The Naming of People, Places, Things

Without looking up the source (bad scholar, but it’s that kind of day)  I think it was Owen Barfield in an essay about language, corporations, and legal fictions who suggested that language itself is rooted  in the ability to abstract and name a concept, and that is itself a form of fiction (or lie, if you prefer.)   The word is a symbol for, not the reality of, the thing.  That seems obvious, but it’s the kind of obvious that’s a tangled web of fractal philosophy when you dig into it.  And naming things–especially things that are *already* fictions, not existing in the real world except the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader who interprets  what the writer wrote–is especially fraught with opportunities for unintended complications.

But also with opportunities for intentional (and mostly secret) wit.   Those of you who like both fantasy and science fiction, and also read more conventional fiction, will have noticed that the SFF type of writing involves a lot more invention of names than other genres.  Historical novels already have names of people and places (real people, real places, real weapons, real food, etc.) handed to them.   Contemporary novels usually involve familiar places on this planet and names that suggest contemporary cultures, classes, occupations.   The transportation, housing, technology are all a given.

SFF, though…we can stay within familiar bounds, but why?   Why would the name for an unidentified corpse on a distant planet a thousand years in the future be called a John or Jane Doe?   Aren’t we past naming new places for old places with “New” tacked on?  At least sometimes?  Sure, there will be some New Iberias and  New Kenyas  and New Indonesias (in whatever language is chosen then) but  why not more interesting names, names that carry a feel just by the sound?   Why not characters with all sorts of exotic names from every corner of a large metropolitan telephone directory, or from the lists of authors of scientific papers, or from the news?   Mix & match.  Turn them inside out.   (And if you’re unwise, pepper them with apostrophes, suggesting that the spelling is NOT a hint to the pronunciation…)  Name them for pets or famous racehorses or a failed invention from fifty years ago.

But one important thing:  make sure the average reader can see the word and imagine how to say it easily.   In my experience, from asking people who don’t read SFF what about it puts them off…it’s the names.  (Some of them also won’t read contemporary fiction if the names look hard to say.)   They can’t remember the characters if they can’t say the names–hear them in their heads.   Important (but less so than having pronounceable names) is not having very similar names for different characters.  If they must start with the same letter, have them different lengths, with different vowels in them.   If they must be the same for some story-reason, give one of them a nickname: Tall Bill, Red Tom, Sally and Sal, Kentucky Joe (known often as “Tucky” or “Kentuck.”)  I should’ve learned this in fourth grade, when our teacher, faced with five little girls named Susan, insisted we had to have different names in her class…but I didn’t.   Now I have.

A more subtle consideration:  every invented name in a story should help create the ambiance of that story.   A fantasy tale, where the entire fabric is made up, is particularly likely to suffer from a mismatch of name to story-verse.   (Tolkein’s choosing to name a pony “Bill” was dangerously near the edge, but redeemed by having some low-life humans with more mundane names.)   Terry Pratchett was a master at naming (and many other things, but this is about naming.)  The Discworld geography, races, tribes, cities, towns…all of it, wonderfully named to create its particular feel.

So, dragging this into the present, what kind of little secrets might lurk in the Vatta universe, with regard to the names handed out so far?   Well…I sometimes name characters for horses I’ve had (or those horses’ barn names.)  Ky, for instance, the first horse I ever owned.  Mac, for instance, a horse I own now.   Kuincey (who became Quincy, the elderly engineer in the first Vatta book.)   (Some horses’ names are unhandy for characters and are unlikely to show up, except possibly as ship names or something like that:  Illusion, Cricket, Jezz.)   Names of characters need to fit the character if not in obvious opposition, a name the character fights against) and fit not only in the expectations it raises about personality, but in culture.   In a multi-cultural story, each culture needs a grab-bag of names that will then help create that culture’s sound identity in the story.

For instance, in this story, there’s a person named Bernard Greyhaus, a military officer–not a POV character, existing mostly via the journal he kept.  That name already suggests a certain kind of military officer.  The spelling of his last name suggests a mix of linguistic input; his first name suggests another possible input, and–in an SF story set far in the future–suggests a predominantly north European Terran ancestry.   Vatta is not a north European name…Ky’s ancestry includes inputs from, predominantly, the long trade routes from Greece/Turkey to India.  Ky has a flag captain, last name Pordre, and an aide, last name Bentik, neither from Slotter Key.   Early in the book she meets the pilot and co-pilot of the shuttle she’s on:  Hansen and Sunyavarta.  Already the last names are cueing the reader that there’s a complexity to the culture.

Two people in the book are using aliases.  Why would someone pick a name like Hilarion Bancroft for an alias?   Or Edvard Simeon Teague?   Why not commoner names (whatever those might be) that wouldn’t call attention to themselves.    Well, because an unusual name doesn’t look as though you’re trying to hide from attention.   (And also because one of those is rhyming slang for a composer if you ignore the middle name, which I threw in to make it less likely.  I could not resist.)

What about land masses?    Slotter Key was settled by humans less than a thousand years ago, under a corporate license agreement: the stakeholders, all from one culture, named the larger land masses they were entitled to for some version (or shortened version) of their name, plus “land.”  Hence Arland, Forland, Voruksland, etc.  Other place names were contributed by later immigrants, and some are descriptive while others are banal at best.  Luckily, the story doesn’t drag you around too much.   Slotter Key has smallish continents and lots and lots of islands of various types.    (Oh–you’re wondering about Slotter Key’s own name?  That’s…interesting, actually.  Key because of all the reefs and islands.  Slotter’s argued about.   It might originally have been Slaughter, and that might originally have involved a massacre OR simply the last name Slaughter.  I knew people named Slaughter way back when.  Lots of names on this planet are obscure in origin unless you know someone who was there at the start.  Weslaco, Texas, for instance.  W.E. Stewart Land Company…yup, that’s where its name came from.  Sounded good, was unique, so…there it is.)

The Vatta family, as mentioned, are an amalgam of Turkish, Syrian, Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian background, plus additions of others here and there.   In some centuries and places, they tried assimilating at least a little.  But their history is largely one of family closeness in trade, buying and selling, with more or less brief periods of owning land and cultivating it, often for exotic crops they can sell at a higher profit than basic foodstuffs.   E.g., the tik plantations on Corleigh, where Ky grew up.

And now it’s time to take a break and try to get the exercise requirement done before the next round of storms hits.






9 thoughts on “The Naming of People, Places, Things

  1. Lots of meat on these bones. For starters, early in the first Ky book: her own middle names (Evangeline Dominique), also Gerard, Gaspard, and surnames Rocher, Berlioz. All suggesting a French contribution to Slotter Key’s mix maybe – but not to me. What came to my mind was a linguistic input second hand by way of Afro-Caribbean ancestry, Haiti for example, or possibly New Orleans.

    1. In my own mind, none of the national lines are “pure” by this time in the future–but families carry traditions that hint at connections in the past. Ky’s own tradition is Eurasian-trade-route, but others have come out of Caribbean, with its mix of African/European/Native American (mostly by back-filling.)

  2. This is fascinating. I sometimes look at the barn names of horses and wonder where they came from (some like Legs or Bubba (200lb when foaled) make sense others not so much to me) … other pet names can be interesting as well. The amount of detail and attention to detail you put in your work is part of what makes it so wonderful for me. Thank you for sharing the process.

    1. My first horse’s registered name was Omar Khayyam–half Arabian, half Saddlebred, supposedly. His barn name was Ky. Much of the time I called him Tiger, which suited him in the sense of the cartoon Tony the Tiger–exuberant, powerful, mischievous, etc. A gifted and joyful jumper, he gave me confidence after some bad experiences.

  3. But even the simplest of names isn’t necessarily pronounced as you might think – as, for example, Robin McKinley’s “Damar” – which I, and many of her other English readers, automatically read as “Day-mar”, but when Robin read an extract to us, she called it “Dam-arrr” with the accent on the final syllable, which made it sound far more exotic!

    I am sure I mentally pronounce many of your characters’ and
    places’ names wrong, too….

    1. Unfamiliar names are indeed a pronunciation problem. But if a reader can quickly “hear” them, even if the reader hears them differently than the author heard them, then they’ll work.

      I think. I could be wrong.

  4. So, the question is, if the heroine was called, say Mary, would the Ky story be the same? Would it be as popular if Rafe was called Fred?

    I think not, but the naming of people and places makes for an interesting study. Supposedly, all of the names and places in the Old Testament have a relationship to the character of the person or place. There are extremly few, if any, duplicates.

    Creating worlds and names, not to even mention an entertaining story, is quite a feat – and another reason to admire those who write.

    1. Personal names carry the weight of all those who have used them, both those we know, and those who are cultural icons. A character named “Mary” cannot be separated from the Biblical Marys, the queens named Mary, the other famous women named Mary…the characters in fiction names Mary (most recently, perhaps, in Downton Abbey.) So a far-future SF culture in which someone is named Mary will drag behind it a long train of associations….and that’s not even counting all the Marys that a given reader may have known.

      And thus you’re right, if Mary had Ky’s personality and physical characteristics, the story would have been different.

  5. Re: your ‘5 Susans’
    In my ancient generation there are lots of Kathy/Cathys.
    I was born in the northern Midwest and almost all of the Kathys I know from here are Kathleen. But I grew up in the West and all the Kathys there were Katherine.
    So, in high school, facing a multiplicity of Cathys in my grade, I had my teachers call me Kathleen — if I heard “Kathy” in class I knew it wasn’t me.
    Moved back to my state of birth as an adult and right now I have a Kathy across the street from my house and a Kathy next door to my west.

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