Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Naming Conventions

When making a fantasy world one of the things a lot of people get hung up on is naming conventions. Not for characters. Generally most of us have an idea on how to do it - even if that idea is to use random breaks and apostrophes so that Luke Tilman becomes Lu'keti Lma'n. However, there is an easier way. A much easier way. How easy? So easy that you probably aren't even considering it though it is right in front of you.

What Is A Name For?
At its core what is a name meant to do? Its job is to identify an object. However, it also conveys an idea for the object. Philosophers have asked about what is the "idea" of a table that we can immediately tell a table from a chair, but that is also adding complexity to things. A name gives us a tag to call something, and for the most part those tags are descriptive.

A building is a thing that is built. A village green is the place in a village that...well, it's green. Even words that are more complex have fairly simple origins. Why is a doorway called a doorway? Well, it is a way into or out of something that has a door. What is a door? A germanic word for gate. What is a gate? A word with origins meaning "opening" or "way in."

Everywhere Has A "Springfield"
Taking the human tendency to give things very simple names, think of place names. In New England we have a lot of places with some strange names, but those names are only strange because they are not English words. Even the name "New England" is kind of silly. It's just the new place that England found and settled. So it is the new land for the anglish people. It is the new England, and thus we call it New England.

But for descriptive names you don't have to look much further than the town/city of Springfield. A quick google search says that there are at least 34 populated places in 25 states named Springfield, and 36 townships, including 11 in Ohio. Why is it such a common name? Probably because when you break it down a field with a spring in it (a springfield, as it were) is a damn good place to set up a town. The field gives you flat land for building and planting. The spring gives you water. Boom, settlement is done.

Rosevine Castle
If you were to say a Castle was named Rosevine Castle what would you expect out of it? In a fantasy world you might expect a rose motif in the design. A flowered labyrinth to ward off unwanted guests. Perhaps it would be the home of the Rose clan. A lot of things could come up. In the real world? In the real world I'd expect the castle to have a garden with a healthy growth of rosevines. Why? Because the rosevines were a distinguishing enough trait to work their way into the name.

Other places have even simpler names in the real world. "The Bastille" the famous prison from the French Revolution? Bastille is a word in French for prison. So "The Bastille" is saying "The Prison" it is only a unique identifier because of the word "the" which makes it a definite article, and capitalization of the word.

The Point of This
The point is that people are generally fairly lazy, and we name things by their distinguishing features. You see this with characters in fiction all the time. Despite having a name (Anito), Antonio Banderas's character in Desperado is listed as 'El Mariachi' in the credits. Why? because that is the most defining characteristic for the character. There is a character in Full Metal Alchemist named scar. Why is he named scar? He has a big scar on his face.

This same naming convention applies to places, things, and objects as well.Just keep it in mind when you need to name something. If nothing else, when you are reaching for a name and possibly getting a bit silly, take a moment and stop to realize that "fireplace" is a thing, and perhaps the least imaginative name for something ever...and yet it works great for what it is meant to do.


  1. I am a big fan of prosaic names, sometime translated into another language, for places and things. Keeps it simple and feels realistic. Good article.

  2. Great article. I've always been interested in the art of naming. I even take easy japanese learning at because japanese is one of the best names to find.