Naming Things

The Ship of Yoharneth-Lahai by Sidney Sime

After a lecture at Cornell in which Lord Dunsany had mentioned his longtime collaborator, the artist Sidney Sime, somebody said what a perfect name Sime was for him. “I don’t know,” said Dunsany; “I think Rhibelungzanedroom would suit him better.”

I have recently been reading Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith’s short stories. They’re full of names like Yoh-Vombis, Ubbo-Sathla, Thlūnrāna and Karna-Vootra (alongside plenty of purple prose). Exotic, huh? Hmm.

Weird and wonderful (presumably) made-up names like these proliferate in fantasy RPG-land. Usually packed full of Zs, Ks, Qs, hyphens, and dïạćrîtĩcŝ, this Khazad-dûmbing-down of names does very little for me. These names have no resonance, and tell me nothing except “you tried to make this name sound weird”. As a result they all end up sounding much of a muchness, interchangeable letter-mush. And are almost never memorable.

“The names used in the adventure are a complete bricolage signifying no particular human culture. In fact they are all the names of caves.” – Patrick Stuart, Deep Carbon Observatory

I’ve found that using pre-existing words, perhaps with the odd letter changed here and there, makes for far more satisfying and memorable names. Electric Bastionland does a very good job of this, suggesting names for each of its failed careers which, although not entirely familiar, are suggestive and simple to remember. There are many potential sources for names, from Patrick’s cave names via place names, technical and domain-specific terms, body parts… not to mention the zillions of lists of baby names out there. The names of climbing routes have an exotic but resonant charm of their own and (perhaps unsurprisingly) remind me of the spaceship names of M John Harrison and Iain M Banks. And I’m reminded of a story of a South American country where the naming of babies after components of car engines became so popular that it had to be banned (I may name my next character Carburettor O’Sump).

Despite this, it’s not long since I advocated using the names SsShrp, SvyrySshp, and FssSuSshs. So please take everything that I say with a pinch of salt.

Update: here is another great blog post about naming places in RPGs.



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13 responses to “Naming Things”

  1. Solomon VK Avatar


    I suspect that Yoh-Vombis, &c are far more tolerable in short stories that they would be in full novels. For something longer, either use more mundane stuff (but some of the more generic names are bafflingly bland: 'Whitestone', 'Waterdeep') or go full Tolkien.

    For my part, at least some of my names come from bad anagrams. Or twisted derivations and oblique references that make sense to me.

  2. maxcan7 Avatar

    I have mixed feelings about this. I agree that, when using these extremely weird, difficult to pronounce, etc. kinds of names like CAS uses can be difficult to keep straight and all kind of flow together.

    I also agree that a slight variation on a known name can be impactful and more straightforwardly memorable.

    But still, orcs and elves are arbitrary, they may as well be schmorkums and elialords- I mean I know both have etymological roots in mythology because Tolkien actually did care about that kind of thing, but I'm just saying, the fact that we've internalized orc and elf but not schmorkum and elialord is arbitrary, it just happened that Tolkien used/made up these terms and his book happened to take off.

    So when I hear people say "don't create new things, that's difficult and people won't want to invest in that, just make a derivative of something that already exists", well… I dunno, that's not satisfying to me.

    Could Marvel have used well-known pre-existing terms instead of Kree and Shiar and Skrull and Chitauri and Badoon etc.? Sure. Is it a lot of work to remember all that stuff? Absolutely. But I did it, not even really intentionally, because that's what I wanted to do, and now I have this much richer tapestry of stuff to think about.

    The name in itself obviously isn't all of that, the Shiar would still be Shiar if they had been called Venusians and the Badoon still Badoon if they had been called Mercurians, but I'm just saying, it's in my opinion emblematic of a larger approach that some people seem to take with creativity and imagination and worldbuilding that I just find disappointing- to merely reduce the tapestry to a bunch of touchstones that already exist, and mostly inferior derivations on those handful of touchstones circling down the drain.

  3. dansumption Avatar

    Thanks for the XKCD link – I hadn't seen that one before, it's spot on.

    I did wonder about adding Tolkien, because he put so much work into the linguistics of his world, but at the end of the day I'm not that keen on his work, and once you reach Moria or Mordor he goes pretty much full on Kzqôkñul anyway.

  4. dansumption Avatar

    And, yeah, Whitestone Waterdeep blechhh.

    That said, my favourite names I've used for my own characters have been Bleaklow and Bolsterstone (both places near Sheffield)

  5. dansumption Avatar

    Sure, this is only a personal opinion, albeit a pretty strongly held one. I'm not at all interested in Marvel, and if they want to make up new names then an old man like me shouting at clouds is hardly going to influence them.

    Tolkien I have more mixed feelings about. I'm also not really interested in his work any more, but I am aware that, as a linguist, all of his work was built up from firm grounds.

    I disagree with your use of elves and orcs as examples though – both were in use long, long, long before Tolkien (and are similar to Anglo-Saxon names such as Aelfred, Aelfric, etc, even though they may have difference roots). Both fit my criteria of using pre-existing terms (they're also very short, which helps a lot). That said, I don't really like fantasy that has elves and orcs in it – I may just be cranky and contrary 🙂

    I do think that Tolkien's use of terms such as Nazgûl and Khazad-dûm has been responsible for a metric shittonne of bad fantasy naming. Again, I'm sure he could have given elaborate justification for doing so, but… just no.

  6. dansumption Avatar

    (Weirdly, I quite like "elialords", but "schmorkums" hits my pain button. I tend to use fairy and faerie and fae when referring to elf-types, but would also very happily go for "erl", based purely on my love for Goethe's fabulous and terrifying poem Der Erlkönig)

  7. semiurge Avatar

    I don't think they're as arbitrary as you're saying. Try saying "orc", "elf", "shmorkum", and "elialord" out loud – besides orc & elf being a single syllable, the sound of the word reflects what they are, even without any etymology – orc is harsh, elf is subtle, shmorkum is ridiculous, elialord is baroque.

    I don't think most of those Marvel names are arbitrary either. Obviously Skrull is just skull with an r, but Badoon and Chitauri recall Barsoom and (Alpha) Centauri – they draw, consciously or not, on sounds already associated with outer space.

  8. semiurge Avatar

    There's a video game series called "The Elder Scrolls" that can do names well – there's a lot of just using names from analogous historical cultures, but for mythic figures, arch-demons, and so on, you can do some neat etymological work, that ends up with meaningful & appealing-sounding names. Below's a reddit post & associated google doc that dig into this, I recommend reading the comments as well:

    Personally I've gotten a lot of mileage out of using old or out-of-fashion names (Gretchen, Dagobert, Marlowe, Yvain, Roland, etc.).

    There's countless rich worlds between "totally generic" and "totally new/baseless/random" in naming – if Patrick Stuart had named characters in Deep Carbon Observatory after the sounds he makes blowing his nose rather than caves, would that make the adventure better, or even just more creative, even if he had the most unique nose of all people ever born? I don't think so.

  9. dansumption Avatar

    The various Elder Scrolls games were the only thing I played when I "no longer played computer games" and, yeah, the naming in them is sound. You're right, there are many rich worlds of names to be explored, and Patrick's nose-sounds are probably not as good as the names of caves, although I'd be interested to read how he rendered them in written form.

  10. maxcan7 Avatar

    Ya I think we're saying slightly different things, and in retrospect that may be my fault.

    I agree that certain names can be better than others in conveying meaning solely from the phonetics and some kind of pragmatic feel, or given a phonetic similarity to a real word given its semantics, not unlike how words actually evolve etymologically.

    My argument was more so that I don't like reusing preconceived words or concepts just for the sake of ease , although there's certainly a logic in doing it where it makes sense to do so, but in retrospect that's separate from what I think you both are saying here in these comments, which I don't think contradicts what I was getting at.

  11. maxcan7 Avatar

    after "just for the sake of ease" I had written "as a rule" in between < and > which apparently blogger parses as html or i dunno but anyway that seems to have disappeared 0.o…

  12. Solomon VK Avatar

    While I'm here…..

    I will sometimes use the Telmarine names as placeholders.

    Taking into account the below, I rather think that sometimes you have to bite the bullet and try for an original(ish) name, no matter how goofy it sounds. It can strain credulity in some (most?) settings to just refer to 'the Kingdom', 'the Republic', 'the Town', 'the Badlands' the whole time.

  13. Jim Parkin Avatar

    Having no experience with rock climbing, I was unaware of how wondrous the names of climbing paths are. That link, alone, has now seeded fifty excellent starship names in my imagination.

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