35

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.

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    they would simple say "fire magic" and "death magic" Are you sure this premise is correct? It seems like this would heavily depend on the audience. I think most people would say "I have no idea.. something to do with fire? Something to do with zombies"? Most fans of the genre would probably say "pyromancy is evil fire magic" and "necromancy is raising the dead". – only_pro Aug 27 at 16:24
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    @only_pro I wouldn't even go as far as "evil" fire magic, just some sort of fire magic. The example that comes to mind for me is the term "allomancy" in Mistborn. The "-mancy" part didn't really make me associate it with evil, just some sort of "alloy magic". – JMac Aug 27 at 17:29
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    Usage determines meaning, not dictionary definitions. With divination now generally discredited, those usages are pretty much dead. – eyeballfrog Aug 27 at 18:12
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    "Pyromancy" would be the use of fire magic, a "pyromagus", "pyromage", or "pyromancer" would be a person who practices pyromancy. Likewise for "necromancy" vs. "necromancer" (or "necromagus", "necromage"). Either way "-magus" implies a person, while "-mancy" refers to the magic itself. – Darrel Hoffman Aug 27 at 19:19
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    If you look at the etymology of the word “idiot”, you'll find that it comes from the Old Greek word for “layman”. However should you attempt to use the word “idiot” in its original meaning, you might be in for some very unpleasant surprises. :-) – celtschk Aug 27 at 20:37

13 Answers 13

71

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...

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    In some sense, divination seems like magic too. I would say "pyromancy" hasn't changed meaning, its meaning has expanded. – Ryan_L Aug 28 at 1:53
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    ... or the fact that "computer" used to mean a person who computed tables of numbers. – David Richerby Aug 28 at 12:24
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    daemon is actually short for “disc and execution monitor”, and any relationship to demons is coïncidental, cute BSD mascots aside – mirabilos Aug 29 at 1:58
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    @mirabilos not according to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daemon_(computing)#Terminology -- though one can always debate wikipedia's reliability, and I don't have a better source – sesquipedalias Aug 29 at 5:24
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    @sesquipedalias Wikipedia's much maligned reliability is usually verifiable. At the end of that wiki sentence is a superscripted '2' in square brackets. Hovering over this displays a popup containing the reference to the fact in question. Clicking the link in the popup takes you straight to the better source – mcalex Aug 29 at 7:41
50

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.

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    Most readers of fiction wouldn't be likely to tell if a word is of a Greek or of a Latin origin. Even if some would, it's not unheard of that they'd be combined, consider e.g. "polyamory" (There's the joke about an elderly professor objecting vigorously to polyamory -- it should be multiamory or polyphilia instead.) Clearly invented words aren't unheard of either (I think The Song of Ice and Fire has some, but I'm really looking at the Harry Potter books). Magus in place of "-mancy" is wrong, of course. – ilkkachu Aug 27 at 18:50
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    @MarkBeadles "magus" means Zoroastrian in the Quran, which dates from at least 6th century CE, so it's likely came to both Greek and Arabic from Persian. That's the point: once you allow for borrowings, there's also nothing wrong with "-mancy" as an English root meaning "magic". – aniline Aug 27 at 20:17
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    Indeed, Magus is Persian, but it went into Greek from Persian and into Latin from Greek. So if you want to call it one of Greek or Latin, you'd have to go for Greek. – terdon Aug 27 at 22:45
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    There's nothing wrong with Hybrid Words that have both Greek and Latin components in their etymology. There's plenty of them already in widespread use, most notably "automobile" and "television". – CitizenRon Aug 28 at 15:37
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    Stick with Latin then: "He was a great Ignimagus", (And, of course, the most famous example of shoving Latin and Greek together into a single word: "television", since "telescope" already existed) – Chronocidal Aug 28 at 18:52
19

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.

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    Harry Potter novels make a good example of this: a lot of magical terms are introduced in the books without long explanations despite being used with meanings rather different than usual ones. You can just show that your "fire magic" is about divination and everything will be fine. – Pere Aug 28 at 10:33
8

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.

  • Another example: Cylon "projection". I don't believe anyone had trouble with that! – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 30 at 11:47
7

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.

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    +1: "words not meaning what people think they do" in the question title is somewhat of an oxymoron, at least for descriptive linguists. The meaning of a word is determined by usage. (Except for the word "literally". I refuse to accept "literally" becoming a synonym for "figuratively" as a 2nd meaning. /rant) – Peter Cordes Aug 29 at 11:48
  • @PeterCordes On "literally," using it as a synonym for "figuratively" used to literally drive me crazy until I read this: daily.jstor.org/… – sesquipedalias Aug 30 at 18:22
  • @sesqui My complaint with literally is that it's an "escape code" to clarify meaning. It would suck to lose that word specifically. – Peter Cordes Aug 30 at 21:35
6

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.

4

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.

3

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.

  • This is the best answer, IMHO. Do what you want with your own book, just find a way to explain it so the reader understands. However, as @aniline illustrates in their answer - if you're going to set aside time to "correct" people on the true meaning of the word "necromancy" then you'd best be sure that your term for "death magic" is etymologically defensible. If you don't, the reviews will likely tear your work apart for making "the same mistake" as the one you tried to address. – Steve-O Aug 28 at 13:17
1

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.

1

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.

0

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.

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.

-2

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".

  • 4
    Erm, no. Don’t do that. – mirabilos Aug 29 at 1:59
  • Why not? Successful authors often do those things. – Monty Harder Aug 30 at 18:04
  • Because this is not about “how can an already-successful author taunt the rules of good writing and reduce legibility in order to get a more unique (≠ better) profile”, this is about good writing. – mirabilos Aug 31 at 17:45

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