New Worlds: What’s In a Name?

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

Continuing on from the discussion of phonology, I want to get into names — not how they sound, but how they’re used.

When I’m reading, I see a huge number of invented worlds where everyone has a given name and a family name, in that order. It is the blandest, most invisible way to name a character, because it’s the stripped-down form of the name style that most of you reading this essay probably have. And it doesn’t require the author to think very much.

But if you look around the world, and especially through history, it isn’t always that simple.

Let’s start with the family name. Those aren’t universal; there have been lots of times and places where people didn’t have any kind of inherited moniker. Instead they had given names, and maybe some kind of descriptive epithet. Like, for example, their profession: John the tailor. (Who in later times would become John Taylor.) Or their parentage: James, Robert’s son. (Later known as James Robertson.) Or placenames: Simon, who lives in the woods. (Simon Woods.) Or physical characteristics, behavioral tics, and various other quirks. As you can tell, a lot of these got pressed into service as family names over time, losing their semantic meaning in the process; Jenny Robertson isn’t a son and her father’s name was Bill, but somewhere back in the family tree there was a Robert with a son, just as there was a tailor in the Taylor family. I believe Iceland is the final Western holdout for actual patronymics: Helga Sigurdsdottir’s father is Sigurd Olafson, whose father was Olaf Thorvaldson, and so on up the chain, with the “family name” changing each generation. Many Arabic cultures also use patronymics, sometimes a whole string of them detailing multiple generations of the family tree; the Arabic traveler referred to as ibn Fadlan was more properly known as Ahmad ibn Fadlan ibn al-‘Abbas ibn Rašid ibn Hammad.

Heading off in the other direction, sometimes people have more than one family name! Hyphenation has become more of a thing in the United States in recent decades, but it’s long been common in Hispanic countries to have a double last name, drawing from both the father’s and the mother’s side. Or the society groups people into larger clans and smaller families, with people bearing monikers from both; Gaius Julius Caesar was of the gens Julia, but specifically of the Caesar branch within that gens. You get an echo of this in certain periods of English literature, where the introduction of someone as Thomas Howeton is met with the query, “Of the Devonshire Howetons?” In these situations, the hereditary nature of the affiliation is of vital importance, because it marks the individual as belonging to a group — a sharp contrast to the epithet-based approach, which is focused on the characteristics that mark someone out individually.

Of course, societies often mix these things together with a semi-free hand. The cognomen or third part of the triple Roman name started out as an epithet instead of a hereditary marker (and when that shift happened, it got more common for Romans to have a fourth name — the agnomen — to pick up the nicknaming slack). Or your Roman might be referred to in a text as the son of his father, as a means of clarification. Someone in a patronymic culture might be much better known by their nickname than by their father’s name. But the mixture and the balance thereof can say quite a bit about the society: anybody who bothers to name their great-great-grandfather when introducing themselves is clearly quite invested in lineage as a thing of importance, while subdividing one’s family within a clan implies key details of status or alliance that inhere to those groups. Having a matronymic, or name derived from one’s mother, might indicate a matrilineal society — or it might mean your mother was unwed, and you therefore have no father’s name to use — or your father died before you were born — or your mother was such a famous badass that you decided to commemorate her; the children of Empress Matilda sometimes used the name FitzEmpress (the most famous of these being the eventual king, Henry II).

Then there’s the given name . . . or more than one. Many of you reading this probably have a middle name, which in the United States is a term that encompasses pretty much anything that might come between the given name and the family name: the second part of a two-part name, maiden names, patronymics, etc. These reflect a broad swath of naming conventions being fit, Procrustes-like, into the model of the “American name.” Or many people wind up with multiple given names, possibly to honor a slew of relatives on both sides of the family, possibly because the parents just couldn’t make up their minds. The children of immigrants frequently have “American” first names and “ethnic” middle names (or the other way around), reflecting their parents’ double desire to have their children fit in but also maintain a tie to their ancestral culture. And some of us — myself included — have middle names just because that’s what you do in this country. It serves no practical function, apart from being a second canvas upon which the parents can exercise their creativity.

On top of that, you may have a religious name! My husband has both a middle name and a baptismal name — the latter of which doesn’t appear in official government documentation, but he was baptized Catholic, and neither his given nor middle names come from recognized saints, so his grandmother had to choose something in a hurry when the priest made his disapproval clear. Jews may have a shem hadokesh for use in formal religious documents; Wiccans and neopagans may chose names for ritual contexts, separate from what they call themselves in daily life. Likely the same is true for other religions I’m less familiar with. Whether the religious name is considered to have magical power or is just a way of marking the boundary between the sacred and the secular, it’s yet another layer in the pile of monikers a single individual might carry.

And when that’s all said and done, there’s the question of what order you put the names in. In the West, it’s usually personal name followed by family, while in East Asia — and, randomly, in Hungary — it’s the other way around. I’ve heard this attributed to the individual vs. communal mentalities of those respective regions, but I think it may have as much or more to do with grammar (whether modifiers precede or follow the word they modify). Where fiction is concerned, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the family name come first outside of settings that are obviously meant to be direct analogues of East Asia, just as I haven’t seen double family names very often, or any of the other variations that exist across the world. 95% of the time, it’s one given name, one family name, the end.

I’d like to see more authors shake that up.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: What’s In a Name? — 19 Comments

  1. As late as the Renaissance, middle names were regarded as a wicked foreign thing. Your name was YOUR NAME.

    • Whoops. In England. People commented when kids got middle names due to foreign influence.

      • The notion that naming conventions may change over time, or as a result of foreign influence, is another thing that basically never shows up in imaginary worlds.

  2. In my Confederated Star Systems books the people from Harmony have a common first name followed by du for girls or da for boys followed by mother’s or father’s name. I’d be Irene du Miriam. Then it gets a bit more complicated. A pu or pa and then their employer’s name and possibly a place of assigned employment if say Lord Chauncy owns several businesses.

    So my High Priestess becomes Sissy du Maigry pu Crystal Temple.

    I have my Earth based characters go glassy-eyed trying to figure it out and my Harmony based characters getting confused when the Earthers only have two names and maybe a title or rank. How can they know who these people truly are and where they are from? And without caste marks to know where they belong in the society hierarchy?

    Names had purposes. We’ve lost a lot of that. But then our society is more fluid than it used to be.

      • I don’the know what Sherwood’so experience was, but in a WIP when I culturally accurately had a character referring to various aunts as “X’s mom” rather than using their names, e.get. “Aunt Y,” (because using the personal name would be disrespectful from a member of the younger generation), I was asked to provide the actual names. I elected just to go with it rather than confuse readers.

        • Interesting! Whereas my reaction is, hey, calling the aunt “X’s mom” has the virtue of clarifying relationships, instead of making me forget who’s related to whom.

          • Also–anyone who has been chewing through manga knows that there are honorifics in some societies that are not carelessly shoved aside. Your readers might have been fine with it.

            I had this trouble with my first SF book. Being a newbie, I just went with the editor. Sigh.

            • Yeah, I’ve got a Japanese-set story where I’ve simplified honorifics as much as I can . . . but I can’t just dump ’em entirely. I just have to make sure I’m as clear as humanly possible in my exposition.

      • “Too many names, too hard to remember!” But like Yoon says below, culturally names can vary: strangers use one, formal names are used in this circumstance, informal in another, generations address elders a third way (including indirectly when it is not respectful to use their name at all), then there are ranks, and job designations. And, like you say, the order they are given in can change.

        Also, diminutives can change, and it can be culturally interesting to note why. Like, Richard was Dick or Dicky a hundred years ago, but no one would ever call a kid Dick now, it’s either Rick or Rich, for obvious reasons.

        Margaret used to be Marge, but now it’s Meg for short, or Maggie. Elizabeth, once Lizzie or Liza, is more commonly Liz or Beth. Etc.

  3. I always thought (heard once?) that “Caesar” was the nickname awarded to Gaius of the Julii, on account of him being good at winning and politicing. Thank you for the correction.

    There are also…i think they’re teknonyms – names based on profession (taylor, as you mentioned). Other than English, I’ve only heard examples of this in Arabic, though logic suggests it should be in more places.
    An extension of this is how I overheard once “I don’t worship The Saint(s), I worship The Carpenter”, though I’m not sure if that’s venturing into pronoun territory.

    Possibly apocraphal are the tribes where, when someone in the family dies, nobody can use that person’s name for anything…not a problem for someone named (picks at random) Caedwalla…but if their nickname was Wal, that’s a lot of words that folks need to find substitutes for.

    Thank you for writing and sharing another great article. Kudos to you!

    • To be scrupulously clear, my comment about the Caesares is backed by Wikipedia. But I do believe it’s correct, based on my recollection of the days when I actually knew my Roman history.

      There are definitely name-based taboos! I’m planning a post on the etiquette of name usage; that will probably wind up a topic in there.

  4. Western readers throw Russian novels against the wall because Names 🙂 First there’s the dreaded patrnymic portion – and then there are teh diminutives which are sometimes opaque to non-Russian eyes. (You might stretch to Masha coming from Marya, but somehow it takes an extra turn of the brain cogs for many people to recognise that a Kolya would be formally known as a Nikolai…)

    Also, there has to be a certain consistency in names. If you present me with a story (and I will use common Terran names for this to make my point) which has characters named Peter, Yuki, Simba, Sarasvati, Juanita and Abdul in it you’d better be in a position to tell me how these cultures got mixed up together in a single story vat so that they all found themselves in the same place solving the same problems. A VERY FAMOUS fantasy writer broke that rule for me, and I haven’t been able to read anything by that author seriously since.

    ALSO, just because it sounds interesting doesn’t mean that the name doesn’t have baggage. I recall, famously, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Prince Aileron (and I’m sorry but I just COULD NOT get past the airplane part…)

    • I ran into the nickname problem with Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising. It was absolutely not transparent to me that Niccolo = Claes, because I didn’t know that Claes was the diminutive form of the Flemish version of the name whose Italian form was used in the title. And Dunnett was not exactly scrupulous about making sure the connection got explained to the reader early on.

      Mixed names I’m fine with so long as the society isn’t isolated, because travel and emigration are things that happen. But yes, I’ve bounced out of stories that present me with what ought to be a homogenous linguistic group and a random grab-bag of names.

    • I remember being thrown by some of the Russian names and nicknames in _2010_.

      But as for name consistency? For the past 1000 years, English names have been a mix of Anglo-Germanic, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, which isn’t even in the same language family, plus the occasional contemporary English word, and maybe some Celtic. That’s without leaving England; in the modern US, we can throw in Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Indian (subcontinent) names without batting an eye. And Chinese surnames if not given names, and then there are distinctive African-American names of various kinds.

      Given that history is full of empires, I don’t think much explanation is needed other than “at some point people moved around, or got a religion from somewhere else.”

  5. N’ames, of course, are one th’ing that f’antas’y auth’ors are famous for t’rying to be creative about. Nothing like some zz and kk to spice things up, too… Considering the fantasy that comes to mind, not having surnames at all seems far more common than “firstname familyname”. And then there are the occasional hints of very long (or growing) names, or magical significant truenames that may need to be hidden.

    In Tolkien, only the hobbits and Bree-humans had surnames. Some other folk had house names, like “Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod”… okay, I don’t know what ‘Inglorion’ was doing there. But Glorfindel and Elrond are just that. (*checks* Tolkien may not have decided what the Inglorion was doing there, either.) Isildur is just Isildur, not Isildur Targaryen.

    Hodgell’s Jame was “Jame Talissen” once but that’s never been repeated, instead she’s Jame(thiel) of the House of Knorth. With various epithets, like Priest’s-Bane or Lordan of Ivory, while her brother is Torisen Black-Lord, not Tori Knorth.

    (Hodgell’s also delightfully unsubtle with some of her naming patterns, but I won’t go cataloguing.)