I've read that Gene Wolfe strove to not make up any words in The Book of the New Sun. The book uses a lot of strange words that at first glance seem made up, but are actually archaic or non-English words that most readers won't be familiar with.

Examples: The northern human tribe/race "the Ascians", which sounds made up, are named so because they live by the equator and don't cast shadows at noon. The name of the planet, "Urth", sounds like a bastardization of "Earth", but is in fact also one of the names of Urðr in Norse mythology (Venus and Mars are similarly named after Norse "Norns").

Is there any Word of God on this? Are, in fact, none of the words in The Book of the New Sun made up by the author? If not, are there any counter-examples? (I haven't read The Castle of the Otter, does he touch upon this there?)

Possible exceptions: The names of alien species or plants, since names for regular animals are all "made up" too. Or is "alzabo" also an existing word?

  • I've got a New Yorker article, but that's about all I can find – Edlothiad May 12 '17 at 13:00
  • I'm 95% sure that in Castle of the Otter he says they are not. One of the chapters is specifically about words in the Book of the New Sun. But I'm away from home right now. Will be able to check in a few hours. – Organic Marble May 12 '17 at 15:09

In an interview with Gene Wolfe, the interviewer asks why he dislikes inventing his own words.

LM: That kind of suggestive use for archaic or unfamiliar words is evident throughout the tetralogy. I'm sure a lot of readers had the same mistaken impression I did that you were making up these wondrous, bizarre words—especially since the use of neologisms is so common in SF. Could you talk about why you chose to use mainly "real" words rather than inventing your own?

Wolfe: I should clarify the fact that all the words I use in The Book of the New Sun are real (except for a couple of typographical errors). As you know, in most SF about unknown planets, the author is forced to invent wonders and then to name them. But that didn't seem appropriate to what I was doing here. It occurred to me when I was starting out with The Book of the New Sun that Urth already has enough wonders—if only because it has inherited the wonders of Earth (and there's the alternate possibility that Earth's wonders have descended to it from Urth). Some SF fans, who seem to be able to tolerate any amount of gibberish so long as it's invented gibberish, have found it peculiar that I would bother relying on perfectly legitimate words. My sense was that when you want to know where you're going, it helps to know where you've been and how fast you've traveled. And a great deal of this knowledge can be intuited if you know something about the words people use. I'm not a philologist, but one thing I'm certain of is that you could write an entire book on almost any word in the English language. At any rate, anyone who bothers to go to a dictionary will find I'm not inventing anything: a "fulgurator" is a holy man capable of drawing omens from flashes of lightning, an "eidolon" is an apparition or phantom, "fuligin" literally means soot colored. I also gave the people and other beings in the book real names (the only exception I can think of is the Ascian who appears in The Citadel—"Loyal to the Group of Seventeen"). "Severian," "Vodalus," and "Agilus," for example, are all ordinary, if now uncommon, names for men. And if you'd like to call your baby daughter "Valeria," "Thecla," or "Dorcas," she'll be receiving a genuine name many women in the past have had (and some in the present). As for the monsters' names, I simply named them for monsters. The original Erebus was the son of Chaos; he was the god of darkness and the husband of Nox, the goddess of night; furthermore, Mount Erebus is in Antarctica, the seat of Erebus's dark and chilly power.
Larry McAfferty interviewing Gene Wolfe

It would seem that although obscure Gene Wolfe tries to use real words and names albeit uncommon and lost words and names. He does however have exceptions such as that of the Ascian character found at the Citadel, whose name is a phrase "Loyal to the Group of Seventeen", instead of a common name.

  • 1
    Thanks, this is perfect. Just one correction: Wolfe is not saying that the name "Ascian" wasn't used (I mentioned that word in my question), he's saying that the Ascian character we meet in the book, who is literally named "Loyal to the Group of Seventeen", doesn't have an actual real-life name. – tobiasvl May 12 '17 at 16:14
  • What do you mean doesn't have an actual real-life name – Edlothiad May 12 '17 at 16:19
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    Here's how I read what he says: All characters in the book have actual human names, although they're old and not in much use anymore, except for the Ascian soldier named Loyal to the Group of Seventeen; his name is not a regular human name, it's a sentence. What you wrote at the end there makes it seem like Ascian is his name. I might have misunderstood you though. – tobiasvl May 12 '17 at 16:24
  • Hmm after re-reading I see your point. It was me misunderstanding the interview. – Edlothiad May 12 '17 at 16:31
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    @JDoe, didn't even realise that! Thanks! I must've gotten confused from reading a bunch of different articles about various books I forgot which book was the one being asked about – Edlothiad May 12 '17 at 18:22

In The Castle of the Otter, 5th chapter, "Words Weird and Wonderful", Wolfe writes:

Ever since The Shadow of the Torturer was published, people who like it have been asking, "Which words are real, and which are made-up?" And people who don't ask, "Why did you use so many funny words?"

The answers are that all the words are real, and I used odd words to convey the flavor of an odd place at an odd time.

This chapter covers Shadow in detail (contains a glossary) but was written before the other books came out, so "alzabo" isn't included.

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    Thanks, this is a great primary source! However, I think the other answer is slightly better, if only because it covers all four novels/parts, instead of just the first one. – tobiasvl May 13 '17 at 15:46
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    Agreed, and I upvoted it. I just went ahead and posted this because you had mentioned Otter. – Organic Marble May 13 '17 at 18:59
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    I haven't read Otter, and it's not available as an ebook for some reason, so it's much appreciated. – tobiasvl May 13 '17 at 19:10
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    I just found out that The Castle of the Otter has been republished together with Book of Days as one volume called Castle of Days, which is much easier to get ahold of (it's also available as an ebook). amazon.com/Castle-Days-Short-Fiction-Essays-ebook/dp/B008VK1H9O – tobiasvl May 18 '17 at 11:10
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    I have now read the chapter you cite, and "alzabo" is included in the list for chapter XXXV of Shadow: "An animal that assumes the personality of the prey it has devoured; it cries at doors with the voice of a dead child, then attacks the grieving parent who opens the door. This Arab legend is based on the hyena." – tobiasvl Jun 19 '17 at 13:44

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