Words I Shouldn’t Use in my Books

wordnerdAfter my last post about how some holidays don’t exist in the world of my books, I started exploring another aspect of writing in a fictional setting. Namely, language. Language is a constantly changing and evolving thing, and many words today don’t have the same meaning they had just twenty years ago. New words are being invented all the time. Depending on the origin of the word, this can lead to some complications in some kinds of writing.

Of course, none of this means I can’t use these words in my book. There’s no reason to get too nitpicky about them. But as an etymology hobbyist, I enjoy studying words and finding out their origins and history. I sometimes even write about those etymologies. But even if the words listed below might be found in my book, there’s that little voice in the back of my head telling me that they don’t belong.

Jeez (Variants: Jeeze, Geez)

“Jeez” is a common type of non-profane exclamation. It can be used in place of any number of curse words, such as when saying “Oh, jeez” instead of “Oh shit,” or “Jeez, what the heck!” instead of “Damn, what the hell!”

More specifically, according to the origin of the word jeez, it’s a shorted form of “Jesus Christ.” It first appeared in the 1920s. It’s easy to imagine how this word came into existence if you’ve ever had to censor yourself in front of a child. “What did you just do? Jee–…ze. I can’t believe you just fu–…dge. You’re a pain in my … neck.” And so on.

In my books, everything takes place on a fictional world. Since that world isn’t Earth, there was no Jesus Christ. I always replace any instances of a character shouting “Jesus Christ!” with “Oh my God!” or something similar. I try to avoid jeez as well, though I doubt anyone would notice if it slipped in here and there. Similarly, anyone writing a historical novel set before the 1920s should avoid using jeez, since it probably wasn’t in use yet (though with all words, it was probably in common verbal use for some time before the first written account of its use, and written accounts is all we can base etymological studies on). Though I doubt many people are writing Victorian romance novels where the characters use slang words like jeez.

 Guy

“Guy” is an informal word for a man or boy. Originally, the word only meant an effigy of Guy Fawkes (yes, that Guy Fawkes). After Guy tried to blow up parliament on November 5, 1605, people in England started making and burning these effigies. According to Wikipedia:

In Britain, 5 November has variously been called Guy Fawkes Night, Guy Fawkes Day, Plot Night and Bonfire Night … it became the custom to burn an effigy … of Fawkes. The “guy” is normally created by children, from old clothes, newspapers, and a mask. During the 19th century, “guy” came to mean an oddly dressed person, but in American English it lost any pejorative connotation, and was used to refer to any male person.

As you can see, “guy” basically referred to the doll that would be burned, which was oddly dressed because it was made from scraps of whatever clothes the kids could find. Eventually instead of an “oddly dressed man,” it just became any man. But in a world that never had Guy Fawkes, the word wouldn’t exist. And in a story set place before the 1600s, it wouldn’t have been made yet.

I’ll probably add a few more “Words I Shouldn’t Use in my Books” as I do more research and come up with them. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t use them. But it’s good to know where your words come from.


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8 thoughts on “Words I Shouldn’t Use in my Books”

  1. “OK”/”okay” is another one to avoid for historical purposes, or in a world that isn’t earth. “OK” wasn’t put into use until around 1840, when the playful abbreviation of “all correct” was o.k. (“oll korrect”…because people were silly then, too!). It collided with President Van Buren’s re-election campaign and his popular nickname, “Old Kinderhook” (based on his birthplace) which spurred the creation of the “O.K. Club”. There was also some joking at President Jackson’s expense that capitalized on his alleged poor spelling, thus revisiting the “oll korrect” origin. So it was getting used more and more in casual language.

    Then the telegraph came into play, and this handy abbreviation was snatched up, and the rest, as they say, is history 😉

  2. Love this stuff! (Linguistics BA.) OK/okay and jeez are good examples. But we can trip ourselves up with these, too. There are a lot of terms that derive from a specific person who didn’t live on your world–should you not use any words coined by Shakespeare (assassination, addiction, bedroom, eyeball, moonbeam) or Tyndale (beautiful, fisherman, seashore, scapegoat)? Should you avoid super common phrases (and cliches) that originate in the Bible (wolf in sheep’s clothing, salt of the earth, flesh and blood, live by the sword die by the sword, labor of love) or Shakespeare (foregone conclusion, all of a sudden, set your teeth on edge, too much of a good thing, vanish into thin air)? There are literally thousands of words and phrases in our lexicon just from those two sources. It’s very tricky!

    I think you can get away with guy, depending on how modern your other-world setting is. After all, your people in your world aren’t speaking English, so everything is a “translation,” right? “Guy” today, and for quite some time, is just the English equivalent of “male (possibly?) person, informal register, likely unknown identity.”Now, if your setting and tone/voice have a more historical feel, “guy” could feel like an anachronism or a register shift, which you wouldn’t want.

    1. I do still use “guy,” since my setting is a modern urban fantasy setting and everyone (except Tock) pretty much talks like east coast Americans (i.e. like the people I see around me everyday). I wouldn’t be inclined to avoid words Shakespeare coined since, well, EVERY word had to be coined by someone, right? We just don’t know who made the word up in most cases. So my focus would only be to avoid words that had too well-known of a real-life context.

      For example, I’d never quote “To be or not to be” since that’s more than just a phrase Shakespeare coined; it’s recognizable as a direct quote from his play. I think it’s a question of how common the phrase is. I wouldn’t blink at saying “labor of love” since that’s such a common phrase it can be “detached” from its biblical origins.

      Though, of course, since most readers aren’t linguists, there’s no need to be nitpicky about most things. The only stuff I’ll 100% avoid is direct quotes and references to real people who don’t exist in that world.

    2. Haha see, I draw the line at Shakespeare and Tyndale and the like because they invented SO MANY WORDS. I think it hits a point when your story will no longer make any sense! Or it’ll seem really weird and unnatural to readers, you know? Like, “I went up to the room where my bed and all my belongings are” is so clunky, haha.

      I do give myself your example of the “translation” excuse–“Hey! This is being written in English, translated from THEIR language. THAT’S why this word is here!”

      Basically, I avoid the ones I’m fully aware of (because I’m sure some words/phrases I use are also anachronistic or culturally relevant, and I’m just missing it!) and can pretty easily avoid, but I also acknowledge that I have to stop at some point because otherwise it just gets crazy XD

      (But like Jason, I am very careful to avoid specific things, like references to Jesus, Hell, etc., as my fictional world has none of those Christian ideas, even if they have their own variants.)

      God, I love talking about this stuff. So fascinating!! 😀

      1. Mine does reference Hell, just not Jesus. I use a religion that could be called pseudo-Christianity. There’s a monotheistic God (at least, in the main setting; other religions are briefly touched on as well), there’s Heaven and Hell, there’s the seven deadly sins. Though I don’t quote any direct scripture and I keep the religion fairly open-ended.

  3. if it’s really in a completely different world then they probably wouldn’t speak English… I mean what are the odds that a different reality some how developed the same language… just saying… though it is always cool to know the origin of words… but I’m just pointing out that our words are derived from much of events and happenings of Earth so it’d really be hard to cut out words simply because it’s technically a different world…

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