Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Naming Things

The Ship of Yoharneth-Lahai by Sidney Sime

After a lecture at Cornell in which Lord Dunsany had mentioned his longtime collaborator, the artist Sidney Sime, somebody said what a perfect name Sime was for him. “I don’t know,” said Dunsany; “I think Rhibelungzanedroom would suit him better.”

I have recently been reading Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith's short stories. They're full of names like Yoh-Vombis, Ubbo-Sathla, Thlūnrāna and Karna-Vootra (alongside plenty of purple prose). Exotic, huh? Hmm.

Weird and wonderful (presumably) made-up names like these proliferate in fantasy RPG-land. Usually packed full of Zs, Ks, Qs, hyphens, and dïạćrîtĩcŝ, this Khazad-dûmbing-down of names does very little for me. These names have no resonance, and tell me nothing except "you tried to make this name sound weird". As a result they all end up sounding much of a muchness, interchangeable letter-mush. And are almost never memorable.

"The names used in the adventure are a complete bricolage signifying no particular human culture. In fact they are all the names of caves." - Patrick Stuart, Deep Carbon Observatory

I've found that using pre-existing words, perhaps with the odd letter changed here and there, makes for far more satisfying and memorable names. Electric Bastionland does a very good job of this, suggesting names for each of its failed careers which, although not entirely familiar, are suggestive and simple to remember. There are many potential sources for names, from Patrick's cave names via place names, technical and domain-specific terms, body parts... not to mention the zillions of lists of baby names out there. The names of climbing routes have an exotic but resonant charm of their own and (perhaps unsurprisingly) remind me of the spaceship names of M John Harrison and Iain M Banks. And I'm reminded of a story of a South American country where the naming of babies after components of car engines became so popular that it had to be banned (I may name my next character Carburettor O'Sump).

Despite this, it's not long since I advocated using the names SsShrp, SvyrySshp, and FssSuSshs. So please take everything that I say with a pinch of salt.

Update: here is another great blog post about naming places in RPGs.