Some fantasy works use misspelled words to indicate that the setting of the narrative is different from the real world in certain ways. I was wondering about the history of this practice and what author originated it.

I tend to associate the use of misspellings with works that are somewhat playful about the relationship between their settings and reality. For example, in The King of Elfland's Daughter (which is all about happenings on the boundary between the ordinary world and Elfland, especially how things are different on one side or the other; and, moreover, at one point parodies more conventional historical fiction), the Christian religious leader in Erl is the "Freer" (not "friar"). Another example, is in Terry Pratchett's early science fiction novel Strata. When the main character says that "Reme" wasn't built in a day, it is a clue that the universe of the novel is not, as it had up to that point appeared, our own distant future. In both these cases, the words serve to indicate that the environment of the novels are very much like our own world, but also different in some unclear ways. Neither seems to be an example of dialect or prospective changes to English orthography. (Lots of science fiction stories have things spelled differently in the future, but that is usually implied to be an evolution of spelling.)

Moreover, there are plenty of other examples to be found elsewhere. So where did this practice originate?

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    Are you talking about alternate names that might indicate an alternate history (like "Reme" for "Rome") or misspellings that might indicate language evolution (like "freer")? Those are probably different questions. And how to distinguish language evolution from attempts to render dialect in text?
    – DavidW
    Jun 21, 2021 at 21:54
  • I think that with language changes we can by default put 1984 as an obvious target to beat.
    – DavidW
    Jun 21, 2021 at 21:55
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    @LAK Nine Princes in Amber is 1970. The King of Elfland's Daughter is 1924.
    – Buzz
    Jun 21, 2021 at 22:50
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    Fwiw, I think Reme for Rome implied that Remus killed Romulus in that timelines mythology
    – Gerry Coll
    Jun 22, 2021 at 10:42
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    Not as old as King of Elfland's Daughter, but L. Sprague de Camp's The Wheels of If (1939) takes place in an alternate USA where names of towns and states are closer to the original Native American place names. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wheels_of_If Jun 28, 2021 at 8:30

1 Answer 1


In 1952, Ray Bradbury's famous short story, "A Sound of Thunder," was published. In it, a time travel agency acts as safari guides for dinosaur hunters, with elaborate precautions to avoid changing history. When a hunter leaves the preset trail and crushes a butterfly, the group returns to the present and finds that signs are now spelled with different English conventions than they remembered, and a crucial election has swung to a fascist candidate. You can read more about it here.

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