I’ve been thinking lately about how names of places come to be. It’s an especially jarring task when you are world building either for a book or for your role playing sessions.
Most authors (and DM at that) try to go for the Tolkien route: create bombastic sounding names to put in their locations, buildings, even family names. I have done that. But it usually reads and feels hollow, forced, unnatural. It feels like a tacky label glued onto something. The other route is to create a weird sounding word and use it. This is the method I usually use (taking advantage of the frequent misspellings I have by typing too fast on my phone). While useful for minor things, it sounds forced as well with bigger things, namely location names.
I’m not saying this a diss to anyone, as I said, I have done it myself, both in my D&D sessions and in the first drafts of Tempest Blades (when it had other names like Curry -don’t ask why-, Wings of Thunder and so on). But lately, while I’m revising and editing the novel I find myself pondering more on the topic.
The thing is that Tolkien could get away with it because before being a writer he was a superb philologist that had read, translated and studied several old texts such as the Kalevala and the original Beowulf. He studied how the words came to be before doing it himself. It is said that Middle Earth came to be from the need to give a home for the languages he was creating. Thus every elvish word he used had an etymological origin within the language and context of the LOTR universe. That’s why places like Rivendell or Mordor feel like real places. While we are not Tolkien, the process he followed is not different from what happens in real world.
That made me realize something: most location names in real life are not created that way. Regardless of how they sound now, most of them are not all were derived from ancient words used to describe to others where you lived. It was a way to tell your address in a time where there was no concept of addresses or maps. Rivendell has a meaning like The Shire for their inhabitants not related to any mystic word, but usually coming from a descriptor of a place, like ‘clear water’ or ‘under the waterfall’ or ‘mud city’. There are some names that came from real or legendary persons, usually the ones that founded the place such as Alexandria (Alexander the Great) or Rome (Remus), or where people believed their deities communicated with them or were blessed by them, like Athens and Athena. A few of them come from actual events, legends of what happened there. Names reflect either the place or the history of the people that dwelled there. Even humorous confusions can be used for that.
Let’s take a few examples from real life. In Mexico, there is a state called Yucatan (where Cancun and the Mayan Ribera are located). There are two theories about the actual meaning of the name ‘Yucatan’: one that means ‘yu ka t’ann = listen how weird they talk’, which was said by the locals when the Spaniards arrived and the later thought it was the name of the place. The other says ‘Ci u t’ann = I don’t understand you’, again the locals trying to explain the Spaniards that no, not everybody spoke Spanish back then (kinda what happens now with some English speaking tourists, but I digress).
Now take a look at the home of the Bard: Stratford-upon-Avon. Let’s examine it by parts. Stratford is the result of the combination of the Old English strǣt, meaning ‘street’, with ford, indicating a shallow part of a river or stream, allowing it to be crossed by walking. ‘Upon’ is the relative position of the place with respect to the nearby river the Avon. In turn, Avon comes from the Celtic ‘abona’ (or so I have read, please correct me if I’m wrong). So a literal translation of the name would be ‘Street upon the shallow part of the river’ or something like this. There are plenty locations around the world that sound exotic to us Spanish or English speakers but that to the original inhabitants of the place were common descriptors to explain the place where they lived and which words, with the pass of time became nouns by themselves.
Now, writers in the science fiction, fantasy and science fantasy genres tend to get very ‘imaginative’ with the names of the places and institutions, even the last names (more on this one later) but there are truly a few memorable ones. Everybody knows that ‘King’s Landing’ is the nominal capital of Westeros in ASOIAF. But the name has its history explicit on it. It is the place where Aegon the Conqueror settled from Dragonstone to start his campaign to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. That little piece of world building makes the place feel more real for the reader and not just a wild invention to get out of the issue fast. It can happen that the name was quickly created, but so many things happen there through the story that the name becomes ‘solid’. Which is arguably what happens with most names in Star Wars. Regardless, if you are going to use a locale for more than a passing reference, then dedicating a bit of thought on how that name came to be can help to make the place feel ‘real’ and even get plot points across.
This has changed my approach to how I name places in my stories, mainly in the Tempest Blades universe. I go with the descriptor route, with the memorable event/person or with something inspired in my real life.
For example, in Tempest Blades one of my characters studies at a university that has ‘Mercian’ as a name, because it is located in the Mercian region of the Emerald Island. Yes, it sounds weird, but I chose it for a reason. Mercian comes from Mercia, an ancient 6th-century kingdom in England. I obtained my Ph.D. at Loughborough University, whose coat of arms includes the Offa of Mercia´s cross, and whose current location falls withing the old borders of that kingdom. So while the name sounds weird, it is, in reality, a veiled reference to my alma mater which now has a counterpart in my setting (which in turns facilitates describing the place in the novel). Yes, it is a bit of projection, but I want to see it as an homage to a place that has importance in my life. Some places in my novel are derived from real world places that have captivated my mind.
Then there is Saint Lucy’s, the capital of the Emerald Island and the place where the final battle of the first novel takes places, which was named after a saint that blessed the war effort. You have Ravenhall and Ravenstone, both places named after the Raven, aka the Trickster Goddess (the main deity of my setting) or The Maze, which got its name due to the weird spatial configuration of the place that makes people get lost inside it.
Finally, I have Belfrost, the city of spies. This place will appear in later stories (since it was cut from the first novel). Its name is a contraction of ‘Belger’s Frost’. It’s a city on a mountain range that separates the Ionis continent from the as yet unnamed continental mass where the mysterious grasslands are. It was founded by Belger the explorer on a frosty peak and was the last place where he was seen alive before leaving to explore the grasslands, to never been seen again. Thus the name of the city is a homage to its founder.
I think for the most part this has helped me to give the cities of the setting a little bit more of personality and a connection to the characters and the history of that world. I don’t know if this method will help anyone, as often worldbuilding tends to distract from the actual writing, but at least in my case, it has helped me to solve the issue of naming places while writing without making them feel empty or unreal. They feel more tangible (at least in my head). It has also helped to move plot points in way I didn’t expect but now make sense within the story and have as well allowed me to think on more ideas for future stories.
Before closing this post, I want to mention the last name issue. Most last names in the world were created as descriptors of an animal totem, a work the person was doing like Archer for example; from the place where they lived (most Spanish last names); derived from first names to denote ancestry (again like most Spanish names or nordic names, e.g. Johansson = son of Johan) or to denote important events on the originator’s life (e.g. my last names comes literally from victory, as my great, great grandfather changed his mouthful of last name to Victoria, to celebrate a battle he won against the Spaniards during Mexico’s Independence War). It’s not a rule of course, but it could be a good guide when it comes to giving last names to your characters.