I really try not to be one of “those guys”—or worse, one of “those editors.” You know the ones—the people who crawl up a writer’s butt over the most minute detail, challenging every supposed cliché without an open concept of idiom or readability. I once heard of an editor who challenged a word in common usage because it was based on French roots, with the question: “Does the French language exist in this fantasy world?” The obvious answer to that was: “No, but neither does English—a language that has coopted words from dozens of other languages (at least the ones spoken close by like French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages) and anyway English is mostly Latin and a good helping of Greek with a funny accent—and I need Americans to buy this book so I’ve taken the step of translating everything from (call it anything but the) Common Tongue in the first place.”
So it’s with that in mind, and as part of an ongoing discussion of worldbuilding and the art and craft of naming things, that I’m a little nervous about this post, but let’s dive in anyway with the question:
Is this Earth?
Meaning, is the planet your story is set on the planet Earth—either as “real” or as “fantasized” as you want? If you’re writing an urban fantasy like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series or if you’re writing a story set in a far future China then it’s still the planet Earth. Or maybe you’ve completely rethought a history that doesn’t exist like Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age—still Earth. In cases like these, all references to Earth the planet or earth as a synonym for dirt, etc. are perfectly in play—forget I said anything.
But if your story is set on some entirely created world, or, dare I suggest, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” then does the planet Earth exist at all? And if it does, has anyone in your story ever heard of it?
Here’s why I ask:
I regularly see the word earth used in places that triggers that fantasy worldbuilding editor neuron, taking me, just for second, out of the story and into the dreaded territory of “Did she mean to do that?” If your readers ask that question, for any reason or with any pronoun, you’re in big trouble!
Here’s how the word earth works:
Earth, with the initial cap, or sometimes the Earth, is the proper name of the planet we live on. (At least I assume you live on Earth. If you’re reading this on another planet… um… hi.) This is the same rule for any place name: It’s France, not france; Mars, not mars; Chicago, not chicago. Right?
But of course this is English, a language that abhors a word with only one meaning, so we also have:
The lowercase earth, a synonym for dirt. This is the literal stuff you can hold in your hand, so if we say that a farmer has tilled the earth, we mean he’s scratched about in the dirt, not that he’s literally tilled the entire planet.
Then there’s the lowercase version with the article: the earth, which is the same as saying “the ground”—When his parachute failed to open he fell, screaming, to the earth below.
You can also toss in: earthward, which means in the direction of the ground, not necessarily the planet, since it’s kinda weird to say that if you’re still in the atmosphere and you fall you’re moving toward the planet (however technically correct) instead of “the ground,” which is the part of the whole planet that you will end up finding of concern.
Okay, then, so let’s say you’re standing on the planet Tatooine, which is in a galaxy far, far away from the planet Earth, a planet you’ve never heard of. Would you still write:
Luke’s X-wing exploded, sending him hurtling earthward?
Or would that be better as:
Luke’s X-wing exploded, sending him hurtling to the ground?
As an editor, I would change the former to the latter.
Likewise, would Cersei Lannister ever say:
“What on Earth is going on around here?”
That, I’d change to:
“What in the world is going on around here?”
Though you know it would actually end up as:
“What the fuck is going on around here, you bastards?”
I do think you can still get away with some of the sort of common idiomatic stuff like: “The earth was black and fertile before the plague monsters appeared.” In this case “the earth” is still just another name for dirt—or the name of a common element, if, say, your magic system depends on earth, air, fire, and water.
But if your story is set on a world that is not now, has never been, and never will be the planet we know as Earth, what do your people call their world? Maybe just “the world”?
The idea of Earth as a planet among many other planets is a relatively new concept, which accounts for a lot of the confusion between the name of the planet and the concept of “the world.” If you have no concept of what a planet is, what’s under your feet now is all of the possible “ground” there is, so maybe people used to say “the earth” to mean “the ground” then extended that out to a default name for the planet when they realized that all of the ground is the surface of a sphere made up of “earth.”
Now I’m confused.
Gary Gygax went with Oerth for the World of Greyhawk setting, but there’s reason to believe that really is Earth, way in the distant future. For Old School TSR fans it went: Boot Hill, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Gamma World/Metamorphosis Alpha, World of Greyhawk, and I added Greyhawk: 2000 in some old issues of Dragon and Dungeon.
Or… maybe not? Depends on who you ask.
Likewise, the Forgotten Realms is the name of the property, but the planet itself is Abeir-Toril (often just Toril). Dragonlance is set on the planet Krynn.
People who live in the continent of Faerûn might say, “What on Toril is going on here?” but I hope none of the books I edited had “What on Earth is going on here?” in a world where no one has ever heard of Earth.
That kind of thing—replacing a common idiom with an invented word—can sometimes come off as hokey, and should be used with care. If it looks weird to you, just in any way kinda reads funny, “What in the world is going on here?” is a perfectly good fallback measure.
But in any case, be straight in your own head about the planet you’re on, and in any case, consistency is king!
Nice post. This was an issue I always tried to be careful with.
Nice discussion. This issue also came up in one of my writing groups. As far as I am concerned, if the story doesn’t take place on a planet called Earth, that word does not exist in the vocabulary of the characters and shouldn’t be used (the narrator, even in 3rd-person, is also a character).
Regarding “those editors,” I once had a story rejected and was given the feedback “too many -ly adverbs.” So I went thought the story and to my shock there were a total of seven -ly adverbs in the entire 1000+ word story. As I considered it more, I realized most couldn’t even be replaced. Thinks like “the wold rose slowly”–how else can you describe rising slowly? There’s no alternate verb that has that meaning. It’s not like changing “run quickly” to sprint or “walk slowly” to creep. It was obvious they just had a rule in their head but did not understand it. I also had a publisher reject a MS saying “you shouldn’t have a prologue.” Had they bothered to read the MS, they would have understood why the prologue was there. It was not an arbitrary decision. I guess some people just can get past the writing 101 checklist into real writing.