Words Out of Time: Building a Better World Through Etymology

by Ken Pelham

Your stiff-upper-lipped hero, Professor Jenkins, frustrated with the chicanery of Air Captain Hamm, pounds the table and shouts, “Good heavens, man! The scoundrel has hatched yet another outrageous boondoggle!”

Boondoggle. This is where your narrative gets stuck in the etymological weeds.

“Boondoggle” originated with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Puck, angry with Oberon, cries, “Oh, my willful king, I pray do not draw me into thine own wicked boondoggle!” It fits right there in John Milton and Jane Austen, and in the high-toned vocabulary of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romanticists, and the Victorians, and will make a perfect word choice for your story. Except that everything I just reported is bullshit, and no such line appears anywhere in Shakespeare. Nor in Milton, Austen, the Enlightenment, the Romanticists, and the Victorians.

As Shakespearean as it sounds, “boondoggle” did not even appear until the early 1930s, when political opponents of FDR’s New Deal public works projects invented it to cast aspersion and insult. Anything they didn’t like became a boondoggle, and the word has stuck ever since. It’s a hell of a word.

This illustrates a common trap for writers whenever they step outside their own time and into the past, and certainly writers of science fiction or fantasy dip into times past. Etymology, the study of word origins and evolution, must be embraced in order to sidestep the traps.

Even if a word in use today enjoyed common usage in the 17th century, it may have evolved in meaning since then. In 1864 during the Battle of Mobile Bay, Admiral David Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Actually, his real statement came out somewhat less dramatically, but that’s beside the point. As we all know, a torpedo is a self-propelled water missile. But in 1864 it wasn’t. This was before the invention of the modern torpedo, and “torpedo” referred to an underwater explosive weapon tethered to the bottom and suspended at a depth at which a vessel could strike it. A mine, in other words. Same word, significantly different meaning. If you dig even deeper, you find that “torpedo” was the ancient Latin word for a species of electric ray fish, which could deal you quite a nasty jolt. So the evolution of the word makes sense, having always been associated with an underwater agent of harm.

If you’re writing in a future setting none of this applies. Like Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange(1962) by giving words new double meanings and peppering English with Russian, you can twist words of our current day into whole new meanings and slang for future usage. That’s consistent with the evolution of language.

The upshot is that even when writing of fantastical worlds, the usage and meanings of words needs thought, research, and careful selection. The reader of science fiction grants greater leeway in this than does the reader of historical drama, but that threshold of believability still demands respect.

Good etymology sites can be found on the Internet. Use them; you want to keep readers on the hook and there are savvy readers out there eager to pounce on any mistake. Thwart them; don’t torpedo your work by accident.


Ken Pelham’s debut novel, Brigands Key, won the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Award and was published in hardcover in 2012. The prequel, Place of Fear, also a first-place winner of the Royal Palm, was released in 2013. Ken co-founded the Alvarium Experiment, a groundbreaking writers’ consortium specializing in speculative fiction anthologies. His nonfiction book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Mastering Viewpoint, was named the Florida Writers Association 2015 Published Book of the Year. He’s currently working on a nonfiction book about the evolution of all fiction genres; check out that book’s illustrated timeline companion.

Ken is a member of International Thriller Writers, Florida Writers Association, and Maitland Writers Group. He lives with his wife, Laura, in Maitland, Florida. Visit him at www.kenpelham.com