The Fantasy Writer’s Dictionary

Words can be highly volatile, explosive even, and yet we rarely stop to consider their power. Use them incorrectly, and you can get yourself killed, in a bar, for instance; or in the face of a religious fanatic. Words also have the capacity to heal. Consider the consoling effect of a eulogy, the world shaping sermon of Jesus or the philosophy of Socrates. Mathematicians like to argue that their discipline trumps all other sciences. Psychology is rooted in biology, biology in physics, and physics in math. But without language to give meaning to all those numbers, math might as well be scratchings on a cat post.

In the hand of a brilliant writer, a pen becomes a wand, the words incantations, and the sentences spells. How else do you explain the transportive power of fiction? Its potential to bring tears to the eyes? But for a language apprentice, words can also backfire. This is particularly true of words that are not part of everyday parlance. If you’re always digging through your spell book . . . er, thesaurus, for an awkward synonym (like parlance), you’ll come across as cocky. Used properly, however, a well placed word can engender trust in the author’s abilities. When I pick up a book, I want to know that I can trust where the story will take me. An author asks for a great deal of faith from his readers. If he comes across as inexperienced or just lazy, I’ll lose confidence in his story. This is why spelling and grammar are so important, but also, proper and effective word use.

In an online debate, philosopher Sam Harris accused his opponent of being, “vituperative.” I’d never even heard of the word and I am pretty sure the guy he was debating didn’t either. With a single abstract adjective, Harris shifted the balance of the debate in his favor, like a boxer with a well placed jab. It was as if to say, “I am smarter than you. You can’t win this.” Here’s another example from George R.R. Martin. As I was getting through Storm of Swords, I came across a scene where a girl—I think it was Arya—“hid behind the wain.” But what the heck is a wain? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “wain” is an archaic noun for wagon, which begs the question, why the heck didn’t Martin just use wagon? Certainly, more people would have understood it. But I don’t think clarity is the issue here. Every now and then, I think, Martin wants to let his readers know he’s smarter than they are. Oh, and all you perfect-SAT scorers who may be thinking, “This guy’s dumb, how could he not know such simple words like vituperative or wain?” let me ask you, do you know what “crozzled” means? Turns out, the OED doesn’t either. But it is a real word. And Cormac McCarthy expects you to know it.

This is why I feel it would be useful to have a dictionary made for writers, and writers of fantasy especially, because we tend to make greater use of archaic nouns and lesser known terms. But as it turns out, such a resource does not exist. So, I decided to make my own. What follows is my vocabulary list, to be expanded periodically, that I think all serious writers need to know.

Please note: While many of these words have multiple meanings, I have elected to use either the lesser known definition, or the one that I feel most useful to writers of fantasy.

*Here I have replaced a few Earth specific terms, like Muslim and North America, with more generic or Aenya related versions. I have also replaced some OED examples with my own.


ABJURE (v): To renounce a belief or claim.

ABROGATE (v): evade (a responsibility or duty): we believe the soldiers are abrogating their responsibilities.

BALDRIC (n): a belt for a sword or other piece of equipment, worn over one shoulder and reaching down to the opposite hip.

BATTLEMENT (n): a parapet at the top of a wall, usually of a fort or castle, that has regularly spaced, squared openings for shooting through.

BESOM (n): a broom made of twigs tied around a stick.

BINNACLE (n): a built-in housing for a ship’s compass.

BLAZING STAR (n): any of a number of plants [found in the *North], some of which are cultivated for their flowers, in particular:

BLOCK AND TACKLE (n): a mechanism consisting of ropes and one or more pulley-blocks, used for lifting or pulling heavy objects.

BODICE (n): the part of a woman’s dress (excluding sleeves) that is above the waist / a woman’s vest, especially a laced vest worn as an outer garment.

BOX KITE (n): a tailless kite in the form of a long box open at each end.

BRIAR (n): any number of prickly scrambling shrubs.

BRIGANDINE (n):  a form of body armor from the Middle Ages. It is a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric.

BUSTLE (n): a pad or frame worn under a skirt and puffing it out behind.

CAPSTAN (n): a revolving cylinder with a vertical axis used for winding a rope or cable [usually for a ship] pushed around by levers.

CHADOR (n): a large piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head and upper body leaving only the face exposed, worn especially by *Shemite women.

CHICORY (n): a blue-flowered [found near the *One Sea] plant of the daisy family, cultivated for its edible salad leaves and carrot-shaped root.

CHIMINEA (n): an earthenware outdoor fireplace shaped like a light bulb, with the bulbous end housing the fire and typically supported by a wrought-iron stand.

CLOG (n): a wooden shoe

COGITATING (v): think deeply about something; meditate or reflect: *Xandr stroked his beard and retired to cogitate.

COLLUDE (v): come to a secret understanding for a harmful purpose; conspire: *Zaibos colluded with his soldiers to usurp the throne. 

CREEL (n): a wicker basket for carrying fish.

CRENELLATE  (v) [ with obj. ] (usu. as adj. crenellated): provide (a wall of a building) with battlements.

CROZZLED (adj.): burnt.

DAMASK (v): to decorate with a variegated pattern.

DHOW (n): a lateen-rigged ship with one or two masts, used on the *Potamis River.

DIRNDL (n): a full, wide skirt with a tight waistband.

EPHEMERAL (adj.): lasting for a very short time: fashions are ephemeral.

EWER (n): a large jug with a wide mouth for carrying water or washing.

EXHORTATIONS (n): an address or communication emphatically urging someone to do something: exhortations to eat well | no amount of exhortation had any effect.

FEN (n): a low and marshy or frequently flooded area of land.

FLAGON (n): a large container in which drink is served, typically with a handle and spout: there was a flagon of beer in his vast fist.

FLAGSTONE (n): a flat stone slab used for paving.

FOSSE (n): a long, narrow trench or excavation.

GRAPNEL (n): a grappling hook / a small anchor with several flukes.

GYRKE (n): a solution fissure, a vertical crack formed by the dissolving of limestone by water, that divides an exposed limestone surface into sections or clints

HARROW (n): an implement consisting of a heavy frame set with teeth or tines that is dragged over plowed land to break up clods, remove weeds, and cover seed.

HOLLYHOCK (n): a tall plant of the mallow family, widely cultivated for its large showy flowers.

IMPRECATORY (adj.): As relating to a spoken curse: she hurled her imprecations at anyone who might be listening.

INDOLENT (adj.): wanting to avoid activity or exertion; lazy.

INVEIGHING (v): speak or write about (something) with great hostility: *Esse inveighed against Zaibos’ tyranny.

LARGESSE (n): money or gifts given generously: the distribution of largesse to the local population.

LIVERY (n): a special uniform worn by a servant or official.

PEDANTIC (adj.): a pedantic interpretation of the rules: scrupulous, precise, exact, perfectionist, meticulous, fussy, literalist, hair-splitting, nitpicking, persnickety.

PENNON (n): a tapering flag or banner.

PEJORATIVE (n): a word expressing contempt or disapproval.

PRIMROSE (n): a commonly cultivated plant of woodland areas that produces pale yellow flowers in the early spring.

PRIVET (n): a shrub of the olive family, with small white, heavily scented flowers and poisonous black berries.

PRIVY (n): a toilet located in a small shed outside a house or other building; an outhouse.

PROMENADE (n): a paved public walk, typically one along a waterfront at a resort.

PROPITIOUS (adj.): favorably disposed toward someone: there were points on which they did not agree, moments in which she did not seem propitious.

PUISSANT (adj.): having great power or influence.

PURPLE CONEFLOWER (n): A cone-shaped, purple flower. 

QIBLAS (n): The western road leading to *Shemselinihar, the holy city.

QUAY (n): A concrete, stone, or metal platform lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships.

QUINTAIN (n): a post set up as a mark in tilting with a lance, typically with a sandbag attached that would swing around and strike an unsuccessful tilter.

QUIXOTIC (adj.) exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical: Her quixotic nature clashed with that of her brother, *Zaibos.

TRUNCHEON (n): Shaft of a spear.

TUSSOCK (n): a small area of grass that is thicker and longer than the grass around it.

RUBRIC (n): a statement of purpose or function: art for a purpose, not for its own sake, was his rubric.

SEPULCHER (n): a small room or monument, cut in rock or built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried.

SKEIN (n): a tangled or complicated arrangement, state, or situation: the skeins of her long hair | figurative : a skein of lies.

STOCHASTIC (adj.): randomly determined.

SWARD (n): an expanse of short grass

TEMERITY (n): excessive confidence or boldness; audacity: *Radia had the temerity to question her brother’s authority.

TILTH (n): prepared surface soil.

UBIQUITOUS (adj.): present, appearing, or found everywhere: *Radia’s presence was ubiquitous throughout the city.

VITUPERATIVE (adj.): bitter and abusive: the criticism soon turned into a vituperative attack.

WHANG (n): a noisy blow

WYND (n): a narrow street or alley

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