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 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: Names and Their Meaning — 26 Comments

  1. 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.

      • 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.

          • 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.

          • With regards to Hebrew names: it’s a highly mixed set. Some names are morphologically transparent, some are not, some might have been to a speaker of Biblical Hebrew but are not to a speaker of modern Hebrew. There has been some change, both phonological and semantic. In many cases, once a word has become common as a name, its original semantic value was forgotten. The name ??? – origin of English “Rachel” and Spanish “Raquel” – is a word meaning “ewe” (yes, female sheep) but that is a fact that a modern Hebrew-speaker will have to make an effort to remember, if he or she knows it at all. The same is generally true for compounded names – it takes a certain cognitive effort to try to analyse them, to stop treating them as atomic names and treat them as morphologically complex units, and the individual elements are very seldom identical to words used in everyday speech.

            With regards to name dictionaries, I advise taking everything they say with a grain of salt. In the case of Hebrew, maybe with a handful of salt. “Helsa” is not a name I have ever heard, in any medium, and I see no way to parse it into Hebrew morphemes at all, much less anything that means “devoted to God”. I feel fairly confident in saying it is not a Hebrew name at all. “Hananiel” means “God has forgiven/pardoned me”.

  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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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. 🙂

  5. 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.

      • 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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  7. I really like what Vernor Vinge does with naming in his book A Fire Upon the Deep. It’s science fiction with several different species and even more civilizations. One language, which is clearly future Norwegian, has last names ending “sndot”, eg “Bergsndot”, which is clearly some sort of androgynous patronymic-y thing, although I don’t think the precise mechanics of it are explained. And then on an alien world, you have names like Peregrine Wickwrackscar, who is a small pack of dog-like animals with a single consciousness; ‘his’ first name refers to his role in society, and the last name is a compound of the names of his component animals (this last name can and does change over time as individuals are born and die while the group consciousness is preserved). Yet another species has names like “Blueshell” and “Greenstalk”.

    He also does interesting things in the companion novel A Deepness in the Sky where the names we get for the aliens were translated by the human characters, giving stuff like “Sherkaner Underhill” and “Victory Smith”; and the book comments on how the translation affects the human’s perception of them.

    • I haven’t read any Vinge, but that’s interesting! He clearly put thought into the worldbuilding of names. And yeah, the translation of names would definitely have an effect on perception.

  8. Oh, I should mention–Since I created an SF world where what counts is the mother, not the father (dad can be found out, when genetics testing comes back, but we’re back to mom being the link of generations) I created a linkage I then had to remember to type in at critical moments, showing that someone is the child of a woman, and whether this had clan/wealth importance, as in a woman who was the female head of her clan.

    Having a matronymic was still appropriate. Although spellcheckers online rarely recognize that word.

  9. “don’t reuse first letters”

    Haha, Hodgell has no truck with that. Prominent characters of a house will share letters, or at least related sounds. House Ardeth has Adric and Adiraina; House Caineron has Caldane, Cattila, Kallystine, and Genjar; House Randic has Rawneth and Randiroc and Kenan; House Jaran had Jedrak (also Kirien, but she’s half Randir); House Knorth has Gerridon (I give it a hard G), Glendar, Greshan, Ganth, Kindrie, Keral (half Knorth and Randir), Kinzie; House Coman has Korey, Edirr has Essien and Essiar (twins!)…

    She’s not rigid about it. Ardeth has Pereden, Caineron Lyra, Knorth Torisen, Tirandys, and Terribend (secondary pattern?), Jaran Trishien and Kenan (they’re actually poor in J-names, maybe because Knorth females were horning in on that). K-names actually seem spread across three or four houses (but then, they do all belong to the Kencyrath!) But there’s definitely a pattern, tone, or ‘beat’, without being a straitjacket.

    Then there are non-Kencyr names. Dalis-sar, a sun god; Men-dalis, his son; Dally, brother of Men-dalis. Related, but also suggesting Dally’s carefree personality, and his brother’s mendacious one.

    And I still love the series ur-villain: Perimal Darkling, Father of Shadows, an all-surrounding menace, just as perimeter + malicious might suggest.