Friday, June 19, 2015

Names, Naming and Namers

Behold, the Land of Clichea!
Almost everywhere that’s anywhere was once inhabited by someone else. A lot of writers seem to have an issue with names and naming conventions.  This is why readers end up with a lot of rivers named the Great River and places called The Badlands and The Northern Wastes.

Let’s solve that today.  First, understand that unless your world is very, very young and your main races only just arrived, Hero Land has likely changed ownership a few times over the past few hundred years.  A lot of place names come from indigenous, or a close facsimile, language that may not be in current use, or is in the process of dying out.

Check out the etymology of London's River Thames, for example. It comes from the Celtic name for the river, Tamesas, was recorded in Latin as Tamesis and came into Middle English as Temese from which some said, “Screw it, we’ll call it Thames!”  The spelling has varied wildly and widely, depending on how it was being pronounced and with what thickness of access (not all men are as thick as others), which results in the following list:


In the Magna Carta it’s called Tamisiam.

It comes from a proto-Celtic meaning "dark" which could mean anything as applied to a river.  Maybe it was night when the first folk were thinking up names. It's a simple enough term, but the transformation yielded a name that no one (other than proto-Celts) would associate with "dark".

Criminently, now I know why your mama
called you "Nutsy."
If you think that’s bad, just look up the potential ways in which London received its name.  No one is certain but it might have been a proto-Celtic term for "hill fort" that was then corrupted into Latin and then corrupted further into, well, what we have today.

The point is that when writers name something, it’s fine and dandy to have a running theme, like the town of Feldspar in the Black Coal Mountains near the Adamant River.  But most places and navigable features (rivers, hills, mountains, forests, etc.) already have a history and a name.  If you’re going for a measure of reality, you’ll want to consider that when selecting your names and not fall back on calling your forest the Dark Forest.

Also, let’s not forget the impact of language on naming conventions.  Sticking with our English theme, you’ll note a lot of “shires” all over the countryside.  Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, West Worcestershireshireshire.  The list goes on.  Shire comes from an Old English term scir which actually derives from Old High German scira meaning “official care”.  It was a designation of a specific area usually placed under the administration of a “reeve” who reported to a local lord or sometimes the crown.  The position of “shire reeve” gave us the term sheriff, with similar duties.

All this is to say that the names should go with the region in which you’re writing.  If you’re working from an English Medieval parallel, then the names for towns, rivers, lakes, mountains, etc. should reflect a similar tone.  Likewise, if you’re drawing from a Danish or German culture, the geographic names should reflect that similarity.

Frozen North Wastes might be a somewhat accurate description, but it’s probably not what people living there would call it.  At least, not the people currently living there.  Some proto-Frozen North Wastes language would be applied that original meant "You'll freeze yer knickers off!"

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