8th Day, Write or Wrong: Difficult words in books

AndrasAndras Shipmate
edited January 28 in Limbo
Assuming that one is not writing for readers at or even below the level of the Sun newspaper, how far can a writer get away with using words that won't be in even the passive vocabulary of most readers?

The current work-in-progress includes the following paragraph, to which Mrs. Andras took exception on the grounds of difficulty. The description is of the Holy Chalice.

I saw it myself, long years ago; an unremarkable thing, just a common mazer cup to the eye, no bigger than a man could hold in the palm of his hand; but there was power in it for all that. And then, as is the way of such things, it was lost: stolen, perhaps, or maybe only misplaced, its virtue unrecognised. Or perhaps it was only hidden from the sight of men.


Can I get away with mazer cup? Or will it send readers screaming to hide behind the sofa?

Comments

  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    A beautiful passage but as someone who isn't a lover of mead, I would need to Google.
  • Fawkes CatFawkes Cat Shipmate
    I don't see anything wrong with challenging your readers. But is a mazer cup the sort of item that your character is likely to be familiar with and to use as a comparison? Is it the sort of thing that your character would expect whoever they are talking to to recognise as being a useful comparison?

    In other words, does it make sense in context?
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Fawkes Cat wrote: »
    I don't see anything wrong with challenging your readers. But is a mazer cup the sort of item that your character is likely to be familiar with and to use as a comparison? Is it the sort of thing that your character would expect whoever they are talking to to recognise as being a useful comparison?

    In other words, does it make sense in context?

    Thanks for that.

    In context, yes, it does make sense as a comparison; we're in the late 7th century, and the speaker is describing the sort of item that both he and his hearers would be familiar with. Here's the paragraph just before the one I'd quoted earlier:

    The wall of the cottage was full of dancing shadows when Emrys at last sat down cross-legged and began his tale. 'Have you ever heard that Our Lord came to this island when he was a lad, barely into his teens? It was his uncle that brought him, the same Joseph that spoke up for him in the council of the Jews, and that gave him a fine tomb to rest in. And afterwards that very Joseph came to this land again, landing far to the south of here in the place they call Woad Island, and bearing the olive-wood cup in which the wine had been shared among the disciples at the Last Supper.

    In fact the cup that Emrys describes is one that I've seen myself; I wonder if anyone here will recognise it? Woad Island, of course, is Glastonbury.
  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    I would have to look it up, which is fine if there is one of these every few chapters - at the most. Also, is knowing the word critical to the story? If so, it should be explained somewhere. If not - and in this case I don't think it is - fine, and let the read look it up if they are interested.

    In general, stretching your readers in an appropriate way is fine. Reading should educate. As long as this does this at a sensible pace, it is fine.
  • Just barging in to say it looks fine to me, though I appreciate that some might want to look it up...and, Andras, I would be very interested in reading the rest :)
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host
    I don’t mind meeting words I don’t know, provided I don’t feel that the author is simply showing off.

    Dorothy Sayers in both Clouds of Witness and in Busman’s Honeymoon uses extensive passages of French, and in her short story “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question” the key clue
    is a matter of French grammar.
    My schoolroom French needs some help with these, but I don’t feel she’s showing off do I don’t mind. (OTOH I know someone who did German rather than French and finds it very irritating!)
  • This is completely fine. It is clear that a mazer is a kind of cup from context. If the particular kind of cup is a critical plot point, you can explain it later. If it's just colour, it's fine. (Also, I'd expect people who routinely read mediaeval fiction to be familiar with the word.)
  • BroJames wrote: »
    in her short story “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question” the key clue
    is a matter of French grammar.

    Yes, I missed that clue the first time I read it, got to the denouement, went back and re-read the passage in question, and was enlightened. I don't think not catching it on the first read detracts from the story at all.
  • Amanda B ReckondwythAmanda B Reckondwyth Mystery Worship Editor
    Andras wrote: »
    It was his uncle that brought him.
    Surely "It was his uncle who brought him."

    I would prefer to see a very concise definition of mazer cup following the term, surrounded by dashes.
  • Jengie JonJengie Jon Shipmate
    edited May 2018
    This is the sort of query we have at my writers' group every couple of weeks. It is one of the joys of being culturally (though not ethnically; our Africans are as white as unbleached cotton) diverse. The rule is normally that if all the important information can be gathered from context then let people look it up. If something essential is communicated by the word that cannot be gathered from how it is used then let provide some explanation, either endnote or put something in the text to give the information. Whatever you do keep this addition light and do not make it clunky.
  • HedgehogHedgehog Shipmate
    This is completely fine. It is clear that a mazer is a kind of cup from context. If the particular kind of cup is a critical plot point, you can explain it later.
    I agree with this. If I were reading and saw the phrase "mazer cup" I would raise my eyebrow at the unfamiliar word, but if it wasn't repeated I probably would just keep on reading, assuming that it was a particular kind of cup.

    However, if the particular kind was meant as a plot point, the polite thing would be to provide some kind of description, such as "it was a broad, wooden cup, with no handles: a common mazer cup."
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Andras wrote: »
    It was his uncle that brought him.
    Surely "It was his uncle who brought him."

    I would prefer to see a very concise definition of mazer cup following the term, surrounded by dashes.

    Ah, Miss Amanda, I'm writing this in my second language and this is the sort of slip I sometimes make, so I'm grateful for the correction, which will perhaps save my editor's red pencil.

    I still can't get my head round the reason that it's The house that Jack built rather than The house which Jack built. English really is weird!

    Emrys is really, of course, not speaking English anyway but early Welsh and would probably have called it a cwpan yfed, that is, a 'drinking cup'; but as English supplies a very precise word which happens to match the actual item, I've chosen to use the more exact - but far rarer - term. And anyway, I like it!

    I do, however, confess I don't like explanations in dashes, any more than I like foot- or end-notes in novels, though I admit that the ones in the Flashman books are hilarious.

    I think folk can pick up the echo of some of my editor's questions and comments in this discussion!
  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    Just as another comment, while I can look up the occasional word that I don't understand, I might be reading in a situation where I don't have internet access (like, in bed). So as long as I don't need to know the word to carry on, and to finish my reading for this time.
  • RdrEmCofERdrEmCofE Shipmate
    Andras wrote: »
    It was his uncle that brought him.
    Surely "It was his uncle who brought him."

    I would prefer to see a very concise definition of mazer cup following the term, surrounded by dashes.

    Wouldn't a glossary be less intrusive of the text. Bernard Cornwell provides a glossary of Saxon and Viking place names in some of his historical fiction.
  • Amanda B ReckondwythAmanda B Reckondwyth Mystery Worship Editor
    Andras wrote: »
    I still can't get my head round the reason that it's The house that Jack built rather than The house which Jack built. English really is weird!
    Indeed, but so are most languages.

    It's a question of restrictive vs. non-restrictive.

    If the descriptive clause restricts the object described -- i.e., limits it to one possibility out of many, you would use "that". If the descriptive clause is merely descriptive -- i.e., it doesn't single out the object as the only possible one out of a larger group -- you would use "which." But admittedly many native speakers do not honor the rule.

    Thus: "There is no more malt in the house that Jack built." [One specific house out of all possible houses.] But "There is no more malt in the house on the northwest corner of Main and Vine, which Jack built." [Already specifically identified; the fact that Jack built it is merely incidental.]
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    RdrEmCofE wrote: »
    Andras wrote: »
    It was his uncle that brought him.
    Surely "It was his uncle who brought him."

    I would prefer to see a very concise definition of mazer cup following the term, surrounded by dashes.

    Wouldn't a glossary be less intrusive of the text. Bernard Cornwell provides a glossary of Saxon and Viking place names in some of his historical fiction.
    Yes, but you've got to be complete if you’re going to do that. Cornwell is a case in point—he does it for many place names, but there always seem to be some he leaves out. It’s frustrating when I try to look up a name and find it’s not on the list.

    Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books and other series based on Greek, Roman, Norse or Egyptian mythology, always includes complete glossaries in the back of his books that include every god or goddess, spirit, hero or demigod, and other mythological element that he includes or mentions in the book.

  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    The other thing I have seen is that a preface or appendix where some of the more obscure words are explained. This can work if there are just a few that some suitable explanation is needed for. It can also help to give some insight into the nature of the book.

    I have also read Christopher Tolkeins History of Middle Earth series, some volumes of which have notes and glossary of words that are uncommon. So I had to have 3 bookmarks at once. I don't recommend that for most writing.
  • Curiosity killedCuriosity killed Shipmate, 8th Day Host
    Isn't mazer cup tautology? Because a mazer is a type of cup, usually made of wood.

    Reading, I don't mind new words, so long as I can gather what is being described in context. Authors that necessitate reading with a dictionary handy stop the flow of the storytelling - I gave up on either The Magus or The Collector by John Fowles having loved A French Lieutenant's Woman because life was too short to check all the vocabulary in case it was required for the plot.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    edited May 2018
    Andras wrote: »
    ... I still can't get my head round the reason that it's The house that Jack built rather than The house which Jack built. English really is weird! ...
    I shouldn't worry about it, Andras. Apart from Miss Amanda and a few self-conscious grammarians, it's a distinction that most of the time most other first language English people don't make.

    It might even be one that is largely restricted to some dialects, rather in the way that North Americans don't approve of using 'they' and 'them' as singular indeterminate pronouns. Logically they are correct; 'they' and 'them' are plural. But in British English that usage is convenient and much more accepted. On the other hand, British English is far more particular than North American English about the difference between the tenses 'I did' and 'I have done'.


    I'd agree, though, that if you're going to use 'mazer' at all, 'mazer-cup' is a tautology. It's as wrong as the NRSV's curious phrase about hiding one's light under a 'bushel basket'.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host
    edited May 2018
    Although, interestingly the Wikipedia page in bushel shows a page from an old exercise book where the picture of the bushel measure is labelled as a bushel basket. Presumably there could be bushel measures which were not baskets, and baskets which were not bushel-sized.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host
    Not all bushel-measures are baskets, and not all baskets measure a bushel. Interestingly the Wikipedia page for ‘bushel’ shows a page from an old schoolbook where the picture of a bushel measure is labelled as a ‘bu[shel] basket’.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    Enoch wrote: »
    I shouldn't worry about it, Andras. Apart from Miss Amanda and a few self-conscious grammarians, it's a distinction that most of the time most other first language English people don't make.

    It might even be one that is largely restricted to some dialects, rather in the way that North Americans don't approve of using 'they' and 'them' as singular indeterminate pronouns. Logically they are correct; 'they' and 'them' are plural. But in British English that usage is convenient and much more accepted.
    In my part of North America, use of “they” and “them” as singular indeterminate pronouns is very common, except among some whom you might call self-conscious grammarians. (I use “they”and “them” this way, even though I am a stickler for the “that” and “which” distinction. :wink: )
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Some interesting points, for which many thanks.

    Although indeed a mazer is a kind of cup, I will defend myself against the charge of tautology, since the Victoria and Albert Museum uses the form mazer-cup (hyphenated) and the British Museum uses mazer cup (without the hyphen), so I'm in good company!

    The question of what to put at the back of a book is a tricky one. My instincts are to put things there that are interesting in their own right (to me!) or which support some perhaps doubtful interpretation of an event, but not very much else. Thus far my editor has gone along with this....

    So the book currently being prepared for the press has a paragraph at the back about the game of gwyddbwyll, to which various references are made in the course of the tale; but you don't need to read that paragraph to understand the story, you can just take it for granted that it's a board-game that some of the characters enjoy playing and which has a passing relevance to the plot.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    When I read books set in a different time or place from my own, I expect to encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. It would feel inauthentic if I didn't. I believe it should be used sparingly -- not so much that it creates a thicket of unfamiliar terms for the reader to wade through, but enough to remind you that this is a specific culture with its own ways of talking about and describing things. And I don't think the narrator needs to pause to explain the meanings of terms unless understanding that term is absolutely vital to the story. If it has to be explained, it should be done as seamlessly as possible, avoiding the "As you know, Bob" trap (where one character explains something to another character in dialogue that of course they both know perfectly well, but are doing for the benefit of the reader. "As you know Bob, a mazer cup is a kind of wooden drinking vessel, much like this one I'm drinking from right now. As are you. So you know this, Bob.")
  • RossweisseRossweisse Shipmate, 8th Day Host
    edited May 2018
    MaryLouise wrote: »
    A beautiful passage but as someone who isn't a lover of mead, I would need to Google.

    ...preferably using duckduckgo.com/, which unlike Google, will not put your interest in words like "mazer" into your permanent record...

    But seriously, I'd either use "mazer cup" or something like Hedgehog's suggestion: << "it was a broad, wooden cup, with no handles: a common mazer cup." >>

  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Trudy, that's lovely!

    I'm amazed at how often Shakespeare manages to get away with the 'Bob' approach to the back-story, though - as Twelfth Night shows - he could manage perfectly well without. Act I Scene ii of The Tempest is really so poorly done that I wonder if the poor fellow was suffering from a hangover after a long night's boozing at The Memaid.

    I'm interested that no-one has identified the actual cup I've described, which is now in the National Library of Wales. It's the Nanteos Cup, and it comes with a complicated pedigree which alleges - that's the key word here - that it is the actual Holy Chalice as brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea and kept by the monks of Glastonbury before being handed on to Strata Florida / Ystrad Fflur Abbey at the Dissolution.

    Not much of the cup is now left, as bits have been cut off it over the centuries as charms or keepsakes; but it is indeed a simple olive-wood cup such as a carpenter would surely turn on his own lathe.
  • RossweisseRossweisse Shipmate, 8th Day Host
    That's fascinating, Andras. Thank you!
  • PixitPixit Shipmate
    Andras wrote: »
    In context, yes, it does make sense as a comparison; we're in the late 7th century, and the speaker is describing the sort of item that both he and his hearers would be familiar with. Here's the paragraph just before the one I'd quoted earlier:

    In the late 7th century a 'common' cup wouldn't mean an ordinary cup, as it does now. It would mean a cup that gets passed around for everyone to drink from. Which might be what you intended, of course.

  • Penny SPenny S Shipmate
    Well, I spotted which cup it was, and I found the passage fine, even with tautology. I wouldn't have felt I needed, as I did with Steven Donaldson, to hie me down to the reference library with a list of words, only to find that the 20 volume Oxford didn't include some of them. They were in Webster. The unusual words he used, he always used in the same context, so there was no way to deduce their meaning. Mazer cup is self explanatory, and the attitude to it of the narrator is clear.
  • mousethiefmousethief Shipmate
    Tautology is not a fault in English prose. People who rant about "ATM machines" and such just show they don't understand the language.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Pixit wrote: »
    Andras wrote: »
    In context, yes, it does make sense as a comparison; we're in the late 7th century, and the speaker is describing the sort of item that both he and his hearers would be familiar with. Here's the paragraph just before the one I'd quoted earlier:

    In the late 7th century a 'common' cup wouldn't mean an ordinary cup, as it does now. It would mean a cup that gets passed around for everyone to drink from. Which might be what you intended, of course.

    I confess that I was indeed playing with that double meaning - well spotted!

    Mousethief, I always feel free to rant about language, whether it's the use of refute to mean deny in English, the persistent use of such English expressions as Le royal baby in French (oh, yes, they really do!) or not using a subjunctive where it belongs in Welsh. Ranting about petty annoyances is surely a human right! After all, we can't do much about the major ones.

    I note, incidentally, that no-one's questioned Holy Chalice instead of Holy Grail. I do have my reasons....
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    Andras, I noticed that and wanted to start a rambly post about Joseph of Arimathea, flowering hawthorn trees and Celtic cauldrons, the Grail as a salver and not a cup, a bit about Chrétien de Troyes, the Fisher King, Jung, dreadful Dan Brown etc.

    I restrained myself.
  • mousethiefmousethief Shipmate
    My general practice is to read a book with a pen/pencil and a bookmark I can write on. If I came to the word "mazer" I would write it down (with part of speech), then think to myself, "It's some kind of cup" and go on with my reading. Then at some later time I look up the words and enter the definitions into a text file on my thumb drive dedicated to the purpose. At the end of the year I review the list. Word geek! In this way I have built up a killer vocabulary and generally demolish people at Boggle, Scrabble, and other such word games.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    mousethief wrote: »
    My general practice is to read a book with a pen/pencil and a bookmark I can write on. If I came to the word "mazer" I would write it down (with part of speech), then think to myself, "It's some kind of cup" and go on with my reading. Then at some later time I look up the words and enter the definitions into a text file on my thumb drive dedicated to the purpose. At the end of the year I review the list. Word geek! In this way I have built up a killer vocabulary and generally demolish people at Boggle, Scrabble, and other such word games.

    Earlier in the work-in-progress I let one character describe another - who is something of a decent but not overly bright stickler for the rules - with the word bufflehead, which Pepys uses in his diary to describe a then-Lord Mayor of London.

    Wonderful word, though admittedly not one you'd have heard in the Seventh Century! Do add it to your Scrabble list!

  • MaryLouise wrote: »
    Andras, I noticed that and wanted to start a rambly post about Joseph of Arimathea, flowering hawthorn trees and Celtic cauldrons, the Grail as a salver and not a cup, a bit about Chrétien de Troyes, the Fisher King, Jung, dreadful Dan Brown etc.

    I restrained myself.

    Oh please do, MaryLouise! :smiley:
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    MaryLouise wrote: »
    Andras, I noticed that and wanted to start a rambly post about Joseph of Arimathea, flowering hawthorn trees and Celtic cauldrons, the Grail as a salver and not a cup, a bit about Chrétien de Troyes, the Fisher King, Jung, dreadful Dan Brown etc.

    I restrained myself.

    Oh please do, MaryLouise! :smiley:

    Yes, I second that!

    Here's a view on the Cauldron of Rebirth from a rather 'bardish' character in the first book in the sequence, due out some time this year:

    The tale of the Cauldron, my lady, is very truth and not some fable for children; if you think so then you think awry! For know that the Cauldron is this world, and that those who are cast into it in death will indeed spring up again, as young and healthy as they ever were! All of us have this fate, my lady, that we shall be reborn whether we wish it or not!

    He does rather go in for overblown language, which he gets firmly told off for!
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    edited May 2018
    I can't wait to read your book, Andras!

    My interest in the Holy Grail mythology began with Chrétien de Troyes and the Lais of Marie de France, early French medieval literature. The version chosen and developed by Chrétien de Troyes combined Christian folklore with the old Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with healing powers and was one of the first texts to bring in the myth of the Grail's custodian, the wounded Fisher King.

    One understanding of the Grail is that it was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, identified with the cup held up by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood falling from Christ on the Cross. This cup or chalice may have been taken by Peter to Rome and then smuggled out to Spain to become known as the Santo Caliz of Valencia. Other chalices have turned up all around the world, each with a compelling claim to authenticity and miraculous powers.

    A popular legend recounts how the Angel Gabriel sent Joseph of Arimathea, his Cup and cruets of the Holy Blood to Glastonbury in England. On arriving Joseph set down his walking stick and it immediately rooted itself and flowered as a white hawthorn tree. The tree (now grown from grafts) flowers twice a year in spring and winter, and a sprig is sent to the Queen each year. Before Joseph died, he either buried the chalice in a mound known as Chalice Hill or in Chalice Well where the water turned the colour of blood.

    Although the Cup of Christ is the Holy Grail, it is just one of many Holy Grails dating from the time of the Passion. Known collectively as the Arma Christi, these are the Articles of the Passion and include the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Veil of Veronica, the Shroud of Turin and the Spear of Longinus. For those of us who like relics this is just as it should be, the more the merrier.

    In medieval mythology, the Knights Templar safeguarded all of these Grails as well as the head of John the Baptist, known as Baphomet. Author Dan Brown sees [SPOILER} the Grail as a Cathar secret bound up with the relics or bones of Mary Magdalene, looking back to a legend that the true Grail is the bloodline from the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. For others, the secret teachings of the Cathars were the collective Grail and other legends saw the Grail as a magical stone named Lapsit Exillis, dating back to Lucifer's rebellion against God.


    In Celtic legend, the Rider of the Sidhe possesses a cauldron that can never be emptied. Another Grail, the Cauldron of Annwn, was guarded by nine maidens, possibly priestesses. There is a Welsh Cauldron of Rebirth associated with the goddess Ceridwen. Storytellers, bards and writers in medieval times looked back to these older legends in developing stories around the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail. Early on, Knights of the Round Table set out to find a cauldron not a chalice.

    At some point in Arthurian lore, the Grail passed to a keeper who lived in the Grail Castle surrounded by ruined lands. This was the Fisher King, wounded and shamed in his sexuality, a figure considered by both Joseph Campbell in his studies on the hero and the heroic quest, by Carl Jung on the Shadow, and later by Robert A Johnson who saw the Fisher King as core to understanding developmental male psychology. In the legend, innocent young Perceval arrives at the castle and witnesses a strange procession with a young man carrying a bleeding lance, two squires conveying golden candelabra, a beautiful maiden carrying a golden grail, and another beautiful woman carrying a silver carving dish. Inexplicably, Perceval doesn't ask what this is all about and so the Fisher King remains unhealed until the right question is asked. Who does the Grail serve?

    I'm sure Andras and many others here know all this already. Let me go off and reread Gawain and the Green Knight which is full of delightfully purple prose.

  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    Andras, there's also a bufflehead that is a sort of duck. So it certainly should be OK for Scrabble.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Enoch wrote: »
    Andras, there's also a bufflehead that is a sort of duck. So it certainly should be OK for Scrabble.

    Fascinating! I never knew that! Thanks!
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    MaryLouise, that's a lovely catalogue of some of the rich seam of myth and magic that it's very hard to avoid quarrying. Sir Gawain is indeed wonderful, and marvellously circular, both beginning and ending with the siege of Troy. I think that reading it was the high-point of my Middle English classes with dear Basil Cottle at Bristol so many years ago.

    Ever-filled purses, never-emptying cauldrons and the like are so widespread in folklore that I hesitate to think of them as purely, or even mainly, Celtic, though the Gundestrup Cauldron - which I have seen - is certainly Celtic enough. Even the never-empty widow's cruse of oil in the Bible may well fall into this category, and although I can't at the moment recall an example from the One Thousand And One Nights, I wouldn't be surprised to find there was one.

    So much of Celtic lore is really pagan myth reimagined in Christian days that it's often hard to know what's going on 'at the bottom' so to speak; Gawain seems to have had some sort of sun-god connections, for instance, as does Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Mabinogi.

    As one of the characters in the work-in-progress remarks, the old gods become so like to the new gods that soon men cannot tell the difference. And with these new names they are worshipped still, and incense is still burned to them.

    Gods gone mouldy, in Laurie Lee's lovely phrase!
  • RossweisseRossweisse Shipmate, 8th Day Host
    Thank you, MaryLouise!
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