Categories Users Search
Help
Sign Up Sign In
Q&A

Should I use the words "pyromancy" and "necromancy" even if they don't mean what people think they do?

1

If you look up the exact definition for "pyromancy" or "necromancy" they refer to divination using fire and the dead, respectively.

However, if you were to ask a layperson what those words mean, they would simply say "fire magic" and "death magic".

I'm considering including these magics in my books. Except, now that I know the real definitions, I'm averse to using these words. I would use something to the effect of "pyromagus" and "necromagus".

But I'm afraid of creating a disconnect with the reader. They might read the word "pyromagus" and their brain will go "Hey wait. That's not the right word. The right word is pyromancy! Not pyromagus."

I'm just conflicted as to whether I should use my own words, or stick to the traditional words.

history · edit · permalink · close · delete · flag
Why should this post be closed?

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/47594. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

13 answers

1

These terms are very often used to mean magic, and I've never before encountered anybody discussing the ancient greek etymology. You are totally safe using the modern meanings.

In general, words often do have multiple meanings, and we understand from the context which meaning you are using: if you were writing a historical text about ancient greek superstition, we would interpret pyromancy as telling the future from fire, whereas in a modern fantasy story, we interpret it as fire magic. In fact, if you wanted to write "pyromancy" in a modern fantasy story and have the reader understand "telling the future from fire", you would actually have to explain (or show) that this is your intended meaning, and it would be surprising to the majority of your readers.

You can find countless examples of words whose etymological (or alternative) meanings we happily ignore, e.g. you don't mind that "demon" originally simply meant "god" or "deity" in ancient greek, or for that matter that computer people today, when mentioning a daemon, mean a process running in the background...

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

0 comments

1

The weight of this choice relies a lot on context.

If your novel is in the "real world", or anything closely related enough to share language or dominant cultural traits, you may want to avoid all those terms and make up new ones. What you did with the creation of "pyromagus/necromagus" is excellent work, because these words speaks by themselves. Except that they already carry meaning, which conflicts with the one you're trying to convey, bringing you back to square one.

But you clearly had the right idea.

On the other hand, if your novel takes places in a world which is different enough from ours , it may not matter at all.

So you have to reflect about this: if this novel takes place in a world like ours, do you care about the "real" meaning of these words, or do you accept that you'll have to redefine them?

On the other hand, if your world is different enough from ours, the problem is completely elsewhere: maybe you'll want to use familiar-sounding words just so the reader may intuitively have a clue about what you mean even before you have to explain it to him.

A different but related situation could be the following: let's say that an author wants to include horses with wings in his novel. He very well could name them "pegasuses". Except that... Pegasus isn't a specie, it's the name of a very specific and unique creature. So if this author is dealing with greek mythology, he's making a huge mistake. On the other hand, if he's in a fantasy world and want to take a shortcut so the reader understands what he means, even if his version of the flying horse has some unique characteristics, he's already done enough for the reader to have a good idea of what he's speaking about. But... he's also using words which are heavily culturally charged, which means that now he linked his fantasy world with ours, and if he's creating something new and unrelated this may let the reader think that this fantasy world with be close to ours somehow.

tl;dr: If you work in an historically more-or-less accurate setting, define your words the right way. If you're creating something new, you can create new terms and run with it. If you want to make the reader's job easier (to the cost of some immersion, still I think this is a good deal in many cases), you can make up "real-world sounding" names which the reader will recognize yet are not culturally charged - which you almost did with "pyromagus/necromagus"... just change the "magus" part and you're golden... or run with it by redefining it clearly before the reader can think about it too much (because, let's face it, these sound badass).

Have fun.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47600. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

1

Don't overthink it; readers will generally go along with whatever terms you want to use, as long as you explain it sufficiently, and as long as they aren't wildly out of whack with their expectations.

As a reader, I know that each story may use terms in slightly different ways, or in ways that have different implications for the story you are telling; this is especially true for terms referring to magical/mythical/fantasy/sci-fi elements that often differ from fictional world to fictional world.

If I read a story about a character described as a "vampire", I don't know (yet) whether this means they wear a tuxedo with a cape and sleep in a coffin, whether they are part of a powerful ancient race of immortals in perpetual war with the werewolves, or whether they are just a brooding teenage goth.

Any of these (or something else entirely) are fine; I just need you, as the author, to explain to me what you mean by that term. Just don't call someone a vampire and then explain it's actually a little green man from Mars.

In your case, you should be totally fine using "pyromancy" and/or "necromancy", and simply clarifying what that means to the characters in your story. I don't think readers are going to even know the strict definition you're alluding to in this question (I frankly don't see the distinction you're trying to make), all you can assume is that readers will (probably) recognize the roots "pyro" and "necro"; the rest is up to you.

In the same way, though, if you have a story-related reason to use "pyromagus" and "necromagus" instead, I don't think readers will have a problem with that either. Perhaps if you had mage guilds that were all named based on their specialty, calling them "pyromagus" and "necromagus" (and aquamagus?) makes the most sense.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47608. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

1

The meaning of words is not set in stone. A word that used to mean one thing, can change over time to mean another. A hundred years ago, 'gay' used to mean 'merry'. Now it is no longer used in this sense. Sometimes the meaning of a word contradicts its own etymology. As an example, the French 'embrasser' is rather visibly related to the English 'embrace'. It even contains the element 'bras' - arms. But what it means is 'to kiss'. It used to mean 'hug', as you might have expected, but that meaning changed several centuries ago.

'Pyromancy' and 'Necromancy' might have used to mean 'divination by means of fire/corpses' respectively, but that's not how these words are used now. Now these words mean 'fire magic' and 'death magic'. It doesn't matter whether it is 'right' or 'wrong' - that's just the way it is.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

0 comments

1

Your book's universe is not ours. There is allowed to be a dissonance between how things work in your world, and how they work in ours. There's allowed to be different definitions to words in your world, and ours. This effect is especially strengthened by the fact that your book is within the Fantasy genre.

So if you're able to establish what pyromagus means, with clarity, then the reader will accept it. You'd be surprised to know how much readers will accept, as long as they understand it (to the extent they're supposed to).

To give an example. I am reviewing someone's book, and in it, the word telepathy is used to describe an ability a species has. This ability has a large scope within his world. Not only can they, without words, communicate thoughts, memories, feelings, associations, impressions, etc., but they can take over each others bodies, to some extent.

Now, the taking over of someone's body is not within the definition of telepathy (at least that I know of, which is what's relevant). Doing something like that is more akin to psychokinesis or astral projection. Yet, when I found out this ability was a part of the universe's definition of telepathy, I was only excited and pleasantly surprised upon the ability's utilization. This is the power of dictating how your fictional world works. You can twist and subvert so much, to a great effect.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47631. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

1

You are falling victim to the etymological fallacy: the false belief that the original meaning of a word is somehow its one true meaning.

If you look up "necromancy" in dictionaries, you find things like:

  • "the act of communicating with the dead in order to discover what is going to happen in the future, or black magic (= magic used for bad purposes)" — Cambridge

  • "Necromancy is magic that some people believe brings a dead person back to this world so that you can talk to them." — Collins

  • "The art of predicting the future by supposed communication with the dead; (more generally) divination, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment", including the example usage "In Vodoun necromancy practiced in Haiti, three lighted candles are placed at the foot of a cross at the grave selected for corpse-raising." Oxford English Dictionary

  • "The supposed practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future. 1.1 Sorcery or black magic in general." — Oxford/Lexico

  • "conjuration of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events" — Merriam-Webster

More generally, the claim that a word "doesn't mean what people think it means" is nonsense, because the English language is defined by usage, not by dictionaries. The dictionaries report that people use "necromancy" to mean some kind of bad magic involving the dead, because that's how people use the word.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47637. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

1

I'm not 100% sure that your initial premise is correct.

While a lay person might say 'fire magic' and 'death magic' are the meanings, this is just imprecise, not wrong. (Non-religious) Divination is magic. However I would expect a lay person to understand that pyromancy is not, for instance throwing fireballs, creating walls/protective circles of fire, or other general 'fire magic'. Similarly, necromancy isn't usually thought of as the raising of armies of skeletons, or zombie creation (from the dead, as opposed to voodoo's near-death). The superpower wiki for example explicitly states 'death magic is not to be confused with necromancy'.

However, if you wish to clarify these terms in your universe as their etymological meaning, then I would instead, search for (or create) words that define the misconception. As suggestions you could call general fire magic pyromageía, and skeleton raising or death-causing necromageia. (Mageia is the Greek term for magic (μαγεία) so this will keep the origin consistent).

Then, just put in a scene where some novice character confuses the term, and a practitioner (of any of the four arts: pyromancy, pyromageia, necromancy or necromageia) corrects him/her and explains the differences.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47662. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

0

There are at least as many problems with "pyromagus":

  • "Pyro-", "necro-" and "-mancy" are Greek, "magus" is Latin.

  • "-mancy" (manteia) is a practice, a magus is a person.

  • Magus is, originally, a Zoroastrian fire worshiper. So "pyromagus" is redundant, and "necromagus" is contradictory.

  • Any clearly invented word will can prompt the reader to ask, "wait a minute, what language are they speaking in the books?" This hurts immersion more than a potentially misused real word.

(As a side note, medieval European necromancy implied demon worship, because life and death were understood to be exclusively God's domain, therefore, a human could only work with pseudo-life with demonic aid.)

Whatever you end up naming your magical practices, be sure to show what they entail. Skipping through descriptions on the assumption that a reader must already know the intended meaning makes the book read like a videogame log.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47597. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

0

You face a challenging problem. Either be true to yourself and use the words in accordance with their historical definition or use the terminology as it is commonly used.

If your sense of art or integrity (kind of the same thing) says I need to go with the proper historical definition, then you can ameliorate confusion in your readers by having one character explain it to another character. If handled poorly, it sounds like an exposition dump. If handled well, it is engaging and interesting.

It can be an overheard conversation, or aside banter. Maybe start with other words ending in -mancy that have a clear association with fortune-telling. Like palmistry -- which is chiromancy. And cleromancy which is using random events like dice or cards to foretell the future. After a list of words ending in -mancy, someone might ask about necromancy and pyromancy -- and yes it means telling the future with fire or communing with the dead.

Alternatively, don't challenge your audience's preconceptions. And, adjust your storytelling accordingly.

Either way is fine. It's up to you and the story you want to tell. The important thing to keep in mind is writing and story-telling is about clarity.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47606. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

0

I think even if a term has a established different meaning you can make the word your own. You can make it a habit to explain its meaning in your context, maybe even construct a whole story around the reason why others misunderstand it.

And if your explanation happen to be informative and correct, even better.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47633. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

0

Actual usage and the original definition of a word may be out of sync (literally). And neither of them is the "real definition" you're referring to.

Since you're afraid of creating a disconnect, I recommend sticking with the words the readers already know to mean what you want to say.

I recommend using your own made up words if you need to highlight a small but important difference to the existing word, or to remind the readers that some characters are from different cultures than others.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47645. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

0

Use Non-Standard Spelling and/or Diacritics for Non-Standard Meaning

If you think your readers come in with preconceived meanings for "pyromancy" and "necromancy" that interfere with your usage, change the spellings (and perhaps capitalization) such as "Pyromancie" or "pyromancey" and "Necromancie" or "necromancey", to evoke the idea that these are ancient names from before English spelling evolved to its present form, and help the reader keep these words distinct from the modern definitions and spellings.

Or go Füll Mëtäl with diacritics such as "necrõmancÿ" and "pyrõmancÿ".

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47652. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments

0

Quick answer: Use whichever term you want, it's your world. If in the world of your story "pyromagnus" and "necromagus" are what those who play with magic involving fire and the undead are called, use it. There were no "bandits" before Shakespeare, nor "hobbits" before Tolkien. Do consider that any audience likely to read this story will be familiar with the terms or at least ones similar enough to fill in the context.

But if you're doing it on the sole basis of a literal dictionary definition - don't fall victim of that trap, especially when it comes to abstract, mythical words. Now let's do a sort of "etymological proof" shall we? Your concern is that "pyromancy" and "necromancy" are defined as:

divination using fire and the dead, respectively.

Now, what is divination? According to Oxford, it is:

the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.

This definition is in the context of our real world where "magic" does not exist, so we invoke the supernatural. But even though magic in the sense we're talking doesn't exist, Oxford still has us covered:

the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

I take the course of events in this context to be broad meaning any course of events or actions, in which case divination can now be redefined as:

the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by magic.

Future or unknown. We're not worried about the future in this case so let's forget about that. But the unknown of which we're seeking knowledge of isn't really unknown, is it? It's "fire" and "the dead", respectively. So I postulate to you that your original definition can finally be redefined as:

magic using fire and the dead, respectively.

Ergo, the whole question is moot.

history · edit · permalink · delete · flag

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/47699. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

0 comments