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Author Topic: Wordpower: Terminology at Work  (Read 1941 times)
Windthin
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Posts: 51


« on: August 26, 2003, 01:47:06 PM »

There's been talk of late here about terminology.  I've noticed that most games strive to develop their own terminology.  They borrow a bit from others, but it's their own terms that stick... these things make them unique in some ways, and harder to get into in others, especially when they are weighed down heavily with special OOC and IC jargon.  One must admit, though, that the terms of a game are part of it, help define it.  Who has not heard somebody jokingly mention their +1 golf club or some similar item?

One of the problems that arises, clearly, is keeping things smooth and not too difficult to learn.  Another, as I see things, rests in borrowed words.  Existing words taken from other games, cliches which are so well-known... they're a little TOO well-known.

One of my favorites to use as an example is Paladin.  This word has quite a history to it, you'd be surprised, but most know paladins as stuffed-shirt clanking holy warriors.  The stereotype around this word is powerful, the connotations moreso, and though for some it means simply holy warrior. it is difficult to get away from the image of a hard-edged, uncompromosing heroic-type.  The very existence of the term anti-paladin points to this.  I've played systems were holy warriors can come in many flavors, as makes sense, since their gods do as well.  Clearly a follower of a god of deceit and illusion won't be using the same tricks and skills as those of Ernag the Rather Dull, Lord of Staunch Heroism.  Now, you can use the term paladin and hope to tear the minds of your players away from that particular stereotype, preconception, or you can coin a new term entirely, or seek an old one, or just simply go with something blunt, unpoetic, but truthful like, well, Holy Warrior.  The steps you take when determining the language of your game will ultimately shape it, both on paper and in the minds of those who seek to make it their own.  

I am curious to know what others think about this matter, and how they handle the task of choosing just the diction they need or want.  I clearly have my own ideas, preferences, and could add to what I have above... but am more interested in feedback now, from any which angle.
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HMT
Member

Posts: 66


« Reply #1 on: August 27, 2003, 05:20:59 AM »

I say:
Quote from: Windthin
... just simply go with something blunt, unpoetic, but truthful like, well, Holy Warrior ...
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HMT
Member

Posts: 66


« Reply #2 on: August 27, 2003, 09:43:59 AM »

On second thought, it might be better still to give both a nice setting specific (poetic?) name like Jedi Knight and a descriptive, utilitarian name like Holy Warrior.
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Windthin
Member

Posts: 51


« Reply #3 on: August 27, 2003, 11:43:32 AM »

Quote from: HMT
On second thought, it might be better still to give both a nice setting specific (poetic?) name like Jedi Knight and a descriptive, utilitarian name like Holy Warrior.


The fact is, both ARE acceptable.  We rarely have one specific word that is nailed to a meaning; often there are many with variable interchangeability (as many words come close in meaning but are not quite the same).  Wolf, beast, animal, creature, critter, lupine.  Warrior, sellsword, mercenary, soldier, swordsman, halberdier, strongarm, thug, muscle, combatant, fighter, berserker.  All words in both sets have a common ground, but clearly cannot all be used under the same circumstances.  I think you may well be right... and the solution is to develop your terms and your jargon, but also leave room for more common speech, rather than dogmatically holding others to the diction you've determined pleases you.  I think a problem I see often is that many CAN'T seem to pull away from such terms, to imagine that there might be people who don't use them, who use other words and terms, who've ever even heard of the word and express the concept in an entirely different manner.  A compromise, I think... works, yes.
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #4 on: August 27, 2003, 11:54:40 AM »

Did you know that Barbarian meant "non-catholic" for most of it's exitence. So should I use "uncivilized warrior" to indicate that type? I'm sure that "Holy" has some etymology behind it that relates it to some cultural reference (perhaps the plant Holly is somehow related?). Warrior, almost certainly has some specific cultural referents.

Who gets to decide what terms are "truthful"?

I think that you have to beware of pointless deconstruction. Yes, you should carefully consider what terms to use, to be sure. But language is a construct that has continually changing meanings, and is a tool. Don't abandon something just because a particular interperetation of the meaning of a term is not in line with another meaning. Sure, Paladin refers historically to 8 of Charlemagne's knights. It also refers to a radio show character who, IIRC, was a cowboy (Have Gun, Will Travel). So it's become a synonymous with a mounted hero?

Not a big deal. As long as you explain your terms well, that's the most important part. Don't rely on a particular understanding of the term. Clinton's game is no worse for having chosen Paladin as it's title specifically because it expalins in no uncertain terms what it means.

I totally agree that one can go overboard with terms. But one can also go overboard trying to genericise language. I'm not useually one for "common sense", but I think it might apply here.

Mike
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Windthin
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Posts: 51


« Reply #5 on: August 27, 2003, 12:00:54 PM »

I am well aware of the origins of Paladin, and how words change radically over time.  I am also aware of how certain words have changed in usage; however, if you ask the majority of gamers, they will never have heard of the man with the chess piece on his card.  A paladin, for them, is fairly set in stone.  What came before does not alter the fact that some words are more difficult to change the usage of than others in the present.  As I said, yes, you have to beware over-generalizing AND over-specifying... but I still believe certain words, terms, carry such strong connotative baggage that they are nigh impossible to turn to your needs, and better left behind.
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #6 on: August 27, 2003, 01:01:07 PM »

I dunno. I think I like the idea of changing gamers perceptions of a term (or just marketing to non-gamers) better than catering to their ideosyncracies by avoiding using one of their embedded terms. Something I really admire in Clinton's game. Same with Sorcerer.

But we're all agreed that it's about doing these things consciously.

Mike
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HMT
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« Reply #7 on: August 27, 2003, 03:43:56 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
Did you know that Barbarian meant "non-catholic" for most of it's exitence. So should I use "uncivilized warrior" to indicate that type?


Both, barbarian is a fine word to use. But, you may need to fall back on uncivilized warrior for those  who think it means non-catholic or someone who does not speak greek.

The rest of this message will be pedantic and can safely be ignored.
Quote
I'm sure that "Holy" has some etymology behind it that relates it to some cultural reference ...
Holy is from the same root as whole. The root means healthy or unhurt.
Quote
... It also refers to a radio show character who, IIRC, was a cowboy (Have Gun, Will Travel) ...
Have Gun, Will Travel was a television show.
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John Kim
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« Reply #8 on: August 27, 2003, 04:40:25 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
 I think I like the idea of changing gamers perceptions of a term (or just marketing to non-gamers) better than catering to their ideosyncracies by avoiding using one of their embedded terms. Something I really admire in Clinton's game. Same with Sorcerer.

But we're all agreed that it's about doing these things consciously.

Hmmm.   You always have to deal with connotations of a word, I think.  By using words at odds with their previously-understood meanings, you are addressing that previous usage -- like deconstruction, parody, or transformation.  If you don't want to do this, then it's probably better to go with a more obscure word or made-up word.  

As for paladins, D&D isn't unique in its use of the word.  Besides Charlemagne's peers, my dictionary defines it as "a paragon of chivalry; heroic champion".  Using it connotes the ideals of traditional chivalry.  There can be interesting reasons to redefine it.  One GM I know of had a D&D campaign where he secretly modelled the order of paladins on the Nazis, dedicated to wiping out the influence of evil races like orcs and goblins.  This used the player association of the word to add to the shock when they realized the truth.  

I have been pondering a game which plays on the associated meanings of "barbarian" -- I may write about it soon.
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- John
M. J. Young
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« Reply #9 on: August 27, 2003, 10:17:09 PM »

I happen this week to be working on a scenario for The Third Book of Worlds in which terminology, some entrenched in gamer and geek culture and some relatively unfamiliar, is implicated, and I've had to make decisions about this for myself.

The scenario is that one mentioned in my post in contacts last week, a world modeled on Japanese feudalism. My researches have given me a fairly solid grasp of a wide range of vocabulary defining persons of various noble ranks and positions, including the meaning-laden Samurai, Bushi, and Ninja, the familiar but less entrenched Mikado, Shogun, and Geisha, and the relatively unknown Kuge, Kanpaku, and Kizoku. The question is, do I attempt to feed my referees all this cultural baggage to give the world its flavor, or do I dump the terms that are unfamiliar and replace them with something they can more easily remember?

My decision (and it might not work for your situation) has been to pair every Japanese word with an English one which captures enough of the concept that the referee and the players can more easily pick up who these people are without having to learn the new vocabulary. Thus I always write "Mikado/Emperor" or "Daimyo/General" in the text. I'm expecting that in play referees will vary greatly in their use. Some may use all Japanese, some all English. Some may use the more familiar Japanese words but fill in the unusual ones with the English equivalents. Some will probably swither, using English and Japanese designations somewhat interchangeably for the same office.

My thinking is that a referee has a lot to remember in play. This is something I always have in mind when I design: how can I help the referee remember the details? In The Dancing Princess, my three princesses were, from eldest to youngest, Margaret, Nerene, and Olivia--in alphabetical order. It was presented in the description as a mnemonic to help remember the names, and which was which. So too here, I'm giving the referee the exposure to the Japanese names in describing the world, but connecting them in his mind with the English. If he doesn't have the time or inclination or ability to easily memorize a dozen Japanese titles, he can use the English ones. If he thinks color is important to creating this scenario, he can use the Japanese. If he mixes them in play, he'll both help the players grasp the positions these people have in the hierarchy and bring the color into the game.

Using words that the referee can remember and connect with a specific character type is always a good idea, even if to do so you have to modify the meaning of the term in his mind. It will only matter to the players if you're trying to use the words for color within the game world, in which case you need to use words that will convey the desired impression. We could certainly decide that the proper title for the King's top advisor is The Royal Scoundrel, but unless you particularly want confusing color in the game, The Lord High Chancellor is probably a better designation.

--M. J. Young
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Windthin
Member

Posts: 51


« Reply #10 on: August 28, 2003, 12:05:26 AM »

Quote from: John Kim
I have been pondering a game which plays on the associated meanings of "barbarian" -- I may write about it soon.


I've done some of this in one of my settings... played with how almost everybody considers somebody else to be barbarians... nomads versus settlers, races who find themselves more at odds, and naturally peoples within races who feel themselves superior to others.  Do orcs have orcish barbarians, elves elven barbarians?  Why not?  I know often people depict races as being rather more inclined to work with others of their race than with members of another, but what happens when members of two different races have much more in common with eachother culturally than with other societies made up of either one?  The possibilities are truly endless as to what one considers barbaric, just as they are when one thinks about what is considered civilized.  Hardly anybody thinks of themsleves as barbarians, and if somebody from a society does, they usually seek out something that better fits with their beliefs, or try to change the one they are in.
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contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« Reply #11 on: August 28, 2003, 01:29:19 AM »

I think this is something of an extension of System Does Matter.  Fine: terminology may not be system in the strict sense, but language does fram conceptual assumptions.  I actively like it when a game employes internal terminology rather than external terminology, because this lends support to the maintenance of a consistent vision.
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simon_hibbs
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Posts: 678


« Reply #12 on: August 29, 2003, 03:55:02 AM »

Quote from: contracycle
I think this is something of an extension of System Does Matter.  Fine: terminology may not be system in the strict sense, but language does fram conceptual assumptions.  I actively like it when a game employes internal terminology rather than external terminology, because this lends support to the maintenance of a consistent vision.


I think I agree when that vision might vary from the reader's expectations. If a game defines the role of the GM/referee differently to most games, using a novel term that emphasizes that difference is appropriate. The same goes for terms that are particularly apt for the genre.

I'm going to have to rethink the terminology I'm using in BoB at some stage though. At the moment I suspect the terms I'm using simply refelct those of the games I've been running most recently, rather than being entirely appropriate to the game itself.


Simon Hibbs
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Simon Hibbs
Alan
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« Reply #13 on: August 29, 2003, 07:41:03 AM »

A quick $.02

Good terms for people places and things reflect the mindset of your setting.  Choose the English word with the closest meaning and flavor.
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- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
HMT
Member

Posts: 66


« Reply #14 on: August 29, 2003, 11:10:44 AM »

Quote from: Alan
...  Choose the English word with the closest meaning and flavor.
And, explain what you mean by it. You are not limited to one word. Once its meaning in this context is clearly established, the one word will suffice. (Mike made this point using the word paladin as his example earlier.)
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