I originally thought I would get through the topic of names in a single post. (More fool me.) Let’s move on to what names mean.
On the wall of my office I have a laminated map called the Atlas of True Names, which labels the world with our best guesses at what all the place names mean – because nearly every name in the world originally meant something, before it went through the rock tumbler of time and linguistic change. “Marie” is the French form of what in English would be “Mary,” and if you trace them back through the Latin Maria to the Greek Mariam you get to the Hebrew Miryam, which means . . . well, Wikipedia gives options including “rebellion”, “bitter sea”, “strong waters”, “mistress”, “exalted one”, “ruling one”, “wished for child”, “beautiful,” “beloved,” and I could keep going but I won’t. “Brennan” is the Anglicized form of two Irish surnames, Ó Braonáin and Ó Branáin, with the Ó indicating a descendant, Braonáin meaning “moisture” or “drop,” and Branáin meaning “little raven.” We could play this game all day — but in practical terms, the only time people in the U.S. pay much attention to the buried meaning is when they’re naming their kid. The fact that you could translate my name as “beautiful drop” or “bitter little raven” is not only irrelevant, it requires a fair bit of effort to uncover.
With other names, though, the semantic meaning is obvious. Surnames like Baker, placenames like Meadowcreek, given names like Rose or Amber or Heather. For women with English-language names it’s lots of flowers (Lily) and gems (Ruby) and virtues (Grace) and so forth. When men have names like that, they’re often repurposed occupational surnames like Carter or Hunter (which have been going unisex in recent years), or they veer in the direction of what always sound to me like stereotypical romance-hero names, like Blaze, Gray, or Cliff. In a language written with logograms, on the other hand, the semantic meaning is visible all the time — but, perhaps because of that, people may not place as much emphasis on it. In Japan, where most (though not all) names are written with Chinese characters, parents often choose just on the basis of sound rather than concerning themselves much with the meaning of the characters used. In a story I’m working on, the Japanese-American protagonist is named Mika, written with the kanji for “summer sea” . . . but her name could just as easily be composed of “say perfume,” “outlook song,” or “tree trunk addition.”
And then you’ve got the stereotypical image of “Native American names,” — things like Sitting Bull, Touch the Clouds, Crazy Horse (or rather, His Horse is Crazy), etc, where the name is composed of an entire meaningful phrase, rendered in English. (In looking up examples of this, I found what may be my favorite, which is “They Are Afraid of Her.” That was Crazy Horse’s daughter.) Sometimes Chinese names in fiction are rendered in this fashion, which annoys the snot out of some Chinese-Americans I know. Similar types of names crop up among Wiccans and neopagans, though they’re frequently rendered as compound words instead of phrases; you also get that in fantasy, whether it’s Elfquest (Clearbrook), Mercedes Lackey’s Hawkbrothers (Firesong), or some other example.
Overall, my impression is that fantasy and science fiction generally drift to one end or the other of this spectrum, but rarely make use of the middle. Assuming that the story doesn’t use real-world names (which, by their nature, partake of several points along the spectrum), you either get names composed of English words, or invented names whose presumed etymological underpinnings are never specified. I can’t even think of many patronymics, whether they take the form of the English “-son” suffix or some other recurrent element. You also don’t tend to see the nobiliary particles that crop up in many European names, like the Slavic -ski/-sky/-cki, the German von or zu, or the French de/du/d’/des, marking the estate of an aristocrat or aristocratic progenitor. Basically, a lot of names in speculative fiction are random collections of syllables, with little or no thought given to how they got put together.
Or to where they came from. One of the great failures of worldbuilding in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series can be found in the country of Andor. Despite having a proud tradition of female rulership stretching back to the founding queen Ishara, we do not meet one single Andoran woman named Ishara or any variant thereof. (The WoT wiki tells me there is one other woman named Ishara mentioned in the entire series, but she’s a historical figure who died centuries before the founding of Andor.)
This? Is pretty damn implausible. The names of famous people get reused a lot, in various forms, whether those are kings and queens or religious figures (saints’ names, anybody?) or great heroes of the past. Heck, names in general get reused a lot: my poor copy-editor for the Onyx Court series was forever querying whether Edward Grenville was an error and I meant Edward Fitzwilliam, etc. Henry VIII came within in an inch of naming his second daughter Mary, just like his first daughter, before he decided she should be Elizabeth instead. We tend to avoid this in fiction because it’s confusing for the reader, but you can have nicknames and variants on the same name — Elizabeth, Beth, Bess, Liz, Liza, Lizzy, Eliza, Elspeth, Isabel, Elise, and countless more — which gives a sense of realism and connectedness.
In fact, if you want to write about some real-world cultures or fictional iterations thereof, a certain amount of name repetition comes with the territory. In Japanese, for example, it was common to see the name of a son use the first half (i.e. first character) of his father’s name, so that Oda Nobunaga’s sons were Nobutada, Nobukatsu, Nobutaka, and so forth, while his father was Nobuhide. I recently watched the Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire, where the sons of the Emperor have the given names Jingyu, Jingyan, Jinghuan, Jingxuan, etc. This is the concept of the generation name at work: a syllable shared by each member of a generation, usually drawn from a “generation poem” that tells you which character to use for the next round of kids. On the one hand, this can be bloody confusing for the audience, because of the high degree of name similarity it spawns. (Heck, there are authors who recommend you avoid using even the same first letter more than once per story if you can avoid it, at least for major characters.) On the other hand, a practice like that can add depth to the setting, showing the connection between members of a given generation and the sense of continuity with previous generations — and even, for those writers willing to assay poetry, adding a narrative dimension in the form of the generation poem from which the names are drawn.
Just as the stripped-down given name + family name approach misses the opportunity for variety and flavor, so too does the “random collection of syllables” approach. You don’t need to be writing about China to give your heroine something like a generation name, and I might pay cash money to see a science fiction writer give their space-faring characters names like Quasarshine or Seeks the Galactic Center. Marking out your aristocrats with a nobiliary particle will help the reader distinguish between them and the common-born people in the story, and inventing a patronymic suffix will create a sense that “family name” is a different structural ballgame from “given name,” but not an unrelated one.
. . . yeah, I’m not finishing this topic in two posts, either. Look for the third and (for now) final part next week!