are ‘drafts on collection’? Guess me asking answers the question about whether I am willing to look things up? :)

    Btw, I was very, very, VERY fond of Susan Johnson’s meticulous and copious foot notes at the end of her earlier historicals. Wish more authors would do that!

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  14. Janine
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:19:08

    In a comment in the other thread Jo Bourne said:

    I figure there's two kinds of exotic terms.

    There's the quick ‘bill of lading' or ‘champurrado’ or ‘femme de chambre' where only the shell of the word is needed.
    The word becomes the generic, ‘piece of paper' or ‘tastes good and comes in a cup or bowl' or ‘chambermaid' and that meaning is clear in context.

    I don't think the reader stops in her tracks to look up these toss-away words. (I hope not.) And it seems to me one can lay on a lot of this inexpensive toss-away stuff without annoying anybody.

    But there's exotics where we need the whole meaning.

    If I use ‘night glasses' in the entire sense of ‘period naval binoculars of the optical variety' or I use ‘fichu’ and the stage business calls for the entire ‘linen cloth, generally folded triangular, that wraps the shoulders and tucks down in the front of the bodice,'
    then I have to pay for those words by stuffing description into the action or dropping out of the dramatic line and explaining.

    There's no reader confusion, I think. Probably no annoyance.
    But these are expensive words to use.

    I think this is an excellent point but since I’m familiar with the word ‘fichu’ but not with ‘champurrado, ‘ I don’t know if I would have made the same assessment.

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  15. sarah mayberry
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:20:37

    I usually am happy to work out what’s going on from context. I figure if it’s important, the author will make sure I know, and if it’s not then it’s just historical detail that I will probably eventually understand via osmosis, given how many historicals I read. For example, I recently have read in a couple of different books about “banyans”. I’ve never come across this word before but I understood from context it was a form of dressing gown. I might try to find a picture of one one day. Or I might not.

    Quick aside – Ms Kinsale, I am currently reading all of your backlist. Absolute bliss! Thank you for giving me so many hours of inspiring escapism. Can’t wait to read your latest.

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  16. Katie
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:34:07

    I think romance readers are smart, give them context clues and they will figure it out. I love learning things when I read.I often write down word in the back of the book to google later.

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  17. DM
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:40:03

    While not strictly romances, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond books are some of the most romantic written during the 20th century. Dunnett never stopped to translate or explain, because her characters, and by extension her readers, were so immersed in the language of the era. Like Sayers, who she admired, Dunnett spoke several languages and peppered her books with obscure quotations, some of which were absolutely crucial to an understanding of the action. I’ve never met a single person who has been able to read her books without recourse to, at the very least a dictionary, and in most cases, a copy of the Koran, the Bible, and most of the Loeb Classical Library. But equally, I’ve rarely met anyone who read Dunnett without falling in love with her characters, her plotting, and her prose.

    Which is all in aid of saying that undefined, obscure, and untranslated is unobjectionable in the right hands.

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  18. Bonnie
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 15:57:34

    For me, I prefer the term defined by the author within the story. When a foreign language is used, I like it translated for me. In a paranormal/fantasy/science fiction romance, I want the author to explain the new terms within the text. I don't mind looking up singular words that are new to me in the dictionary. I will say that anything that takes me out of the story likely means I will be putting down the book and that may mean I will get distracted by any number of things.

    This is exactly it for me. I don’t care to be taken away from the book.

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  19. Nicola Griffith
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 16:37:58

    I love being in the hands of a writer so good that I just go with the flow and absorb meaning by osmosis. What really floats my boat (yep, it’s fun with metaphor day…) is prose so good I repeat it lovingly to myself after the book is done and drives me to look up any obscure terms. (Patrick O’Brian is, for me, a prime example–hence my watery metaphors.)

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  20. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 16:57:59

    “My” period is the 18th century. I’m invested in it, I could walk into it. So I depend on my beta readers and my editors to keep me honest and straight. If something interferes with smooth reading, then I’ll delete the reference or explain it.
    Case in point – in “Devonshire” Richard compares something to a “raree show,” a kind of 18th century puppet show. But it’s a casual reference, not desperately important for the plot. My editor questioned it, so I explained. Then the line editor questioned it and I realised that the average reader would stop and go “What?” That’s the last thing I want, so I changed it. I was right, but the reference was too obscure and looked like a typo so I changed it. As far as I know it hasn’t changed the book much.
    You’re trying to recreate the past for the modern reader. It’s hard to do (hell, I’m talking to Laura Kinsale, the woman who “translated” Middle English and kept the syntax, I can tell you nothing) but respect for the past and courtesy for the modern reader is paramount.
    I’d say take it case by case, point by point.

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  21. Throwmearope
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 17:13:51

    I started reading Georgette Heyer when I was twelve with an unabridged dictionary beside me. (Irritated my mother, she used the dictionary for holding open the door to the laundry room.)

    I credit La Belle Georgette for the high vocab scores I used to get on standardized testing. (For instance, I already knew what a raree show was without L.C.’s explanation. ) I loved learning all kinds of new words and expressions.

    But I’m with Growly Cub, if you’re gonna use a foreign language, get it right. One of my former autobuys used to make a lot of grammatical errors in French and it was so annoying, I haven’t read her in a couple of years.-

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  22. Sparky
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 17:28:22

    I prefer to have the term defined by context without being overt about it. I mean, people don’t regularly sit down and think “I ate my beef steak. That came from a cow, a common herbivorous herd animal on my planet.” so it seems strange when you here it. I prefer the same across the board – s/f or fantasy terms, foreign languages etc. If it’s explained in the text in an overt manner, it rings false.

    BUT a) it must be accurate (either internally consistant in fantasy world building or an accurate cultural/lingual translation if just a foreign culture/language)

    b) Understanding the term mustn’t be essential. If the story becomes stilted and hard to understand because there is so much German dropped in the text, for example, then it’s going to annoy me

    So far I haven’t had to look up a word in a dictionery except, well, when the writer didn’t know what the word meant :). If I did it would probably annoy me, since it would break my concentration AND clearly the word is important to the understanding of the plot (or I wouldn’t bother) and, therefore, shouldn’t be awfully obscure

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  23. silvia
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 17:59:47

    I really despise “info dumping” – it comes off stilted and awkward and will quickly turn me off a novel or tv show. So definitely I look for an explanation in context!

    I have special love for authors who can drop you ‘medias res’ in conversations and situations and NOT spell things out but instead structure it so you can slowly piece together the context and relevant factors. It’s the difference between a B and an A for me.

    This is especially important with historicals and/or characters in obscure careers. (my oh my can we get some heros & heroines who are NOT governesses, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, vets, secretaries, CEOs?)

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  24. pamelia
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 18:27:07

    While I don’t mind an info-dump, exposition-heavy explanation of what something may be, I think ultimately it depends on the voice of the story itself. If it’s in a very casual, 1st person or 3rd person voice then the information can tend to break the whole flow of the piece. If the voice telling the story is more formal then the more wordy option doesn’t tend to fall as flat.
    I read a lot of fantasy works and I think one of my favorite examples of just letting context carry through are Sarah Monette’s “Melusine” books in which she uses made up terminology for her world, but relies completely on context and her readers’ intuition to suss out the meanings. These books are done in alternating first person narratives and I think if she had chosen to have her characters step out of their story-telling to mention what the heck they were talking about it would have been very jarring.
    I think historical romances have a little more room for exposition especially if their tone is a little more formal, but authors sometimes err on the side of “look how much research I did!” and that can get a little annoying.

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  25. kaigou
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 18:46:34

    I can handle info-dump aka exposition-to-instruct if it’s done with skill and as few words as possible and doesn’t contradict or disrupt the narrative voice. I can handle being left to suss it out myself if it the word is ‘common’ enough (in the story) that context will eventually give me some idea of what’s going on. What I intensely dislike, however, are glossaries. I loathe them almost as much as ‘Cast of Characters’.

    Because if an author has to give me a dictionary of what words mean what, that’s my cue to yell LINGO UR DOIN IT RONG and go pour myself a stiff drink — right before I find something else to read. This isn’t Dune: The Movie. I shouldn’t need an entire supplemental handbook just to make the story’s details comprehensible. *heddesk*

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  26. hapax
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 18:50:59

    Just an aside but

    But equally, I've rarely met anyone who read Dunnett without falling in love with her characters, her plotting, and her prose.

    I’m going to come out of the closet, as it were, and raise my hand. I admire greatly Dunnett’s rare ability to capture so convincingly the mental universe of her time periods (and I will state snobbishly that I don’t recall ever having to look up one of her references) but I deeply deeply despised most of her characters — except for the ones who (even more deadly) I didn’t really care about one way or the other.

    I know that I’m in a tiny minority here, but I thought it might offer a little comfort to any other Lymond-loathers out there.

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  27. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 19:19:39

    @hapax:
    So you didn’t finish the Lymond Chronicles and you didn’t read the House of Niccolo series?
    I freely confess to being a Dunnett lover, and having to consult the Companion frequently because I’m not as conversant as I’d like about early sixteenth century Scottish poetry, and even the sixteenth century translations of the Classics.
    But she never uses an extraneous fact and she never obscures her meaning with her sometimes esoteric references. Everything is about, or refers to her characters and the story, everything matters, but, and in this context it’s important, you don’t have to know it all to understand the story. You can skip the poetry, the hints, the conceits, the parallels, the non-narrative hints and just read it for a thrilling ride through the first half of the sixteenth century as experienced by a Scottish soldier of fortune. It doesn’t matter. At its core the Lymond Chronicles are a rattling good read.
    I read the series first straight through, without consulting anything or even stopping because the story is so compelling. The second time I read it more leisurely and took time to consult stuff. Though it didn’t alter the basic story, it did enrich it and add nuances to the stories that form the heart of both series.

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  28. tricia
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 19:20:37

    Add me to the group that doesn’t need a definition for most unusual words. I love that “fichu” was used as an example here–I’ve read that word countless times, but I didn’t know until today specifically what it was. I knew it was usually lace, ’cause that’s the usual modifier, but all I really needed to know was that it was a piece of clothing and that’s usually handled through context. Would there have come a day when I was sitting at the computer and wondered what the heck one was, maybe done an image search? Sure. But not knowing exactly what one looked like has never bothered me. I’m sure that there are historicals out there that I could read with various minor period details completely incorrect and I’d never know the difference, because I read for plot and character. (I know those same factual errors drive other readers up the wall, so.)

    For LK’s example, this “drafts on collection”: If it came up only once and didn’t have anything to do with a plot point, then I don’t really care what they are. If the drafts on collection are going to have something major to do with the plot, then I want to know as simply as possible what they are, but I want to know from the writer. I am not going to look things up while I’m reading a novel. I look things up for Scrabble challenges, and that’s about it.

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  29. Jane O
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 19:28:50

    I prefer to figure out whatever meaning is necessary from context, but if it’s in Greek, I appreciate a translation.

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  30. hapax
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 19:59:11

    @Lynne Connolly — I read about halfway through the Lymond Chronicles, realized I hated Lymond’s guts and held Philippa in contempt, and stopped for years. I tried again a decade or so later, because so many people assured me that I would love them if I finished them, and got stuck in the same place — skimmed the rest to see how it turned out, and if it got better. It didn’t, for me.

    I didn’t have to look up the references because at the time I was writing a graduate thesis on Renaissance English literature and was familiar with enough of them already, and (as I said) didn’t care enough about the rest.

    I’ve occasionally looked at the Niccolo books because, as I freely granted above, Dunnett writes a top-notch story and gets the time period beautifully right. But by every thing I know about my own tastes and interests I should have loved the Lymond Chronicles too, instead of becoming one of the few books I have actually physically hurled against the wall; and life is too short to populate my head with people I simply don’t like.

    I have always acknowledged that most people think I’m nuts for not liking these books. But, as I said, I think there is value in reminding people that tastes do vary, and it is okay not to like a particular work, even one that is as almost universally beloved.

    And apologies to all for dragging the thread off topic.

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  31. JJ
    Sep 26, 2009 @ 21:15:55

    I prefer defining by context. However, I don’t mind looking up a couple of words in a dictionary. I get extremely frustrated when a foreign languange is used and there is no explanation of what the words mean in English.

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  32. Nadia
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 01:34:32

    @Maili:

    I recently read a rom novel that's riddled with Romaji words (which, incidentally, were never translated nor explained) and I found this so irritating.

    Very typical of anime otaku trying too hard to be kakkoii. (for those of you who don’t speak the language otaku = geek or obsessive fan / kakkoii = cool)

    I would’ve returned the book as it’s not written in English or proper Japanese.

    (I may keep a book riddled with correctly used kanji because at least that shows that the author is literate in Japanese.)

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  33. LauraB
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 11:34:52

    Context, definitely context. If it’s a phrase that can’t be picked up on that way, then I’d prefer the author to explain through showing if possible. : )

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  34. Marianne McA
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 12:11:34

    I don’t really have a clear idea about many familiar Regency words: if you showed me a picture of a phaeton and one of a curricle, I’m not sure that I’d know which was which – but as long as I can tell from context that I’m reading about some sort of carriage, I don’t need to know more.
    (And if I did, I’d look it up.)

    In Brockmann’s most recent book, one of the characters uses the term ‘Occam’s razor’ and the phrase is then explained by one character to another. I’d honestly rather the author had flattered my intelligence, and assumed I would know the term – or that I would have the wit to look it up if it was an unfamiliar usage.
    I like that Sayers assumes (incorrectly, as my French teacher would tell her) that I can follow a scene without translation – makes me feel cleverer than I am.

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  35. ReacherFan
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 13:08:03

    Context usually determines meaning for me – though on occasion the multiple meanings of ordinary words can lead to indelible mental images. The one that has stuck with me for the longest time is from J. R. R. Tolkien. He describes (I’m working from memory here, so forgive me if this is a misquote) Bilbo Baggins is standing outside his home at Bag End “with his thumbs behind his braces…” I will forever see the Hobbit with two thumbs in his mouth behind teeth covered metal braces. :-)

    I am especially fond of mysteries from the 30′s and 40′s and enjoyed Dorthy L. Sayers, though she wasn’t my favorite. I think one of the reasons my verbal skills tested off the charts by the 5th grade was thanks to my intense reading habits and the quality of writing that used to be the norm. Yes, they used a lot of Latin (never took Latin), but mostly the writers used vocabularies you just don’t see today. Like the ‘dumbing down’ of magazines and newspapers, the vocabulary is that of the ‘average’ 12 year old.

    Today books are riddled with slang, supposed foreign phrases and terms, and sex. We have 100 words for killing, but ‘consensus’ is consistently misused. (If I read ‘consensus of opinion’ one more time I’ll scream) Don’t get me started on sex substituting for plot and writing ability. It’s like flashing skin or blowing things up in movies to distract people from the complete absence of PLOT!

    In working life, various disciplines speak and write in a specialized verbal shorthand with definitions slightly shaded in their meaning that are unique to a group. I’m a member of a voluntary consensus standards organization and each standard has a place for Definitions and Terms. Why? Because aside from those terms define by an equation, we tend to define them a little differently depending on the group using the term. They are similar, not identical, and the differences can mean a lot in the application of term. When I’m speaking before a group I always tell them to stop me and ask for clarification if I say something they don’t understand. I KNOW I’m guilty of using acronyms and coined terms!

    There is another factor. Readers, especially those who began young and have good retention, have larger working vocabularies and even bigger recognition vocabularies than non-readers. Most kids now are playing video and develop a specialized vocabulary specific to that environment and nowhere else. It’s a self-isolating past-time. Deliberately so. It marks them as ‘different’ and in their minds superior in some way. They interact with those with the same verbal skills and the same concept of superiority. Like to like for comfort in establishing a pecking order and hierarchy. Adults play the same game of separation. Over-educated people use their language skills to intimidate or impress or to elevate themselves above the ordinary. Throw in a few Latin, French, Italian, Japanese or Russian phrases to impress. Some writers do exactly that. Others actually add to their stories.

    I could no more speak or write hip hop jargon convincingly than I could suddenly develop a fluency in Russian. I’d look ridiculous trying – though Russian would my better bet at success. You know the phonies when they speak – and when they write. I had a co-worker that would use a word he was obviously unfamiliar with, awkwardly working it into a sentence. I finally asked if he had a ‘word a day’ calendar or something. He did. It was admirable he was making an effort to expand his working vocabulary, but there was no mistaking what he was doing.

    Words are a writers stock in trade. Use them well and readers get lost in a story. Use them badly and they’re nothing bust a constant distraction. I read fantasy for years before it began the cross-over into romance. Many writers have a foot in both worlds. With a few notable exceptions, I have found the fantasy worlds in romance less compelling than those in the classic fantasy genre. But the most frequent complaint I’ve had about books from romance and mystery ‘urban fantasy’ and ‘paranormal’ genres is poor world-building. At times it like watching a 60 year old trying to be hip and speaking bad teenage slang. It takes a very special skill set to build alternate worlds/reality. It’s easier to create an urban fantasy that’s of this world with various supernatural beings living side-by-side with normal people, ‘Muggles’. Yes, J. K. Rowling did it and you could watch her writing and ‘world’ evolve as she gained confidence as a writer and Harry grew into his power.

    Language is an living entity. Old words take on new meanings, new words are added, some words drop from use. The context and setting define much of the meaning of any word – and the subtler intent of using unusual, foreign, or specialized words to provide atmosphere – or just impress the reader. Just like my mental image of Bilbo’s thumbs, words have new and/or different meanings and it’s ONLY through context that they are understood.

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  36. Maili
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 17:08:04

    @ReaderFan

    Beautifully put.

    (Wait, does that make the shortest reply I’d made to DA?)

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  37. Jessica Kennedy
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 18:41:55

    I hope the author explains in the content of the book. If it’s not explained then it takes away from the story. If I have to stop and think about a term being used, that’s no good.

    It’s almost as bad as an author mentioning another movie, book, or song as a form of description to a scene. I CAN NOT stand that at all. If I’m forced out of the book by the mention of such a thing it kills my connection to the book! ARGH! I know I’ve gone off topic a bit but it has the same reaction from me.

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  38. Castiron
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 19:38:06

    I’d rather the context make it clear; if I’m confused, I can look it up (or if it’s a really obscure term or a made-up term, that’s what a glossary in back of the book is for), but since I come from a science fiction/fantasy reading background, I’m used to figuring out terms via the author’s incluing.

    An authorial explanation is more likely to throw me out of the story, unless it’s done in a way that makes sense within the story — I can buy a character explaining the difference between a phaeton and a curricle to someone visiting from a far distant country, but not the character explaining the difference to his older brother.

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  39. Chicklet
    Sep 27, 2009 @ 20:45:20

    I appreciate most when an author is able to explain an unusual/jargony term subtly, but have no problem inferring the definition from context absent a full-on definition within the text. And I love having an excuse to look up stuff and do research, so if an unidentified term or practice is bothering me, I hit the internet or whatever applicable reference books I have handy.

    What I absolutely hate is a ham-fisted conversation between two colleagues explaining to each other what they do for a living! Oy.

    What I hate only slightly less is having a character explain everything to a newbie, in a sort of infodump-via-PowerPoint. One recent example was the season premiere of NCIS, which was structured so that Tony was describing each member of the team, and their function on the team, to an outside party. It was easy to tell it had been done as a primer for people watching the show for the second or third time, having before caught only a few repeats on the USA Network or something. I could see why it was being done, but it was irritating as hell for any of us who had seen the show before and knew all of the characters already.

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  40. KMont
    Sep 28, 2009 @ 07:36:06

    Well, first of all I have got to address the “getting distracted” when having to put the book down to look something up. I’m only a mom of one, but when reading one single page I might have to put the book down ten times in twenty minutes due to something my child needs. What can I say, she’s an only and likely spoiled because of it. So having to stop and look up a word isn’t going to be much different for me. If I can’t get back to the book I’ll do so eventually; I mean, that’s like a walk in the book reading park compared to all that will take me away from reading. Something like that isn’t going to stop me reading a book these days. A boring as heck book will stop me the most. Looking at how engaged a book will keep me, and issues of unfamiliarity with some words, is a luxury that’s long left me stranded at the station. What I wouldn’t give sometimes to be able to put the book down just to look up a word and then get right back to reading the book. To me, having that kind of luxury feels like a dang myth now.

    That long-winded-ly being said, I would prefer to learn a new word within the context of the story, especially if it’s to do with the worldbuilding. I’ve come across some that were so alien to me though that even if the sentence went on to allude to the meaning there was no way I was going to get it till I looked it up. It’s really just a once-in-a-while hazard.

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  41. Miki
    Sep 28, 2009 @ 18:18:30

    I only started reading historical romances maybe five years ago, and I spent so much time while reading those first few books trying to guess what “fichu” and “curricle” and all the other unfamiliar words were…I almost stopped reading them. I probably lucked out with a few really good stories that made me persevere, but it was close for a while. I’m still just skimming on some of them today.

    But I agree – I wouldn’t expect a contemporary writer to explain a “microwave” or “jeans”.

    Last week I read through Deanna Raybourne’s Lady Julie Grey series and never was I more grateful for my new Sony’s dictionary! That woman has an impressive vocabulary and I took advantage of the dictionary to make sure what I was getting from the context was right.

    I guess like everyone else has already said, I’d prefer to get it from context. If it’s really important to the plot, and a rare word, I’d expect I should be able to get it from context or it had better be explained.

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  42. KMont
    Sep 29, 2009 @ 07:48:33

    This is going to be a very general example, but I was glancing over a LJers opinion on Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and the reader mentioned that the book was good, but might have been more enjoyable had they been familiar with the mythology it was all based on. Norse mythology is pretty well known, or it seems like it would be, the basics anyway. Yet I don’t know the deeper aspects so I could understand where the reader was coming from.

    I’d have to read the book to know exactly what they meant of course, but I would hope that if a mythology would be used that heavily, that it would be explained within the context of the book to the point that the reader does understand. And maybe it is understandable to other readers. Anyone here read it (I’ll search DA’s archives after, which makes so much sense…)? Do you think the whole Norse mythology aspect was understandable in the book, especially if you were not previously familiar with Norse myth?

    I wouldn’t want to feel like I should have taken a primer course before the book after having read it. If anything, I would hope the book would explain SO well that I would be excited to go on and learn more about traditional Norse mythology. Not that I’m saddling the author with that responsibility. Let’s just blame my coffee for this morning’s ramble.

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  43. Jane
    Sep 29, 2009 @ 08:38:44

    @KMont Part of the pleasure of reading speculative fiction is the unwrapping of the author’s world. I assume, going in, that they are creating an entirely new world that may originate with older myths and legends but that they are taking it and making it their own.

    I think of Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and truly, little of the world is explained right away but by the end of the story we know that there are dark faeries, light faeries and worlds that exist parallel to ours, particularly when the sun goes down. Ditto with McKinley’s Sunshine.

    I understand where a deeper knowledge of a subject might lead to a deeper appreciation of the story. While not a book, My Cousin Vinny, is a good example of this. I marvel at the way in which the movie takes elements from an actual trial and makes those elements funny and entertaining but totally accurate. I have a deep appreciation for how the trial scenes were constructed, how evidence was introduced, how procedural rules were followed and/or enforced in a totally non info dumping manner.

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  44. Kalen Hughes
    Sep 29, 2009 @ 12:52:54

    While not strictly romances, Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond books are some of the most romantic written during the 20th century. Dunnett never stopped to translate or explain, because her characters, and by extension her readers, were so immersed in the language of the era. Like Sayers, who she admired, Dunnett spoke several languages and peppered her books with obscure quotations, some of which were absolutely crucial to an understanding of the action.

    And my editor made me pull “Like Caesar's wife she was no longer above reproach”. *sigh* I the phrase was both well known and basically self-explanatory.

    I only started reading historical romances maybe five years ago, and I spent so much time while reading those first few books trying to guess what “fichu” and “curricle” and all the other unfamiliar words were…I almost stopped reading them . . . But I agree – I wouldn't expect a contemporary writer to explain a “microwave” or “jeans”.

    As a writer of historical fiction, I don't want to irritate and insult the devotees of the subgenre by explaining things that are-’to them-’as familiar as jeans and microwaves. I guess if I were going to chose, I'd have to say my preference is for the camp of Sayers, Dunnett and Heyer . . . but then I was recently told by an agent that it was clear that I “really liked history” (and she didn't mean it as a compliment).

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  45. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 29, 2009 @ 13:01:55

    I must be really lucky with the editors I’ve had for my historicals because they haven’t, so far, discouraged me in putting in the details. My books are set in the mid eighteenth century, and I have men in face paint wearing pink satin as heroes. Although I’ve sometimes held my breath because I do use some relatively obscure phrases and customs, I only do it when it’s necessary or when I need to add colour, I’ve only been called on it once, and for something that was really a bit obscure and sounded too much like something else to make for easy reading.
    And the more extreme I go, the more accurate to the time I get, the more doubtful I am that this will fly, the better the readers seem to like it. Since I love writing with all the depth and accuracy I can manage, I intend to carry on doing it.

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  46. Kalen Hughes
    Sep 29, 2009 @ 13:22:33

    And the more extreme I go, the more accurate to the time I get, the more doubtful I am that this will fly, the better the readers seem to like it. Since I love writing with all the depth and accuracy I can manage, I intend to carry on doing it.

    I’ve got a couple of your books loaded into my CyBook. I can’t wait to read them (just have to find the time to read at all; I’m in the process of moving and it’s a major time suck!).

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  47. hapax
    Sep 29, 2009 @ 14:41:45

    I’m with Kalen Hughes. I’ve never read any of Lynne Connolly’s books, but her comments on this thread have made me determined to track them down.

    See, viral marketing works!

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  48. Laura Kinsale
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 12:37:54

    Thanks for all the comments! Looks like generally there is a pretty good tolerance for going along with the author using unfamiliar terms in context, as long as it doesn’t go too far.

    Always the question of what’s too far, eh Lynne C?

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  49. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 02, 2009 @ 13:03:06

    @Laura Kinsale:
    Absolutely! I don’t use “nightgown” in its 18th century meaning of “evening gown” because of the modern connotations (all those ladies in billowing white cotton garments at a ball!)
    If it stops the flow, then I go with something else. But men in pink wearing white powdered wigs? Oh yeah!

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