An Anathem dictionary

I’m just over halfway through Anathem now; had to stop reading it for a while since I really needed to finish The Know-It-All so that I could return it to the library. But now that’s (finally) over and done with, I can turn my attention back to this.

Leaving aside the review-ish stuff aside for the second part that will come later, here’s something that has bugged me about this book: Stephenson’s use of made up words (the popular Web-comic xkcd did a humorous take on it). He writes in a “note to the reader” at the beginning of the book:

Arbran measurement units have been translated into ones used on Earth. […] Accordingly, old Earth units (feet, miles, etc.) are used here instead of the newer ones from the metric system.


Names of some Arbran plant and animal species have been translated into rough Earth equivalents. So these characters may speak of carrots, potatoes, dogs, cats, etc. This doesn’t mean that Arbre has exactly the same species. […] The names of those species’ rough Earth equivalents have been swapped in here to obviate digressions in which (e.g. the phenotype of the Arbre-equivalent-of-a-carrot must be explained in detail.

I wish he had done this for more than a few measurements, plants and animals, because he could easily have used English words in place of many of his created words. He’s no Tolkien, that’s for sure, and whilst his made up words are largely derived from Latin (as is the fictional language of “Orth” in the book), I am constantly finding his way of naming objects and characters jarring – it lacks a certain… je ne sais quoi. It’s really difficult to explain except to say that Tokien created an entire world along with its languages and then extracted some words from it. Meanwhile, it seems like Stephenson made up some words and built a world around them (and then got a friend to retrofit a language, see image below) making his fictional world lack coherence and gravitas, but we can’t all be Tolkien I suppose.

A speech that Neal Stephenson had prepared, in his fictional language, Orth
Speech notes created by Jeremy Bornstein for Neal Stephenson for the Hugo  Awards, in the fictional language of Orth. (Neil Gaiman ended up winning for The Graveyard Book) Source: Cory Doctorow, on Flickr

OK, I’ve gone quite far into review territory now, so getting back to the book’s vocabulary, this is a rough list of “translations” that I keep in my head while reading. They don’t necessarily correspond 1:1, but the words can be substituted into the text without creating too many problems for the meaning of the passage in which they appear.

  • Arbre = Earth Oh all right, it can be set on another world :-)
  • ark = church
  • avout  = devotee (or devout)
  • Bazian / counter-Bazian =  Catholic / Protestant
  • Cartabla = GPS
  • Concent = Seminary
  • Drummon = Truck
  • Fetch = Pickup Truck
  • Fraa = Brother
  • Fluccish = English
  • Gardan’s Steelyard = Occam’s Razor
  • Hylaean Theoric World = Platonic idealism
  • Jeejah = Cell phone
  • Mobe = Car
  • Orth = Latin
  • Praxis =  Technology
  • Reticule / Reticulum = Network / Internet
  • Saunt = Saint
  • Speely = Video
  • Suur = Sister
  • Suvin = School

If you’ve read Anathem, what do you think? Are there words that I’ve missed (remembering that I haven’t finished the book yet)? Would you / did you translate some of them differently? Or if you haven’t read Anathem, does this intrigue you or make you want to run far, far away? :-)

Let me know in the comments!


  1. Caesar,

    I had an upsight on this. Avout is actually the *opposite* of devout! “A” is “not” in this case, like ‘a-theist’ or ‘a-gnostic’ or ‘a-vocation’ or ‘a-historical’. The Avout have given up all things that cannot be proved with logic – including religion. :D

    1. Think your upsight is totally correct. I’ve read only the spanish translation, and in that language is even more evident, because it’s closer to latin than english.
      Thank you!!

  2. Saunt is better translated to Scholar, from Savant shortened to Saunt, though it’s used as a term of reverence, (so analogous to Saint but from the scientific side).

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