SF pet peeve: Sudden Vocabulary Syndrome

One thing I’ve noticed in SF series that annoys me is what I call Sudden Vocabulary Syndrome: characters accidentally getting their vocabulary retconned. Halfway into a trilogy the author decides it would be really cool if rabbits were called “smeerps”, and as of the start of Book Two everyone is saying “smeerp”, never acknowledging that Book One has several uses of “rabbit”. Or, a character coins the term “smeerp” to refer to those hoppy things with long ears she keeps seeing, and it catches on, and the author eventually forgets that this hasn’t always been the in-universe term. Even good, famous authors can fall victim to SVS:

– Around book 4 or so of The Dark Tower, Roland introduces his ka-tet to words like “ka-tet”. Fine. Except that from that book forward, ka-tet is suddenly such an integral part of his vocabulary and culture that it beggars belief that he hasn’t brought it up this whole time. (In fact, I used to call SVS the less-generic “Ka-Tet Syndrome”). “Palaver” becomes a reoccurring character at this point, too, and it’s at least just as jarring. Roland speaks English, and palaver is a legitimate if obscure English word. Even if for some reason he was deliberately not speaking about ka-tets until now, palavar should have been as much a normal part of his vocabulary as “hello” or “gunslinger”.

– In The Curse of Chalion, the first book of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series, a man not having his soul taken up by the gods is a major, shocking event. The main character is all, “t-t-that’s impossible, I’ve never heard of anything like this before, if his soul’s not with the gods that must mean it’s floating around sundered somewhere” and when he finds out that ghosts exist he refers them as sundered, too.
Paladin of Souls, the second book, uses sundered also, but the MC is a character from the first book, she could have gotten it from the first MC, I’ll give her a pass. The fact that the priest she travels with knows about rites for helping dead people move on, I’ll give a pass to, too- sundering can be rare enough that the priesthood knows about it, but the average layperson doesn’t.
So. Book three, The Hallowed Hunt. It takes place in a different country, two hundred years before CoC. And everyone seems to know about sundering, and that after a certain amount of time it’s irreversible. The “t-t-that’s impossible” moment is about how it hasn’t happened in a certain case.
There’s also a series of Five Gods novellas about a shaman named Penric. Maybe four or five of them in, people start cursing using “sunder” in place of “damn”. I already thought the Penric stories felt phoned-in and inconsistent, but that was the point where I went, “[del]Dammit[/del] Sunder it, LMJ, really?”

– Brandon Sanderson decided that “cool” sounded too modern for The Stormlight Archive, and he needed a substitute. Unfortunately, he apparently came to this decision while writing Oathbringer, SA #3. First he put in a scene where two lower-class guys tell a sheltered upper-class lady that knives are “deevy”, and then have to explain to her what that means. Already I was wondering why none of the more rough-and-tumble characters had ever been seen using deevy before.
Then, near the end, a character named Lift uses deevy. Aside from the fact that we’ve seen Lift before, she’s from the other side of the continent than the knife guys. She speaks an entirely different language. Why would she use the same slang that they do?

[Fan canon] Ten years ago nobody knew what a hash tag was. Now everyone knows. [/Fan canon]

Ka-tet is such a cool word I wish King had invented it for the first book.

Okay, after some thought, I take this back. Lift’s magic is hinted to do something to help her with other languages in the novella; at the very least, she’s shown to pick up on regional slang improbably quickly. So if she knows enough Alethi to speak to the local MC’s, she probably would use their slang.
I still think the overall introduction of “deevy” was clunky, however.

When Larry Niven wrote the book “The Integral Trees”, he had his characters use the word ‘stet’ as a slang word meaning ‘leave it’. Fine. But then in the book “The Ringworld Throne”, his characters in that series also start using the word ‘stet’ all the time, whereas they never used in the first two books (“Ringworld” and “The Ringworld Engineers”). That kind of annoyed me.

(I may be getting some of the details mixed up; it’s been a while since I read those books.)

Considering how long it took him to write the series, and everything he’d gone through in that period of time (drug addiction, car crash), I’m willing to accept some inconsistencies. He was barely the same person at the start as he was at the finish.

There’s a very simple solution here. Reissue the previous volumes to conform with the new standard.

Fiction has always been subject to revision.

I’m imagining an emergency recall applying to anyone whose copy has a serial number below 12,658, with safety warnings broadcast on TV before the newscast. :slight_smile:

Errata in the form of digital downloads that can be printed on paper, or update e-books, wouldn’t be hard.

Not hard to administer, but hard to want.

It would cure the complaint. Why not want it? Especially if it’s free.

I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t understand the hand wringing over continuity problems. The fact is that a creator will want to change things over time, rendering older material conflicting.

You can cry and wail over a problem that will never go away, or you can accept the obvious solution.

Authors now often have interactions with readers. Just make your problems heard and suggest revisions.

Many major works of fiction have multiple versions. It shouldn’t be a problem.

I don’t remember if it was ever made explicit, but I don’t think Roland speaks English. IIRC he speaks the High Speech, and this leads to things like his calling tuna fish sandwiches tooter fish popkins.

Tolkien did it when he re-issued a “corrected” version of The Hobbit. He even made the earlier version part of the myth.

Its been a while since I read them, but I believe Roland and Walter “palaver” at the end of the first book.

Because that’s seen as erasing history. I don’t know why you think that people go back and edit the early books to retcon things, but it is largely untrue. Tolkien’s change of the Hobbit is the exception, not the rule. And he had to give an in-universe reason to pull it off.

What’s more, it doesn’t fix the problem. People have already read the first book. You can go back and change it, but that change wasn’t there when they first read it. So the problem persists.

The real solution is to either not do this, or have an in-universe reason why the words become more common. Give the fans an excuse.

As for caring about continuity: it breaks the suspension of disbelief if the past changes, since that doesn’t happen in real life. It’s hard to imagine yourself in an alternate world if that world is constantly changing. Well, unless that’s the point.

That said, I just think it’s easier to accept the “Literary Agent Hypothesis” to fix small continuity hiccups. The author is describing a real world, and, if there is a continuity problem, it just means the author messed up. You can then still create a consistent world in your head.

Still, it’s best if the author doesn’t depend on that, or, like Tolkien, does it explicitly.

I personally would think badly of any Internet creator who went back and changed things because the fans were complaining about continuity, BTW. Sure, an actual offensive statement that hits on bigotry is one thing. Or just actually making a mistake. But because the fans don’t like a continuity hiccup?

No, a good author will make it work, not try to erase history.

The fact is that fiction, even fantasy fiction, is not actually history, and it shouldn’t be approached as if it is.

It’s literature. It’s storytelling. And later iterations of a story shouldn’t be shackled in this way, especially over minor background details, and especially yet over implied details.

Philip Roth wrote about the same characters repeatedly, frequently rewriting their lives. Ancient mythology is full of alernative, clashing back story.

Dr. Watson’s war injury kept moving around.

Detail should serve story, not the other way around.

And of course it’s not true that inconsistency in minor detail is uncommon, otherwise you wouldn’t have so much effort going into addressing it all.

Accept it, fiction is fiction. It’s not a documentary about a real world. It doesn’t adhere to rigid consistency.