What’s in a Name?

[Most obvious title ever…]

When you are inventing things and places (and people, though I won’t address naming characters in this post), you also have to invent their names. Especially when you’re working in a genre or world with few ties to reality.

What do you call a made-up species? What do you call a type of magic you’ve just invented? What do you call a world?

Here are some strategies I’ve come up with to start thinking up names:

Start Simple.

Play around with the simplest and most obvious names, because sometimes that works best. When you’ve got a lot of crazy things going on and a lot of world detail, it might be nice to have a species or place with a name that’s self-explanatory. The reader will be able to more or less instantly figure out what it is, and when you have to repeat the name later on, they will be able to remember it easily.

So if you’ve got a monster that eats souls, call it the Soul-Eater. Or if you have to name the city in the center of the country, call it Central. You can get a bit more creative; if that central city is in a world of angels, maybe it’s called Angel’s Heart.

You may not end up using this simpler version, either because it doesn’t fit with the tone of the world, it’s too obvious (or familiar; I think everyone has a city called “Central”), or because it just doesn’t feel right. But starting simple at least gives you an option to fall back on if you can’t think of anything else.

Go Archaic.

If simple doesn’t feel right, try other words that are still recognizable vocabulary—just perhaps not recognizable to everyone. Use a thesaurus, call on mythology and folklore, or try a slight spelling variation that may have once been common.

So if you’ve got a gate to another universe, maybe it’s called the Pandora Gate (an ominous connotation). Or if your private academy teaches future superheroes, maybe it’s Olympus Academy. In these (cliché) examples, a mythological element provides the name and suggests a connotation; it’s at least a little more obscure and official-sounding than “Superhero Academy.”

The downside of this technique is that all authors (of the Western world) are drawing from the same history of language and mythology, which is why the above examples have no doubt been used before. You have to go as obscure as you can in order to find something that hasn’t been used much, and the further you go from easily recognized, the less of a “connotation” the word will have for most readers. That may be just fine, and even preferable, if you like to give a little wink to those “in the know.”

And you can always just use a word you like even if it’s been used before (as long as it’s not too iconic or unique), and ignore those who will call you out on it.

Go Foreign.

This one comes with a note of EXTREME CAUTION. When you feel like everything in the Eurocentric history and mythology that you know has been used, it’s tempting to look at other mythologies and languages of the world for names and inspiration. However, inspiration can very quickly become appropriation, and that’s not okay.

The first thing to distinguish is whether you just want a word or a concept. For example, when coming up with obscure terms for made-up things, it can be interesting to look at other language’s words for the same thing. If it would make sense in your worldbuilding for the other language to have named the thing, then you might be able to use it. Otherwise, if you just like the sound, it might be okay to use it with a variation in spelling. One note I’ll add is that for most terms I make up I always assume they are either the English translation from their original language, or that other languages would have translated the English terms into their own words; keep that in mind when encountering other cultures in your story.

However, even if you’re just borrowing the spelling (this is especially the case when you’re not working with Earth at all), be sure to do research. This is extra important when you want to borrow not just the word but its meaning as well, such as the name of a monster in that culture’s mythology. Research whether or not this word/concept is sacred or important, what connotations it has in its native language and culture, and how it has been used in the past by its own culture’s entertainment.

Appropriation is a very important issue to consider whenever you’re tempted by a culture you are not familiar with (and sometimes even within your own), so be sure to do extra research and talk to other people or look online for more sources on how to “borrow” from other cultures and languages respectfully. If in doubt, don’t do it at all.

Combine.

Combining words in some fashion is very popular in modern slang, but it can also be useful for inventing new words. Sometimes you want to combine words so that both can still be identified, but you can also combine words so that the original words aren’t all obvious. You may end up with a word that appears entirely new, and if that’s what you want, perfect!

So, as a random example, you might invent a pro-evolution group called the Provolutionists. Or the Provolants (to be even more obscure; and cheesy 🙂 ). The more obscure you end up, the less self-explanatory and easily-remembered the new word, but sometimes that’s what you want.

It can also create pretty new words and names, like “Stonehaven,” or something. Most likely it’s been used before, but depending how and in what context, that shouldn’t stop you from using it, too.

You can also try combining prefixes and suffixes to find the right tone. Perhaps your magic system should have a name ending in “-y” like “alchemy.” Your religion may end in “-ism.” Your town in “-ton.” Keep in mind what may or may not sound right for your invented culture, especially if it’s meant to be a part of Earth (so a town ending in “-ton” might sound right for a New England suburb, not so much for a tropical paradise… unless it has a history of colonization, I suppose, which is a whole other issue).

Try Etymology.

One trick for finding funny or different-sounding words is to look at the etymology of familiar words. Not only can you find the “root” of the word which you might attach to something else (or use on its own), but you can also find alternate spellings and related words and even new meanings.

For example, this comes from etymonline.com for “magic”:

late 14c., “art of influencing events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces,” from Old French magique “magic, magical,” from Late Latin magice “sorcery, magic,” from Greek magike (presumably with tekhne “art”), fem. of magikos “magical,” from magos “one of the members of the learned and priestly class,” from Old Persian magush, possibly from PIE *magh- (1) “to be able, to have power” (see machine).

So you might use “magik” from the Greek, or something with “magh” from what appears to be the very beginning (I think PIE stands for Proto-Indo-European). It at least gives you some things to play with that will still sound familiar or “right.”

Go by Sound.

Finally, if nothing else stirs up the right name, try playing with different sounds. There are plenty of random word/language generators online, but you can also try random typing or just making up words while pretending to be speaking a foreign language. Play with different vowels or consonant combinations, different amounts of syllables, and different endings.

If you find something you like, type it into Google and see what comes up. Chances are, due to the immense amount of people doing an immense amount of things, your made-up word has been used in some capacity before. It might even be an actual word in another language—in which case, I’d be careful of accidental appropriation and do a bit of research.

But ultimately, if no one has used this word in exactly the same way (even if they’ve used it for their own made-up fictional concept or place), you’re good to go. I think legally even if they have used it the same way you can still use it, since you can’t copyright something like that—though you would have trouble with something so popular/recognizable that it’s trademarked, so no schools named Hogwarts.

We’re all working in the collective unconscious of humanity, so there’s bound to be a bit of overlap. Do your best to bring your own unique self to your work, and you’ll be fine.

And try to come up with a name that will grace convention banners and fandom T-shirts for years to come! 🙂

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
This entry was posted in Worldbuilding, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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