Should I use the term "Siamese cat" in my fantasy book?

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The Second Moon

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Quick question. My MCs have a cat that is a Siamese cat. They live in a made-up word without any of our world's places. Can I still use the term "Siamese cat"?

P.S. - I know that Siam is now known as Thailand, but let's not discuss that.
 

Catriona Grace

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If Siam never existed in your world, neither would a Siamese cat. Are you telling us you can make up an entire world and not come up with a world-appropriate kitty? ;)
 

Brightdreamer

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Personally, I find it jarring when something obviously from our world appears in a fantasy/SF world with no clear connection or reason. (For instance, there was one story set in a completely non-Earth dystopian world where people wore "polo shirts"... no horses, even, so no polo. And another where characters were "shanghaied" and "welshed" on deals when there was no Shanghai or Wales.) Granted, this is a line that different people draw in different places, and of course there's the "translation convention" wherein it's tacitly understood that the author is "translating" a story and terms into English/an Earth language for the readership anyway, but if it's as glaringly obvious as a place name or such, that's a bit of an ask for suspension of disbelief. If there is no Siam, I would avoid the term Siamese; either invent another origin point, or describe them.
 

Autumn Leaves

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Personally, I find it jarring when something obviously from our world appears in a fantasy/SF world with no clear connection or reason.
I remember, for all that I am a huge admirer of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, I was rather irritated when, in her novel about Anne Boleyn (which is told in third person limited from Anne’s point of view), she used the word “galumph”. I don’t know, but in my opinion it’s too well-known as something made by Carroll to be used for a 16th-century character’s thoughts.

I agree with the comments above: it’s better to just describe the cats and give them a name appropriate for your world.

(Species and breeds which aren’t named after a location/person, I think, can be brought up in a fantasy/SF world without it sounding too glaringly out-of-place — my WIP set in a parallel fantasy universe, for example, has bottlenosed dolphins, zebu, dodos etc. But that’s IMHO).
 
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Maxx2

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Thank you everyone. I've decided to just describe the cat and let readers assume it looks like a Siamese cat.
Too Late! You could just have the cat talk and sing and say it is "Siamese if you please." Why might raise useful questions among the important characters unless the cat is an important character, I guess
 

CMBright

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Too Late! You could just have the cat talk and sing and say it is "Siamese if you please." Why might raise useful questions among the important characters unless the cat is an important character, I guess
Siamese is an alien word that translates as 'dark point'? It just happens to be phonetically identical to an English term.

<insert smiley cat face emoji>
 

Roxxsmom

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Describe the cat, and the cat's characteristic look and behavior (Siamese cats have some interesting personality traits) but give it a name from your world.
This is the approach I prefer.

It knocks me out a bit when I am reading a book set in a fantasy world and a name directly references something from our world that would have no direct translation in the made up world--most especially names of people, religious figures, and places.

Of course, it gets complex, and sometimes the line is a bit blurry when there is no good substitute word, or the connection between something in our world is rather obscure to most people. "Volcano" is a word that comes to mind, as does "laconic." How far does the translation principle extend for words that are so ubiquitous they are lowercase in spite of referencing a proper name?

There is also the old "calling a rabbit a smeerp" thing, where some fantasy writers go overboard with making up new words for common and familiar things.

But most readers probably do know "Siam" was once a name for a place in our world (and the cat breeds ostensibly comes from there). I've created names for some animal breeds in fantasy stories that reference specific locales in that world, but it's handy to provide a bit of description if you can too.
 

Paul Lamb

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Consider as well that cultural assumptions/bias the word "Siamese" carries. Are such cats from Siam originally, or was this some Westerner's idea of exoticism? I read just today that the term "gypsy moth" is now disfavored by science since it appropriates one perceived aspect of the Roma culture and applies it to a pest.

I understand that within the Lord of the Rings novels, Tolkien uses a train metaphor. Of course trains don't exist in that universe, and some readers found this jarring when they came upon it.
 

veinglory

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Some authors go full tilt and use words clearlyfrom our world, so the reader just assumes it is the equivalent thing in that world. Others try and use only what seem to us like generic descriptive words, but any linguist could probably tell you most of them refer to something in our world in a concrete way. (Cats are already something specific and real, so how much further does saying persian or siamese really go?). The idea of what is generic can also be very culturally biased so scarf is fine but bandanna is not, cat is fine but llama is not--like the vocabulary version of a white middle-class dude being the generic "everyman". But in general, I think it is best to pick a lane and stick with it.
 

J.W.

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How about a Ziamese cat from the fabled Kingdom of Ziam or a Syamese Cat from the old Republic of Syam?

Keep the word familiar enough so we know what you're referring to.
 

Thomas Vail

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If the appearance of the cat confirming to Siamese cat standards is important, you're going to need to reference something (pale, masked cat, or whatever), but calling something it's contemporary given name doesn't come across well. While not a big issue, things like 'French braids' or 'swiss cheese' or metaphors relating to tennis in worlds that have nothing of the sort is jarring and off putting.
 
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Roxxsmom

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I think it really does come down to the world building style. Is the fantasy society pretty much a parallel world, or is it supposed to have very different cultures, nations, histories, languages etc. that are just being "translated" into English?

In the latter case, proper names that specifically reference people, places, cultures,and historical events from our own world jump out at me. Idiomatic expressions that reference concepts that wouldn't exist in a given time and place feel odd to me as well, even if the world is an alternative version of our own.

It gets dicier when a word is so ubiquitous that most people don't think about a particular reference when they hear of it. Do most people think of the Greek god of the forge when someone mentions a volcanic eruption? Does calling a volcano an "exploding mountain" or something feel weirder and more awkward than using the only widespread name we have for such in English?

I suppose that's a blurrier line.

With the cat, simply describing the animal is best, I think, unless it's critical that the reader know which part of your world its ancestors hailed from.
 

Autumn Leaves

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It gets dicier when a word is so ubiquitous that most people don't think about a particular reference when they hear of it. Do most people think of the Greek god of the forge when someone mentions a volcanic eruption? Does calling a volcano an "exploding mountain" or something feel weirder and more awkward than using the only widespread name we have for such in English?
I think it partly depends on the approximate level of the world’s development. In an industrial or higher-developed world — even a parallel one with no trace of Greek mythology — “volcano”, in my opinion, would fit better than “exploding mountain” or anything like that, being more “scientific-sounding”. Like you said, it’s already distant enough from Vulcan’s name not to be immediately associated with it.

However, when it comes, for example, to mercury, I feel I’d rather keep “quicksilver” all the time. I agree it’s all a rather grey area.
 

T. D. Hunter

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Siamese is an alien word that translates as 'dark point'? It just happens to be phonetically identical to an English term.
That's not actually a bad idea. I know I'm a little late to the party, but in the novel I'm writing, Human is phonetically similar to "hoo" and "mahn" which translates to "small one." So a lot of times the non-human characters will refer to the human ones by that derivative.
 

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