From the Dungeon to the Dictionary

Monday, April 28th, 2008

The game of D&D has popularized a number of words that have since moved from the dungeon to the dictionary — or at least to more common use:

From its inception, Dungeons and Dragons has provided a cornucopia of new vocabulary to its mostly younger audience. As a child, I was filled with wonderment at my first encounter with electrum coins, potions of diminution, and lycanthropic foes. What joy to find treasure hoards full of sardonyxes, olivines, and my semi-eponymous favourite, chrysoprases. How delightful to slay one’s imaginary foes with a halberd, guisarme or bec de corbin (this last one was particularly amusing because one of the guys in my gaming group was named Corbin, although I don’t ever recall his characters using one). And without the game, thousands of youths would still be holding on to the misconception that a brazier is a support undergarment.

I remember vividly an encounter with my seventh-grade French teacher, who was astonished that I knew the word ‘toxic’; I was (and am still) astonished that she was astonished, as I considered it quite ordinary. I told her at the time that it was a ‘D&D word’, although in actuality I think that toxic is one of those words that all parents should teach their children as soon as possible! It’s true that if you want your child simply to learn words outside of any context, Scrabble is a much better vocabulary-building game, but in my experience, Scrabble is mostly about using existing vocabulary, and that in a decontextualized way. Give me D&D any day, and I’ll give you a child who learns to love words.

One side effect of a game that is played by so many children, and uses such a rich vocabulary of obscure terms, is that non-standard words acquire considerable currency. So, for instance, the older and etymologically correct but less common petrification has achieved great popularity from its use in D&D and is now over twice as common on the Internet (41000 to 17400 Google pages) over the formerly standard petrifaction. The nonsense-word vorpal used by Lewis Carroll in his poem “Jabberwocky”, which from context in the poem probably means ‘deadly, keen’, through transference to the general term ‘vorpal weapon’ in D&D, has come to acquire the sense ‘capable of beheading’ (cf. this article). This abundance of odd words can be a double-edged sword, or perhaps a guisarme of linguistic confusion amidst an arsenal of linguistic joy.

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