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Alternate Terminology: Landships, Farseers, and Localnets

By Tom Anderson

Images from Wikimedia Commons, specifics as below

When writing alternate history (AH), an author's challenge is to hint to a reader that the world the story is set in is different from our own (though it may be superficially similar) but without explicitly saying so, as that sounds artificial and breaks the reader's immersion. A common error among AH authors is to fall victim to the fallacy sometimes known by the name "As You Know, Bob", in which characters or the narrator simply exposition-dump details about how FDR was shot by Charlie Chaplin in 1932 and as a result the United States is now ruled by sentient chickens.

There are better and subtler ways to first hint that things are not as they seem, and then to remind the reader of them as they go along. One excellent specific method is to use alternate terminology, which is particularly useful when writing about a world that seems similar to our own at first glance, but needs a note of subtle wrongness. People in this world may still tab an app on a smartphone, but if they call it 'poking a prog on a clevergramme' then we know something is up even before the icon in question depicts a noose.

Alternate terminology is one of my favourite areas of alternate history: it lets one delve into the reasons why the technologies and ideologies and companies of our timeline (OTL) have those names, and rewards the reader who has some knowledge of etymology and can figure out what is going on faster. It is tempting to overuse alternate terminology and the author must be careful not to make their writing altogether unintelligible in the process.

Context can be used to help avoid this: for example if the author does not mention a pocket quister until a character is shown speaking on one to a friend, we understand that this is the local term for mobile phone. If a different company name is used but it is paired with familiar symbolism and setting, we understand what OTL company this is standing in for. (Terry Pratchett uses this to great effect in Johnny and the Bomb, in which a character is stranded after time-travelling from the 1990s to the 1940s, and when his friends return to the 1990s they find that McDonald's has been replaced by an alternate fast food company that their friend founded with his future knowledge).

This series of articles will focus on going into the reasons and history behind the names of familiar OTL institutions so that we can understand how to come up with plausible alternatives for AH. We shall begin with a series of articles on technology names, covering a few in each article, before moving on to other topics.

The Tank

Let's start with perhaps the most celebrated example of alternate terminology in AH: the tank. Now just over a century old, the tank debuted as a British invention in the First World War. Designed as a war-winning secret weapon that could break through trenches while protected from machine gun fire, secrecy was paramount in its design and delivery to the front at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The new vehicle was euphemistically described as a 'water carrier' or 'water tank carrier' for the Mesopotamian front by its designers and workers, and the committee behind it--which had originally used the term 'landship'--decided to adopt 'tank' as an ambiguous code name. The rest is history.

Because of the sheer happenstance of the choice of this code name, it represents obvious fertile ground for an alternate name. For example, in Harry Turtledove's TL-191 series, during the Great War the United States (with similar logic) code names its new fighting vehicles 'barrels', and as the US wins that war, the name sticks and becomes the established one. If tanks had come about as a new weapon in peacetime rather than as a secret project in war, it seems likely that the more descriptive terms like landship, land battleship, land ironclad (a term used in a prescient novel a few years before the tank's invention) would have become standard.

Here as in many cases, we can come up with new ideas for naming by looking at the names used in OTL by different languages. The French, who were working on tank-type projects simultaneously with the British, use the term char d'assaut ('assault car'). The Germans dubbed the tank a Panzerkampfwagen ('armoured fighting vehicle') which was soon abbreviated to just panzer. Many languages describe tanks as armoured vehicles or battle wagons. Polish is unusual in that its preferred term, czołg meaning approximately 'crawler', instead focuses on the fact that tanks have caterpillar tracks.


The term 'television', being a mish-mash (which horrified classicists) between Greek tele 'far' and Latin visio 'to see', long predates the actual invention that now bears its name. The idea of being able to send pictures over telegraph lines or radio was the subject of much speculation and the word 'television' was first used at the turn of the twentieth century. One rival term and brand name in the early days was 'Radiovision' drawing connection to the existing home radio technology and the fact that it used the same kind of transmitter waves. The fact that the transmitted images were animated rather than still pictures led to other rival terms like 'kinetoscope' (from the Greek word kinetikos 'motion').

Television became the established term, though, abbreviated to 'TV' in the acronym-loving United States and 'telly' in Britain (similarly télé in French). The term was and is applied generally, regardless of the specific technology behind how pictures are transmitted and projected--the earliest machines used rotating wheels with mechanical scan lines, succeeded by the successful cathode-ray tube system (extended to colour in the 1960s) and then flatscreen LCD and LED sets. The analogue radio-type signal was also eventually replaced with a digital one.

Alternate history likes to use the term 'televisor' rather than 'television set', which was an early competing term and shows up in many different works. Once again, looking at other languages can give us hints for more original alternate terms for the technology. Rather than the Graeco-Latin mix used by English, Dutch and the Romance languages, German prefers a more literal name: Fernsehr or 'Farseer'. A writer could easily give a very different feel to a world just by having English-speaking characters refer to watching the football on the farseer tonight.

The Internet

'Internet' is an abbreviation of 'interconnected network', describing precisely what it is: a group of computers linked together by a communication protocol. As is fairly well known, the internet began as ARPANET at the end of the 1960s, a US federal government-funded (and particularly military focused) project to link together computers in order to ensure continuity of command and control in the event of signal failure--due to, for example, a city vanishing beneath a mushroom cloud in nuclear war.

The use of ARPANET by US universities led to its use for new and innovative methods for knowledge exchange and running services 'online', later also including European collaboration. Eventually the US military was hived off into a separate network for security reasons. The National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet) brought internet access to a wider audience in the US in the 1980s, leading to the internet as we know it today. All these networks share the fact that they require a specific packet-switching protocol in order for computers to communicate through them. The one which became the standard now used everywhere today was devised in 1974 and known as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Program/Internet Protocol). The packets of data are forwarded back and forth by a device known as a router. Every computer or other device connected to the network must have a unique Internet Protocol (IP) Address so that it can be found and identified by the router.

'The Internet' is often treated as synonymous with 'The World Wide Web', but this is incorrect: the WWW is one of only several services provided by the Internet, just the one most visible to ordinary users due to its user-friendly nature. Developed by Tim Berners-Lee at the particle physics research facility CERN in the late 1980s, the WWW was designed around the idea of being able to easily jump from one 'web page' to another simply by clicking a piece of highlighted text: hypertext or a hyperlink.

The Web runs on the HTTP protocol (HyperText Transfer Protocol) which can still be seen at the start of Web addresses today, sometimes with an 'S' for 'secure' added. Each website and web page has its own URL (Uniform Resource Locator) or just 'web address'. Web pages often end in .html (HyperText Markup Language) which is also the name of the programming language in which web pages were and are written. Websites have 'domain names' with different top-level domain identifier suffixes depending on their purpose (.gov for government, .ac for academic, .com for commercial) and country (e.g. .fr for France, .de for Germany or 'Deutschland', and so on). Not all of the planned suffixes have come into use as intended: the American suffix .us is rarely used due to American companies getting to the domain name first and just using name.com rather than name.co.us; the planned British suffix of .gb was ignored in favour of .uk; and some countries assigned suffixes then ceased to exist, such as .su for Soviet Union and .yu for Yugoslavia.

Given the haphazard and happenstance way the Internet came together, it is easy to see that it would look radically different in all but the most recently-diverging alternate histories. Indeed, the fact that we have a global internet at all seems rather unlikely in some ways, and it easy to imagine a world where every country has its own separate network. Either way, given the chances of other protocols and programming languages and setups, we would expect alternate timelines of the Internet to look radically different. One example from OTL is France's earlier Minitel network from the 1980s, which worked on very different principles.

Look out for more Alternate Terminology articles in which we look at other technologies!

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