World-building in Game of Thrones: a glossary of the natural world
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 Dictionaries 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 species of turtles in the River Rhoyne.
Plants and Animals, Real and Fantastical
Basilisk: a legendary creature in our world; really exists in Westeros, where it is a reptile with venom that can drive warm-blooded animals to madness. Traditionally, a basilisk results from a serpent brooding on a hen’s egg.
Bloodfly: an insect that combines the worst attributes of the stinging horsefly and the blowfly: “large as bees, gross, purplish, glistening… [they live] in stagnant pools, [drink] blood from man and horse alike, and [lay] their eggs in the dead and dying.”
Broadleaf: in Westeros , a type of deciduous tree that turns red and gold in the autumn. The term can refer to one of a few species of tree in our world.
Courser: as in Oxford Dictionaries, “a large, powerful horse ridden in battle or tournament.” Like many English words referring to genteel life, courser comes from French (coursier), a consequence of the Norman Invasion. First use in English c1300.
A lot of horses are going to appear on this list, so, you know, be ready for that.
Destrier: a war horse; the name comes from the practice of having one’s squire lead the horse, for which he naturally uses his right hand. From French (see courser): Middle English destrer, Anglo-Norman destrer, Old French destrier. First use in English c1300.
Direwolf: an enormous species of wolf that lives north of the Wall.
In our world, dire wolves lived some 11,000 years ago in the Americas; they were about the same size as the largest wolves today.
Scientists in the world outside Martin’s fiction have explained why large, fierce animals are scarce; however, just as Martin’s fiction makes changes to the science of genetics and the planetary science of the changing seasons, it also makes changes to the ecological factors that govern the food chain. Familiar apex predators in Westeros include the direwolf, larger than our extinct direwolf; snow bears, larger by far than our polar bears; dragons, which range in size to sun-eclipsing vastness; giants; shadowcats; hrakkari; snarks, probably; and more!
Dray: a dray is a sledge or cart that has no wheels; it derives from Late Middle English dray, “sledge,” and ultimately Old English dragan, “to pull.” In Westeros, a dray is a cart-horse.
Firewyrm: a dragonlike creature in Westeros that spits flame and tunnels through the earth. May be purely mythological.
Ironwood: a type of tree in the wildwood. Ironwood can refer to any tree that produces unusually hard lumber.
Garron: a small horse of indifferent quality. From Gaelic gearran, Irish gearrán. First use 1540.
Giants: an enormous breed of human-like creatures, standing between ten and fourteen feet. They speak the Old Tongue and reason like men.
Thormond Giantsbane, a wildling chieftain, who has boasted of exercising his sexual prowess with various dangerous creatures, claims that he once mated with a giantess, who bore issue. If he is telling the truth, then giants are not a different species from humans—or, at least, the two species are close enough to interbreed, much as (millennia ago) Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens are known to have interbred. (You are likely carrying a little Neanderthal DNA!)
Fun fact: George R. R. Martin named one of the giants Wun Wun after the New York Giants player Phil Simms—jersey number 11 (one one).
Griffin: in our world, a griffin is a mythological animal that has the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.
In Westeros, griffins may or may not be purely mythological. They appear in statues and heraldry.
Grumkin: a Westerosi name for a supposedly imaginary monster that lives in the north. Grumkins seem to be small and human-shaped—at least, Tyrion Lannister reflects that he looks a little like one—and they can “magic up” swords.
Grumkin might be a transformation of our word gremlin, which refers to a “mischievous sprite.” The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force first used the word gremlin as slang for dogsbody in the early 20th century; before long, pilots were fancifully blaming eldritch gremlins for mechanical problems. Road Dahl, an RAF pilot, popularized the term with the novel The Gremlins (1943).
After some reflection, we have decided to be the first to put forth the fan theory that grumkins and snarks will come out of hiding to help humanity fight the last battle against the Others.
Gyrfalcon: in our world, the gyrfalcon is a predatory bird that lives in northern and arctic regions. In Martin’s fiction, nobles sometimes use them as trained hunting birds.
Harpy: a mythological creature that traditionally has the head and breasts of a woman, the wings and talons of an eagle. To all evidence, harpies are mythological in Martin’s world as in ours.
In Essos, the harpy is the symbol of the slave cities Mereen, Astapor, and Yunkai. The rebels against Targaryen rule, who wish for slavery to persist, thus call themselves the Sons of the Harpy.
Hrakkar: a word in Dothraki that refers to a species of large white lion that lives and hunts in the plains. Daenerys Targaryen sometimes wears the pelt of a white lion, channeling the Greek hero Hercules.
Hrann: a word in Dothraki that refers to a kind of grass. The plains in Essos that the Dothraki take as their demesne are also known as the Great Grass Sea; “There are a hundred kinds of grass out there,” according to Ser Jorah Mormont—a possible borrowing from the myth that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow.
Kraken: in our world, a kraken is a legendary monster that resembles a giant squid; accounts of krakens in tales of the sea may date back to the 13th century.
In 1873, a real giant squid attacked a boat off the coast of Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, leaving behind some bits after the sailors fought back with a blade; this was the first solid evidence to prove the legend to have a basis in fact.
In Westeros, the kraken is likewise a legendary monster rumored to live in the waters around the Iron Islands. They appear in heraldry. Krakens may exist, at least in the same way that giant squids exist, but nobody has seen any firsthand.
Manticore: in our world, a manticore is a mythological monster that has the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and the head of a man. In Martin’s fiction, manticore is the name given to a deadly creature hidden in a puzzle box with the aim of killing the person who opens it.
Martin’s version of a manticore must be smaller than the one in our legends, since it can fit into a small box. In fact, it seems to be a type of insect. But it still has a tail with a lethal sting (on another occasion, “manticore venom” is used as a murder weapon), and it has a face with ugly features.
Merling: the Westerosi word for mermaids and mermen. As we note elsewhere, Martin derives the word from Old English mere, “the sea”, and the common Germanic suffix –ling.
A character in the books—a human who was lost at sea for a few days and then retrieved, but whose mind was never quite right afterward—may offer insights into merling life: “under the sea, the birds have scales for feathers; the rain is dry as bone; men marry fishes; smoke rises in bubbles, and flames burn green and blue and black; the old fish eat the young fish; the merwives wear nennymoans [anemones] in their hair and weave gowns of silver seaweed; the mermen feast on starfish soup and all the serving men are crabs.”
Minotaur: a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, familiar from classical mythology. In Martin’s fiction, it appears in statuary: “wyverns, griffins, demons, manticores, minotaurs, basilisks, hellhounds, cockatrices, and a thousand queerer creatures spouted from the castle’s battlements…”
Palfrey: a horse bred and trained for casual riding, particularly by a woman. Palfrey comes from French (see courser): French palefrie became Anglo-Norman palefrie, palfrei, palfré. First use c1225.
Puff fish: a type of puffer fish that lives in the waters around the Summer Islands.
Seadragon: These ostensibly exist in Westeros—or once did. They appear in the legends of the Ironborn, and the ribs of a seadragon can be seen and touched at a site sacred to the Ironborn. From the legends, it appears that seadragons can breathe fire—however that works.
Since, in the books, an Ironborn leader has carelessly thrown a dragon’s egg into the ocean, we may see seadragons yet!
Shadowcat: a large hunting cat, black with pale stripes. Its pelt is called shadowskin.
Skinchanger: a person who can project their consciousness into the bodies of animals, or perhaps even change physical shape. The Farwynd family of the Iron Islands, along with the smallfolk under their demesne, are rumored to be “skinchangers who can take the forms of sea lions, walrus, even spotted whales, the wolves of the western seas.”
In European folklore, selkie is the word for a person who can take the form of a seal—or, more precisely, a seal who can take the form of a person. The word comes from the Scots sealchie, a “diminutive form of sealgh,” or seal.
Snark: in Westeros, a name for a possibly imaginary monster that lives north of the Wall.
The term snark for an imaginary creature is the invention of the author and mathematician Lewis Carroll, who published the poem “The Hunting of the Snark” (1876) as a spin-off of his earlier poem “Jabberwocky” (1871).
Outside of this usage, the word has occasionally been used, since the 1860s, as a verb meaning snort (one assumes onomatopoetically), and more recently as a verb and noun meaning complain (one assumes as a metaphoric extension of snort.)
Snow bear: a larger, more frightening version of our polar bears, if such a thing can be imagined. They live north of the Wall. One of the wildlings, a warg, has a snow bear as his familiar.
Spotted whales: a species of whales that presumably—like our orcas—hunt in packs, since they have the nickname “the wolves of the seas.”
Interestingly, the sea wolf exists in our world in Haida and Tlingit mythology. They are even more terrifying than orcas, as they hunt and eat orcas.
Stonesnake: a swift and deadly snake.
Stot: a horse of inferior quality. From Old English stot; related to Danish stud, “young ox.” First use c1100.
Rounsey: a horse for riding. Ultimately from French (see courser): Anglo-Norman rouncie, ronsi; Middle French roucin. First use c1300.
Treecat: a large hunting cat, brown in color, half the size of a direwolf.
Warg: a person who can project his mind into the bodies of wolves. 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.
Wildwood: wildwood is a literary term for “an uncultivated forest wood or forest that has been allowed to grow naturally.” In Westeros, the term refers to forests growing north of the Wall. Descriptions of the wildwood seem to imply that the trees, which “creep back” into the open spaces near the Wall where men with hatchets try to “keep them at bay,” have agency: a Birnam Wood coming, inexorably and of its own will, to Dunsinane.
Windwyrm: a Westerosi word for a dragon.
Wyvern: in our world, a wyvern is a legendary animal: a winged dragon with two feet and a barbed, serpentine tail. These really exist in Westeros, although they aren’t exactly commonplace, and they don’t have fiery breath.
Wyver is Middle English for viper; add excrescent –n, and voila! First use 1601.
Zorse: a cross between a zebra and a horse, this equine—tough, combative, striped in black and white—serves as a steed in parts of Essos.
We are pleased to report that zorses exist in real life! These creatures usually result from the coupling of a zebra stallion and an equine mare.