Friday, January 17, 2014

Seabane Isn't Real

Here's a brief conversation between Katsa and Po in Graceling:
Po looked puzzled. “What’s seabane?”

“I don’t know if you have another name for it in Lienid.  It’s a small purple flower. A woman who eats its leaves will not bear a child.”

And here's a line from Bitterblue:
Bitterblue examined the item in her hand. It was a medicinal envelope with a label written clear across the front: “Seabane, for the prevention of pregnancy.”

Seabane is a fictional herb. I made it up, not unlike the way fantasy writer Tamora Pierce made up a pregnancy charm for Alanna and her other fictional women.

Way back when I was an unpublished writer writing Graceling, choosing the name of this magical contraceptive herb was fun. I knew I wanted a plant name that, to the best of my ability to ensure such a thing, was not a known plant name in the real world in any language, because I didn't want to confuse my fantasy world with the real world and I didn't want to muddle readers ("What? Oregano doesn't prevent pregnancy!"). This left me with the task of making a word up, throwing different syllables together and deciding which ones sounded right.

Turns out that a lot of times, when you try to make a word up, you come up with a word that exists! (It's amazing how many things exist.) So I had to do a lot of checking on my "made-up" words. How? Well, I'm not a botanist, but I did the best I could. I looked my words up in dictionaries and encyclopedias, and of course, I ran them through Google searches.

Gradually, I settled on the word "seabane." It had the right feel, it was serviceable and vague-sounding in meaning… and at the time, when I checked in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and online, nothing came up – in particular, nothing plant-related. Significantly, the word didn't appear at all in the extended Oxford English Dictionary. So I decided it was a safe word to use, and began using it. Then I forgot about it.

A few days ago, my lovely Norwegian translator, Carina Westberg, contacted me with a question about the word "seabane." Where had I gotten it? Had I made it up? Did it have any significance she should know about before she tried to translate it into Norwegian? She told me that she'd done a Google search and all she'd found is that it's toxic to birds.

Toxic to birds?? That was surprising and interesting. So I did a Google search myself. And, forget about the birds. What concerned me much more is that amidst a lot of other things (including many legitimate conversations about my books), I found a very few tiny online conversations to the effect of one person asking, "What is seabane?" and another person answering as if it's an actual contraceptive.

Oh, dear readers. If you are in need of a contraceptive, please talk to a medical professional rather than consulting a fantasy novel OR a conversation forum on the internet. Many of the random forums on the internet are about as reliable as a fantasy novel! If the Internet is your only safe option, try organizations with reliable information, like Planned Parenthood or even the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Of course, one nice thing is that we can use the Internet to fight the Internet. Please, readers: Feel free to click on the link to this "Seabane Isn't Real" blog post repeatedly, and send it to your friends for them to click on, too, so that if ever someone does a Google search wondering if seabane is real, this blog post explicitly stating that it's not will get bumped up to the top of their results!

(I won't get into how sad it makes me that some of our young people are so under-informed and misguided about safe contraceptive means that they do look to fantasy novels and unreliable parts of the Internet for answers.)

There's also a lesson here for the writers out there (um, aside from how scarily powerful our written words can be). Because actually, it turns out that something called "purple seabane" may in fact exist (though I have to say that after a great deal of research, I'm doubtful). Remember those birds? My Norwegian translator Carina found and shared a couple of websites where "purple seabane" is listed among plants and trees that are toxic to parrots, cockatiels, and other birds (like this list here at Huh! Back when I was writing Graceling, my Google searches did not bring up these lists. And the weird thing is that I can't find any mention of "purple seabane" anywhere else online, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and toxic plant databases. It only exists on these duplicated bird toxicity lists. So a few days ago, I returned again to the extended OED. Still nothing there. In the volume that would contain "seabane," it goes straight from "sea-apple" to "sea-bank." In the volume that would contain "purple seabane," it goes straight from "purple-red" to "purplewort." (Many thanks to the helpful reference librarians at the Cambridge Public Library who looked those up for me!) I'm now wondering if there might be a typo in these bird lists; if once again, shockingly, someone is wrong on the Internet. Or maybe there is such a thing as purple seabane? Further googling tells me that something called "purple seasbane" (note the extra "s") is toxic to dogs, but I can find no mention of that mysterious plant anywhere else online, either. Hm. I'm not sure. And ultimately, both whether it exists and possibly even my ability to know whether it exists are, like so many things, out of my control.

So, what's the lesson? Remember when I said above that I knew I wanted a name for my fictional plant that, to the best of my ability to ensure such a thing, was not a known plant name in the real world? I now realize that the key part of that sentence is "to the best of my ability to ensure such a thing." Writers: do you absolute best, and remember that this will involve getting things wrong. We will never have perfect knowledge or perfect control.

In conclusion: contraceptive seabane isn't real. And: (in the event it exists) don't feed purple seabane to your bird! And, finally: in moments such as these, a follow-up blog post can't hurt.


EDITED TO ADD only five minutes later: I had an inspiration the moment this post published, and tootled off to see what happened if I googled "purple fleabane." Turns out that purple fleablane, with an "f" and an "l" rather than an "s," exists, and further googling tells me that fleabane is toxic to many animals. I wonder if we have our culprit?