“Okay” isn’t always okay, okay?

March 12, 2011


What a small, yet potentially troublesome word. And it doesn’t really seem like it, does it? After all, we probably say and/or write the word “okay” dozens of times in a day. Moreover, that’s not including its variations: ‘kay, Ok, mmkay, okely-dokely…

It’s a useful word. The kind of word that’s almost invisible and inaudible in everyday life. A space-filler.

And yet for all of that, there are very few words more jarring in the context of fantasy. Whatever its etymology (and it is debated), “okay” is undeniably a fairly recent addition or import to the English language. By recent, I do mean late 19th/ early 20th century, but considering an awful lot of fantasy occurs within a pseudo-mediaeval setting, that’s a significant time difference. For me, the sudden appearance of “okay” on the lips of a hitherto eloquent monk/wizard/stable boy/whatever yanks me out of the story and slaps me across the face with the reminder that somebody wrote this. The suspension of disbelief breaks down utterly.

Now, “okay” is not necessarily out of place in all fantasy. I can see it working in urban fantasy. Possibly dark fantasy. However, it is important to note that urban and dark fantasy often take place within our world and within our time. The problem is really that of anachronism. You can argue that fantasy isn’t historical fiction, and you can include anything you want in your world, but I do believe that all fantasy worlds are grounded, at least implicitly, in some historical setting, at least in terms of technology, social structure, etc.

For instance, you wouldn’t have your nomadic tribes talking about how their horses are as fast as rockets, would you? The narrative voice and/or focalizers are tied to their world, and their time. The world and worldview have to be consistent, and this is where we run into trouble with “okay.”

It smacks of modernity. It is such a ubiquitous word in our world that it seems out of place in any other. Like science fiction, fantasy deals with an empirical experience fundamentally different from our own. The difference is, science fiction usually shows what we could be in the future; I’m fine to see “okay” in this setting, because the word exists now, and could conceivably stick around. Fantasy, however, (mostly) does not assume an evolution from our own world. It is a separate world; just as a mediaeval monk had no inkling of the word “okay,” neither would elves. Neither would dragons. Neither would healers in 1044 Norway who are ridiculously strong-willed and would have been put to death for their atheistic beliefs (but that’s a rant for another day).

Got all that okay?




  1. How true. And even if a word was used historically it doesn’t always work in writing. An author who writes historical novels spoke at a writer’s conference and said she researched the word ‘cool’ and found that it had been used, as it is now, back in the 1800’s. Yet her publisher asked her to remove it because it smacked of current language, and most readers would not believe it was accurate dialog for the time. Added to that, I read a book by a well known writer who writes fantasy, and didn’t make it past the first paragraph, where she had her medieval hero say ‘no shit, sherlock’. Oops, just lost me as a reader. On a similar rant, like, I hate how, like, the word like is used now. Like, you know, dude. Aaaggghhh.

    • Oh, like, totally. 😉
      But seriously, I agree… once the trust in the author is lost, it’s very hard to get it back. Personally, I find myself (if I even continue reading) watching for the next incident/mistake with a kind of anxiety. Not the reader response most people look for!

  2. You’re so right about watching for the next incident with anxiety. What happens is that I am no longer a reader, but an editor. Instead of losing myself in the story I end up reading while gripping my red pen. But I have to admit to a tiny response of ego, where I see something like that and think,’I’m better than that!’ and conveniently ignore any writing mistakes I might make.

  3. Here’s where we may be grateful for the Oxford English Dictionary. And for documents that still exist from years gone by. One of my favorite writers, Patrick O’Brian, immersed himself in the writings of the eighteenth century, and his historical novels feel right.

    Of course, doing things the right way requires work. Who wants to do that any more?

    • Certainly not as many people as used to!
      That’s a really good point about reading historical/primary documents as part of your research. There’s no better way to find out how people wrote (style, vocabulary, etc.) but also how they thought, and what the main issues of their day were.

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