New Worlds: Names and Their Meaning

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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17 Responses to New Worlds: Names and Their Meaning

  1. Anthony Docimo says:

    Another very enjoyable article; kudos.

    Oddly, nobody does that Native American/Chinese naming practice when they say Hebrew names, despite them being built the same — people don’t say “Thus it was that the Archangel He Praises God Always came to the town…”

    Two Tudor Marys…what could possibly go wrong? 🙂

    As to the Wheel Of Time…if it were a single book, I might ask if its just sample bias – the odds against running into someone with a particular name…but after that many books & pages, yeah, sample bias probably isn’t why.

    • I’m curious: are the Hebrew names 100% transparent in their etymology? Or have the words been altered a little in the course of becoming names? In the case of Japanese, when you look at the name Mika written in the manner my character uses, it is literally the character “summer” followed by the character “sea,” exactly as you would write them if you wrote out “we went to the sea last summer.” But in speech it’s much less transparent, because there are so many homophones and names often break the usual rules of pronunciation for characters.

      • Anthony Docimo says:

        on being transparent – well, I don’t yet have a Hebrew dictionary, but I do have a Character Naming Sourcebook (with chapter with Hebrew names) and a dictionary of angels…the former has entries like “Lemuel – dedicated to God” & “Helsa – devoted to God”…while the latter has “Hananiel – graciously given of God”.

        • Yeah, the etymologies are well-documented. I just don’t know enough Hebrew to have any idea whether (for example) “lemu” is basically the same form of “to dedicate” that you would use in the sentence “I am dedicated to this cause,” such that it immediately registers as that word when a Hebrew-speaker looks at the name, or whether it’s gotten transmuted along the way.

          • Anthony Docimo says:

            I suspect I don’t know anyone sufficiently fluent either, to answer it; sorry. But I have a hunch that its like English: if I see a list of mountain names like “Weathertop, Dragonsback, and Starlofts” I process them as names, as compound words at the most – I might think (after i finish the chapter) that Starlofts could be a good place to build an observatory, or that Dragonsback has exposed angled boulders…but not much more than that…unless the story the names are in, has given me reason to contemplate it. Basically, I don’t take the word apart while I’m reading, even if the word is in my L1; I suspect the same is true of others.

  2. Fantasy has been peppered with apostrophe names that make no linguistic sense, or words taken wholesale from Tolkien without regard to his linguistic work in putting them together.

    But then the English language is known for its sneak-thief ways, so the tradition is long and . . . well, long.

  3. Hanneke says:

    It’s one of the things I like about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books.

    • Yeah, I remember picking up The Warrior’s Apprentice and seeing the drill sergeant call Miles “Kosigan.” That pleased me. There’s social meaning encoded in the Kosigan/Vorkosigan distinction, and it adds to the story.

  4. Cat Kimbriel says:

    Thank you, Marie, for pointing out how hard this is, once we really focus on it.

    Playing with territorial names right now in a fantasy I am writing. The humans just think the names sound neat or even trendy, but actually they show where families came from and what territories they control/have controlled in the past. They also allow clans meeting to have some sense of immediate history/politics.

    I love planting things for me and for people who are paying attention to that sort of thing. OTOH, I understand trying to avoid too many people with similar sounding names–and it’s a PITA because in real life you get named for your dad or grandmother, or have a nickname that also starts with the same letter as a good friend–even though the full names are totally different and even start with still other letters.

    • Worldbuilding in general is really hard, even when we focus on it. 🙂

    • Leigh Kimmel says:

      I’ve got a fantasy universe where the worlds were settled by people who fled through worldgates from various versions of Earth that were facing disasters. So there are all kinds of interesting usages of familiar place-names, sometimes taken straight, and other times weirdly shifted. The nation that was settled by Chicagoans is particularly fun, because there are some weird historical factors that obscure some of the names.

  5. My given name, Alma, can mean different things in different languages. It means “apple” in Hungarian, I have been told (but have forgotten the provenance and therefore can’t be 100% sure of this) that it – or some close variant of it – can mean “maiden” in Hebrew, and it translates as “Soul” into Spanish (which means that the first draft of a translated book once came out as having been written by Soul Alexander…) My maiden surname is Hromic which is directly traceable to a medieval battle where an ancestor got a wound which resulted in a permanent limp – so the nickname arrived promptly (“hrom” means almost literally “gimp”) – and it passed on to the generations with the addition of the “ic” which means “child of”. So variably translating the first name I would be Maiden or Apple or Soul, Child of the Limper.

    Yeah. names are fun. 🙂

  6. Koby says:

    Wikipedia gives options including “rebellion”, “bitter sea”, “strong waters”, “mistress”, “exalted one”, “ruling one”, “wished for child”, “beautiful,” “beloved,”
    This seems odd to me, because while Miryam can have several meanings, from “strong waters” onwards none of these seem logical… then again, maybe if I was an etymologist they would. I will say that in general, the common meaning for Hebrew names is almost immediately identifiable, especially those made from compound words, while for traditional names, it’s a bit harder.

    “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”
    Oh, this is no joke. I remember when reading Sharon Penman’s The Sunne In Splendour, and the were Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York (commonly called Bess), hes bastard sister Elizabeth, the other Elizabeth of York, her aunt, the Dcuhess of Suffolk (called ‘Eliza’), and so forth… in her afterword, she admitted to changing the name of Elizabth Scrope to Alison, because there were already so many Elizabeths.

    • Eytmologically-buried meanings are a lot less transparent, yeah. You can wind up with things that sound like they ought to mean X, but if you look at how they changed over time, they turn out to have their roots in Y instead.

      I honestly don’t know where on the spectrum of name repetition medieval and Renaissance England fell. It was certainly higher than it tends to be in the modern U.S., but was it high compared to the world overall? I dunno. But god yes, there were a handful of names for both women and men that seemed to account for about half the population, if not more.

      • Koby says:

        See, the thing is, in Hebrew it’s actually preety simple. In ‘Miryam’, for example, you have ‘Yam’ – ‘sea, waters’. And you have ‘Mir’ – ‘bitter’. You can also decide it’s a single word – ‘Miry’, that is ‘rebellion’, disobedience’. There’s an Egyptian name of similar etymology which means ‘beloved’, which may be where that explanations comes from. And there’s ‘rom/ram’, which is ‘great, height, exalt’, which may be the reason for ‘mistress/exalted one’. But the first is an outside context suggestion – it depends on the assumption that the Hebrew language had Egyptian influences. While many languages are related and influenced by others, and the Semitic languages especially share many similar words and meanings, going to the related language immediately is harder and less obvious for most. As for the second, it may be possible, but grammatically is incorrect (if it is so, her name should be ‘Ramah/Romah’ – and there are actually places/people with that name in the Bible). Which doesn’t necessarily mean much – names are not usually created with the intention to adhere to the rules of grammar – but again, it’s not the first assumption of anyone looking at that name, and isn’t at all obvious (to use another of your examples, it would be like expecting people to realize that the surname ‘Nanbren’ actually means the same as ‘Brennan’, only somebody switched around the letters).

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