If I have certain minor rituals/garments/culture tidbits in a fantasy setting that mirror those of Earth, and I describe them using the real-world vocabulary, will that disengage readers from the fantasy world I've built up?

An example:

Let's say I have a fantasy world with absolutely no in-story relation to Earth whatsoever, and I want readers to truly be absorbed in the environment. Let's also say I have a character in this world who wears a qipao.

The term qipao (or "cheongsam" or "mandarin gown") is a simple and efficient way to describe the garment. However, will using one of those terms get readers thinking about China and therefore draw them out of the fantasy world? Will they start to associate the character with Chinese culture and not with whatever fantasy culture I've placed them in?

  • 2
    there is XKCD for that: xkcd.com/890 Sep 8, 2014 at 9:18
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    If I saw a word like "qipao" in a fantasy novel I would pop back out into the real world like a champagne cork. I think it's a matter of knowing your audience. Use words that they are likely to take for granted, as part of their own language.
    – Misha R
    Aug 24, 2015 at 6:09

7 Answers 7


It is like writing English. Obviously people in a fantasy world or the far future won't speak English, yet you present their dialogue in English (or whatever language you write in). Does that put readers off? Certainly not. Writing in a fantasy language is what would put readers off!

Terms are the same. If you use the current (in your language) general term for an item, people will accept that as a translation of some fantasy language word into their language. For example, a poncho, while not an English word, is the common term in English for a certain from of garment. If you use that word in a fantasy novel, it will feel just as natural at using it in the real world. Same would go for a sarong, a toga, a turban, and other really well known exotic garments. Wether or not a qipao is one of those, I can't say. I just read the word for the first time, so would think it was an invention of yours when I read your book. Which would not put me off, because inveting terminology is a common convention, so you are on the safe side.

The question, on the other hand, is if the object itself is so universal that readers will accept it in a fantasy setting. A table is obviously a type of furniture that exists in different parts of the world and at different times, so encountering it in a fantasy novel will be acceptable. But a paper handkerchief is a recent development and not used in all parts of the world, so reading that someone uses it in a fantasy setting must be motivated. You cannot just have it there, but need to explain its existence.

The other question is that of your narrative viewpoint. There are fantastic tales told from the viewpoint of one of our contemporaries. Usually that's when a person from our time and culture gets transported to a parallel fantasy universe or travels to the past or future in a time machine. This person will of course describe the alien world with our own words. But if the word was not exactly fitting the object, this narrator would certainly comment on that and explain to the audience how it was different ("they wore what looked like ..., but upon close inspection revealed itself to actually be ...").


  • If it is a universal object, you can use our word for it, even if that word is not native to the language you write in.
  • If the word denotes an object that only exists in our culture or time, don't use it to describe a fantasy world with a different culture or (level of) technology.

In other words: To describe a fantasy world, use either neutral terms, or made up words.

  • Thank you-- I especially like the concept of "universal objects." That's a new term for me, but something that makes an awful lot of sense in the context of fantasy writing.
    – clockwork
    Sep 8, 2014 at 18:22

An excellent question, and a permanent source of controversy and disagreement in fantasy and science fiction. Let's try to break this down:

  1. Basics of worldbuilding. You cannot construct an entire world out of whole cloth. It's simply not possible, primarily because the world is much larger than most of us tend to notice on a day-to-day basis. If your ambition is to create a perfectly innovative and alien environment, you need to let go of that and learn to compromise.

  2. Cultural context. Depending on your reader demographics, and even more-so on your own cultural environment, different things can seem normal, natural, neutral, exotic, note-worthy and so on. A Chinese reader may well consider the word qipao to be a perfectly neutral noun to describe a skirted one-piece garment (I am not a speaker or reader of Chinese, so I wouldn't know). A reader native to English may prefer gown or kirtle to serve in the same capacity.

  3. In-story context. Focus on what's impostant to your story. You describe the elements that you're concerned about as being 'minor'. Usually that's a pretty good sign that you're overthinking things. What leads you to want to describe a garment as a qipao? Do you need the reader to visualize a certain specific style of garment? If so, why is this important? Cut out the fat. The details to include are the ones that reward the story most.

  4. Assumption of inertia. If you don't describe something specifically, readers will substitute what's familiar from their own lives. This is necessary and inevitable (see point #1). Most of what's in your story will be similar to the real world. This is true of all fantasy stories, and readers (including myself) still find them plenty immersive.

Bottom line: all words are culturally-specific. Even (especially!) ones that you think of as being perfectly neutral. The mark of the culture you live in will be seen on your writing. If you wish to use (for example) Chinese words to describe a fantastical element, those words will be read in context. If your world otherwise draws from medieval England (consciously or not), it will stick out like a sore thumb. But! I have not read your story, so I don't know whether this is the case. My experience only teaches me that many SFF writers bring unconscious cultural assumptions into their worldbuilding, a la, 'They all meet in a tavern.'


If you use obscure terms most readers never heard of, you're bound to alienate the readers. For me quipao doesn't elicit any connotations; I don't know this word, so it will be entirely alien to me.

If the world has no connection to Earth whatsoever, you'd better have a very good excuse for them developing a copy of Chinese culture. A dimensional gate? A connection with Chinese monks through meditation? An alien civilization that is 1:1 copy of one of more exotic Earth civilizations, down to fashion details is a bad cliche.

What you can do: First check the question on How should I introduce new and complex technologies or tools? - introducing new cultural contexts falls under the same mechanics. Then designate a literal or virtual cabbagehead, a literal or virtual teacher, and provide a bit of exposure on every unique item. After we get the first explanation on what quipao is, where it comes from and how it looks like, you can then use the term freely - the reader got accustomed with it. You can build the whole culture like that, just try not to bore the reader to death with insignificant details.

Oh, and if you're talking about an entire planet, making it monocultural a'la single rather small country would be one of the worse cliches. Sure, one location - country, continent, colony - why not? But entire planet - blah...


I'm interested in this question also, but for sci-fi that is unrelated to Earth or Earth culture.

As to your specific example: I am probably better educated about other societies than the average American (which isn't saying much), but I've never heard the term qipao. How about kimono? Not the same thing, but a more familiar word.

As to your general question: I put a disclaimer in my preface, to the effect that I'm not going to invent a new word for every object in my world. So if I say the people are eating chicken, that doesn't mean they are eating Gallus gallus domesticus.

As I said, I'm writing sci-fi, and my world is supposed to seem (mostly) familiar. Fantasy might be different. However, I've seen lots of fantasy books that used Earth names for weapons and classes of people, and those Earth words didn't throw me out of the fantasy world.

I think what you do with an unfamiliar term like qipao or arquebus is to use it, assuming the reader will know what that is. But since most will not, you should weave descriptive phrases into your story that will allow most readers to puzzle out (subconsciously) the main features of the item. You definitely don't assume they know what a qipao is, and then have a plot point turn on the details.

So you say something like, "As Cain lifted his arms, the long sleeves of his silky qipao fell back, revealing the twin tattoos on his forearms -- dragon and tiger. The ruffian outlaw wet himself."

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    Notice the word silky. It implies silk, which of course is an Earth thing. But that doesn't preclude another world from having silky material. Do you have to explain to the reader that, in this world, they have creatures called ritsvah that build nests out of material called pramili that can be spun into a fiber and then woven into a very smooth and fine cloth called ammamatz, so you can say the long sleeves of his ammamatzy qipao fell back? Me, I say NO.
    – dmm
    Sep 6, 2014 at 11:25

As long as you're not using turns of phrase that have real-world-specific etymologies, you should be fine.

Essentially, if the turn of phrase refers to universal concepts, then it's likely to be fine. Though I'm likely going to receive flack for it with some critics, the fantasy novel I'm writing has characters use 'fucking' as an expletive, but the thing is, I consider it etymologically sound because, well, mating is something that's still a thing in-universe and it's also an explicit, messy act.

The real world has a tendency to make explicit, messy acts/things that we do with/are attached to our bodies into expletives (fucking, shit, cock, piss, etc), and there's no reason why that wouldn't be the case in a fantasy world, so I retain them.

However, some phrases lose their etymology if placed in a fantasy world. For example, while sandwiches as a food exist in the world I'm writing, I cannot call them sandwiches. Why? Well, sandwiches have their name because the nobleman who popularised that mode of eating meat was the Earl of Sandwich.

Needless to say, there's no Earl of Sandwich in a fantasy world.

So essentially, if you're going to use modern phrasing, make sure that there's a reason for the wording to exist.

  • Please note that one-liners are rarely well-received on the StackExchange network. This answer is currently in the low quality review queue because of its length. Can you please edit it to expand a bit on why this is the case? Otherwise this answer might get deleted.
    – Secespitus
    Aug 4, 2018 at 6:11
  • My apologies, I've elaborated. Aug 4, 2018 at 10:52

It all depends on what you write further.

At first your readers might think, "Hey Chinese...", but as you write on, what you write will change their view.

If you stick to the stereotypical Chinese stuff, yes they will keep thinking Chinese, but if you write away from or not about stereotypial chinese stuff, they will follow you into whatever you are writing.

  1. I don't know what a qipao is or looks like. If you use that word, you will not help me visualize the garment, but hinder me. So you might as well not use that word or make one up.

  2. If you use a real-world garment name that I know (e.g. jeans), it breaks my immersion (or makes me think your character was tranferred to your fantasy world from ours)

  3. In non-real-world settings, I never use time- or culture-specific names for items – not even made-up fantasy-word names! –, but instead always briefly describe the garment or other item using words that my readers perceive as being not tied to a certain time or place.

    For example, "one-piece dress" (the Wikipedia description of qipao) is specific enough to evoke an image of refined, stylish, expensive clothing, yet not specific to a certain time or place. It doesn't exclude those that don't know what a qipao is, nor break immersion for those who do.

There are many Q&A on this site that explain why it is generally a good idea to keep descriptions somewhat general. For one, writing detailed descriptions that are enjoyable to read and possible to visualize is an extremely difficult undertaking at which most writers fail. For another, readers can more easily follow you if you allow them the freedom to imagine things as they like them. Why not let each of your readers think of your character's dress as they like? It will make the reading experience much more pleasurable.

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