3 Tips for Picking Good Terms

by Mike Sententia on June 10, 2013

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If you develop your own system of magick, you’ll need to pick your own terms. Especially if you want to share your system with other people. I’m no expert at picking terms, but I’ve done it a few times, and I have a few tips.

(Just want the tips? Skip to the bullets at the bottom.)

I think in words. My first terms were for myself, so I could take notes and remember my techniques. I’d notice that mages channel forces, and I’d give those forces a name, not for anyone else, but just for myself.

At first, the names won’t matter. Sure, you can hinder yourself with a bad name, like calling the force you channel, “The Universe,” then feeling awed and never thinking to ask how it operates or if you can reprogram it. Or you might pick a metaphor, like “talking to cells,” that glosses over much of the complexity involved in magick, and never think to ask how your intent turns into the chemicals that cells understand.

But as long as you choose empty, non-curiosity-squelching names and metaphors, you can’t go too wrong if you’re just writing for yourself.

When I started writing for other people, though, terms became important. Bad terms mislead readers with a connotation, or confused readers by being too empty, by not evoking the metaphor enough. A reader might think a term corresponds to a concept they already know, not realizing you intended an entirely different metaphor

A few examples:

What I now call “ethereal software,” I used to call “systems.” Everyone confused “systems you channel” with “systems of magick.” It was bad.

What I now call “ethereal muscles” (yes, I’m making that renaming official), I originally called “mental areas.” It was too empty, readers had to simply memorize the meaning, and I constantly had to re-define it each post for fear that no one remembered the term.

I briefly called them “magick muscles,” which makes sense if you know the metaphor, but sounds gimmicky if you don’t.

Then I went to “mental muscles,” which evoked other mental functions like reasoning and willpower. Readers thought they knew what I meant, but really, the words conjured up the wrong concepts in listeners. (Also, every time I’d talk about non-mages having atrophied mental muscles, I’d have to make clear I was just talking about magick, not about those other mental abilities.)

I’m no expert at picking names, but I’ve done it several times now. So, a few tips for anyone building their own system:

  • Metaphors are good. “Mental muscles” is better than “mental areas,” “ethereal software” is better than “systems.” I start with the metaphor (muscles, software), and let the terms come from there.
  • If you have to clarify your metaphor in beginner material, you have a bad metaphor. When I say that “Non-mages have atrophied mental muscles,” then need to clarify that I don’t mean reasoning and willpower, that’s a sign that my metaphor doesn’t quite align to the term.
  • Repeated words are good. They make sentences seem natural. “Engage your ethereal muscles to talk to ethereal software” just sounds obvious. “Engage your mental muscles to talk to ethereal software” isn’t bad, but it isn’t obvious either. And obvious is good — it means your terms shape the listener’s thoughts to naturally realize what you want to teach them.
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