World-building in Game of Thrones: a glossary of swords and sorcery
Game of Thrones, the HBO fantasy series that is probably not only your favorite show, but also the favorite show of the people who make your other favorite show, returns to screens on July 16. We at Oxford Dictionaries are here to help you manage the wait in the only way we know how: with a glossary of the distinctive vocabulary of the show’s parent book series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
This will be a series in three parts, covering three aspects of the world-building that has made Westeros unique and memorable: the world of swords and sorcery, ordinary life, and the natural world. For definitions and etymologies, we have drawn on both the Oxford English Dictionary and the fandom’s wiki. For reasons of space, this is a partial glossary, indicating terms of special interest; for example, we left out dragons, as well as the thirty gods in the Temple of Black and White in Braavos.
The world of swords and sorcery
Aeromancer: an air-mage; usually from Asshai.
From Greek aero, “of the air”, and Middle English –mauncer, “someone who divines (by specific means or in a specific way)”. The word appears in the OED, with the first use in c1400, and a clearer explanation in 1705: “The Hydromancers prognosticated by Rings hanging in Vessels of Water… The Aeromancers by the Impressions of the Air.”
Arakh: a Dothraki weapon with a 2 ½ foot long curved blade. Extremely useful on horseback; in the world outside Martin’s fiction, medieval cavalry put the Danish Axe to similar uses against foot soldiers. Not in the OED.
Arrow fodder: cannon fodder. Cf. Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I: “Tut, tut, good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.”
Barded horse: armored horse. Bard is protective covering, made of metal plates or leather set with spikes, for the breast and flanks of a warhorse.
From French barde. First recorded use of noun 1520; of adjective 1535.
Bastard sword: a long sword with a normal-length, double-edged blade, but with a hilt and tang big enough for a two-hand grip. These generally weighed five to eight pounds.
From French épée bâtarde.
Bloodmage: a mage who performs black magic using blood; usually from Asshai.
From Proto-Germanic *blodam “blood”, and French mage (Latin magus), “a magician, a person of exceptional wisdom and learning”.
Bloodrider: the warriors who serve a Dothraki khal are his bloodriders, so called because they hold a position as close as blood relatives. When the khal dies, his bloodriders follow him into death, “to ride at his side in the night lands”.
From Dothraki dothrakhqoyi.
Boiled leather: in the Middle Ages, a material commonly used for hard, lightweight armor. Leather was immersed in boiling water and treated with wax or oil; after this preparation, the material was, for a brief time, soft enough to mold. Once it hardened, the armor would permanently retain this shape, allowing a close fit with the body.
Byrnie: a coat of mail.
From a Scots variant of the Middle English brynic; first recorded use 1488.
Caltrop: a trap to catch the feet of horses or men in war. Alternately, a spiked iron ball that was designed such that, when thrown, one spike was always pointing upwards. (Used against cavalry – not good for the hooves!)
From Middle English calketrappe or kalketrappe; first use c.1300 (trap) and 1519 (iron ball).
Castleforged steel: a term original to the books; apparently smiths employed in castles are superior to those in towns (or wandering with outlaw bands in the forest).
Dragonbone: the bone of real dragons, less heavy than, but as durable as, steel. Iron-rich and thus black in color. Used in the forging of weapons. Dothraki prefer it for bows, which can outshoot any other.
Dragonglass: obsidian; dragon fire creates it out of the materials to hand. (In the world outside Martin’s fiction, obsidian is solidified lava with no crystallization.)
Dromond: a very large, long medieval ship, sometimes used in warfare. A version was also in use in ancient Greece, described as “a ship with rowers, having a single sail”.
Faceless Men: a company of expensive, but very effective, assassins from Braavos. Women can be Faceless Men, which means the term man is used in the general sense; in English, this is the oldest sense of the word, stemming from the distinction, in Old English, between man, “person”, and wer, “male person”. (Wyf meant “female person”; see salt wife.)
Greatsword: a bastard sword, but longer and heavier.
Haesh rakhi (Dothraki): “lamb men”; what the Dothraki call farmers.
Hedge knight: a masterless knight who can take employment with a lord for a span of time; often sleeps out of doors, where hedges offer a popular form of shelter.
From Old English hecg, “a fence made of bushes or low trees”, and Old English cniht, “a boy or lad employed as an attendant or servant”.
The original pronunciation of cniht/knight used a voiced, not a silent, “k”, which is why we still spell it with the letter k. On the show, the spelling provides a joke when Stannis’ daughter is teaching Davos Seaworth to read. He initially pronounces the word correctly in the medieval sense, with a voiced “k”; when she corrects him with our pronunciation, he asks, “Why is there a k in knight?” “I don’t know. There just is,” she replies.
Jaqqa rhan (Dothraki): “mercy men”; Dothraki riders who kill the wounded on a battlefield and harvest the heads.
Lobstered steel: used for gauntlets, so probably armor that is segmented like a lobster’s tail. Not in the OED.
Maester: a learned man who has been educated in the Citadel, the Westeros equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. Maesters serve the nobility as advisers, bookkeepers, practical historians, and sometimes poison-brewers.
From Old English mægster, “a person having control or authority”; borrowed from Latin magister, with the same sense. While the word master in the sense of “boss” has largely been supplanted by other words (for example, boss, an American borrowing from Dutch), the word has a distinctive history and application in academia, which is almost certainly why George R.R. Martin adopted it. In the United Kingdom, for example, the head of a college within a university may be given the title of Master.
Magister: Merchants who rule the Free Cities outside Westeros.
From Latin magister. The Old English mægster (see maester) has the same root, but English speakers borrowed magister directly from Latin, separately, in the 15th century.
Magnar (Old Tongue): “lord”.
In Westeros, the Old Tongue is an antique language, more of an analogue to Celtic than to Old English, that has long since been replaced by the Common Tongue.
When inventing languages, Martin often draws on root words from existing languages. Here, the word for lord in the Old Tongue seems to draw upon the Latin magnum, meaning “greatness, of great size”. (This is where we get the terms magnitude, magnanimous, and magna cum laude.) In English, related words have been used to refer to persons of great rank: for example, magnate, for “noble person” (c. 1439), and the legal term Scandalum Magnatum, which refers to the slander of a member of the British peerage. (This category of slander is no longer in effect.)
Mangonel: a military engine that consists of a wooden frame that holds and releases a lever arm; used for throwing stones, incendiary objects, and so forth. Similar to a trebuchet.
From Anglo-Norman mangonel, magnel and Old French mangonel; first use c. 1325.
Merling: a mermaid or merman.
From Old English mere, “the sea”, and the common Germanic suffix –ling. The term merling was once used to refer to the whiting, a kind of fish, but is now rare.
Because the terms mermaid and merman are familiar in the world outside of Martin’s fiction – mermaid dates from the 14th century, and mermen, also a feminine term, from long before that – his invention of a new word seems to be a deliberate avoidance of a settled cultural image. (On linguistic side formations of this kind, see smallfolk.)
Murder hole: an opening above a passage through which burning pitch, boiling oil, or other culinary delights may be poured to stop an enemy. Not in the OED, but historically these appeared in some fortifications.
Pyromancer:in the OED, a mage who practices “divination by fire or signs derived from fire”.
In the eastern city of Qarth, “fire-mage” is the preferred term for someone who performs magic with fire. In Westeros, pyromancers often belong to the Guild of Alchemists, in which capacity they operate as a cross between chemists and demolitions experts. While they claim to use spells, it is unclear as to whether members of the Guild of Alchemists know magic or simply gimmicks. (Gimmick: originally American slang for a device that assists with a con or a magic trick.) Pyromancers also operate, possibly as free agents, in Asshai. (Seriously, watch your back in Asshai.)
Rock wife: a truly married woman of the Ironborn, a seafaring people who are the approximate equivalent of Vikings. An ironborn man can have only one rock wife, and she herself must be ironborn; but he can also have several salt wives, or captive women who have been taken in raids (see below).
This use of wife, referring to relations both inside and outside of official marriage, is fairly broad – perhaps closer to the Old English wyf, for woman, than to the usual modern usage. Even in Old English, however, wife was sometimes used as a definitive opposite to maiden; if this is the case with rock wives and salt wives, the term denotes the woman’s sexual status, and may be a little derogatory.
Salt wife: a captive “wife” of the Ironborn, usually taken in raids. See rock wife.
Sellsail: a mercenary sailor. See sellsword.
Sellsword: a mercenary who “sells his sword”. This term does not appear in the OED. As an invented word, it shows Martin’s facility with what linguists (and language inventors) call derivational morphology, in which existing words serve as a template for new words. Once the word sellsword exists, related words, like sellsail (below), can grow out of the same premise, enriching the fictional world.
Shadowbinder: a mage who practices black magic in the night; usually from Asshai, obviously. This term does not appear in the OED.
Smallfolk: the ordinary people with no power. This term does not appear in the OED, but as an invented word, it demonstrates another of Martin’s lexical strategies in world-building, which we might call side formation. In linguistics, back formation refers to a special case of creating a new word from an existing word in which the new word appears to be, but is not actually, the root word rather than the derivative. (The usual example is the word edit, which was created after the word editor, not before.)
In his side formations, Martin invents new words to replace commonplace words in the English language, presumably to loosen some entrenched cultural ideas (for example, the legacy of King Arthur in stories about knights and squires) and make his fictional world a little strange. Smallfolk derives from something like the common people; Ser, as a title for a knight, from Sir (which comes from the Old French sire); and so forth.
Sorrowful Men: skilled assassins who tell the victims they’re very sorry before they kill them. See Canadians.
Spearwife: a wildling woman who is also a warrior. The inspiration for this word is likely shield maiden (Old Norse, skjaldmær), a term that in Scandinavian legends denotes women who take up arms in battle.
Trebuchet: a military engine for throwing heavy missiles. Consists of a wooden frame that holds (1) a pivoted lever with a sling and (2) a counterweight.
From Old French trebuchet; first use 1224.
Warg: a person who can project his mind into the bodies of wolves. (Skinchangers project their minds into the bodies of animals generally.) Martin likely adopted this word as a tribute to the fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, who uses the word warg to describe an enormous species of wolf in Middle-Earth. Tolkien took this word from the Proto-Germanic *wargaz, or “criminal”, which generated the Old Norse vargr, meaning “outlaw” and therefore “wolf” in a metaphoric sense.
Wildling: the Free Folk who live north of the Wall. (The Wall is a scaled-up, mythologized version of Hadrian’s Wall, a fortified wall at the northern border of the Roman province of Britannia, and thus, for Roman Britons, the edge of the known world.)
From Old English wilde, “in a state of nature” (which had variations in many Germanic languages) and the common Germanic suffix –ling. (In Old English, the suffix meant “belonging to, concerned with”, as in hireling; in Old Norse, the suffix was a diminutive, as in princeling.) In the history of the English language, the word wildling has been used a few times to refer to wild plants and animals, but this usage is rare.