World-building in Game of Thrones: a glossary of ordinary life
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 77 dishes served at Joffrey’s wedding.
Ordinary life: from birth to death
A murder of ravens: idiom. In Martin’s fictional world, the collective nouns for crows and ravens are transposed from those in ours. See an unkindness of crows.
A roach in the rushes: idiom. Something ugly in the rushes; something wrong with the situation
A song of a different key: idiom. Something else altogether
A splendor of wizards: idiom. Collective noun for wizards
Ale or bale: idiom. Something good or something bad. Ale is a delicious drink, of course, and bale is a word referring to something dangerous.
An unkindness of crows: idiom. In Martin’s fictional world, the collective nouns for crows and ravens are transposed from those in ours. See a murder of ravens.
As naked as his nameday: idiom. As naked as the day he was born
Basilisk venom: the venom of a basilisk, a dangerous reptile; causes madness in warm-blooded animals.
Blindeye: unknown, but doesn’t sound good. Seen in a maester’s cabinet of poisons.
Come-into-my-castle: a role-playing game that children play. The game’s purpose is to educate children on customs, manners, and history.
Cyvasse: a strategy board game. Cyvasse seems to have a cultural role in Westeros analogous to that of chess in the Western world outside of Martin’s fiction.
Deadeye fever: a deadly illness.
Demon’s dance: unknown, but doesn’t sound good. Seen in a maester’s cabinet of poisons.
In the world outside of Martin’s fiction, ergot, a fungus that can infest grains such as rye, can cause in people who ingest it hallucinations, delusions, and convulsive movement—a sickness called St. Anthony’s Fire, after a saint who was supposedly tormented by demons. Possibly Demon’s dance is a similar substance.
Fear cuts deeper than swords: idiom. May be a specifically Braavosi saying.
Fierce as a wolverine: idiom. Along with quiet as a cat, strong as a bear, and other nature similes, this serves as a mantra in a Braavosi swordfighter’s training.
Flowers: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in Highgarden.
Graywater fever: a type of illness, presumably linked to contaminated water.
Greensickness: seasickness; metaphorically used to refer to a hangover. Not actually fatal, but may make you wish that it was.
Appears in Oxford Dictionaries, where it refers to chlorosis, or anemia brought about by a lack of iron, which often includes slight discoloring of the skin as a symptom. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, green sickness was a malady that affected unmarried young women, and the cure was marriage and sex. First use 1547.
Greyscale: also known as grey plague. A contagious and usually fatal disease that causes the flesh and skin to harden and flake, like shale.
Grumkins and snarks: idiom. A mocking phrase used to refer to imaginary fears. Grumkins and snarks are imaginary (well, possibly imaginary) monsters that live in the north.
The word snark comes from Lewis Carroll, who in 1876 published a poem titled “The Hunting of the Snark”, a spinoff of his earlier poem, “Jabberwocky.” Grumkins, which apparently are small and human-shaped, might be a transformation of gremlins. It may be worth noting that the phrase grumkins and snarks preserves the vowels from the phrase hunting of the snark.
Hide-the-treasure: a children’s game. Presumably it resembles hide-and-go-seek, but with an inanimate treasure; or perhaps, like our kick-the-can or capture-the-flag, it includes additional elaborations.
Hill: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in the westerlands.
Milk of the poppy: the Westerosi name for opium, which is made from the pale liquid in the stems of poppies. Like opium, it can be used for narcotic or poisonous purposes.
Monsters-and-maidens: idiom. A chasing game that children play. (Do any maidens ever get to chase down a desirable monster, one wonders?)
Nightshade: a poison that also exists in the world outside of Martin’s fiction. Oxford Dictionaries gives the origin as the Old English nihtscada, “apparently from night + shade, probably with reference to the dark colour and poisonous properties of the berries.”
Peek-and-seek, peek-and-sneak: a children’s game analogous to peekaboo.
Powdered greycap: presumably a mushroom; seen in a maester’s cabinet of poisons.
Pyke: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in the Iron Islands.
Redspots: a childhood illness that causes spots and itching, potentially fatal to adults; resembles what we call chicken pox.
Rivers: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in the riverlands of the south.
Salt a slug and shame a hero, and they shrink right up: idiom. It doesn’t take much to diminish a hero in the eyes of his admirers; just a little humiliation does the trick.
Sand: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in Dorne.
Snow: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in the north.
Stone: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in the Vale of Arryn.
Storm: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in Storm’s End.
Strongwine: wine with unusually high alcohol content. Used to facilitate a character’s death, in one notable instance.
Sweetsleep: a drug that provides an easy death. Can be used in smaller doses as a sedative.
Tears of Lys: a traceless poison that mimics natural sickness.
The crow calling the raven black: idiom. The Westeros version of the pot calling the kettle black.
The strangler: a poison that causes the victim to suffocate. Used to notable effect at a wedding celebration.
Thick as a castle wall: idiom. Stupid. Martin also uses this idiom in his novella “The Hedge Knight.”
Useless as nipples on a knight’s breastplate: idiom. A sly reference to George Clooney’s Batman, whose costume infamously had visible nipples
Waters: Surname given to children born out of wedlock in King’s Landing.
Widow’s blood: a poison that takes its name from its crimson color. It prevents the excretory system from functioning, so that the victim’s body shuts down from the buildup of toxins.
Wolfsbane: a drug that also exists in the world outside of Martin’s fiction, where it is called wolf’s-bane or wolfbane; can be used as medicine or poison.
Words are wind: idiom. Spoken promises are meaningless
In Westeros, the numbers eleven to nineteen are treated like 21 and up, with an additional change to include -and-: one-and-ten, two-and-ten, three-and-ten. Higher numbers also follow this pattern: nine-and-forty; nine-and-ninety.In the world outside of Martin’s fiction, we have the names eleven and twelve, instead of, say, oneteen and twoteen, because those numbers were used more frequently than the ones that followed, and thus have names that preserve an older, quick-and-dirty form of reckoning; they come from the Old English ain lif and twa lif, or one left (past ten) and two left (past ten). Twelve, which is divisible by many numbers and thus is used often in commerce, merited an additional name, dozen.