Naming Things with Style

A-Z 2015 "N"I find that naming things well can be difficult.

  • If I just make up a name, I fall into patterns (similar sounds and emphasis and rhythm) that cause the names to be overly similar and thus no longer distinct.
  • Using ‘real world’ names is great for matching real-world settings, and can help evoke the real-world source of the name (‘Frederick of Haversham’ is a great name for a scenario based in England) but I’ve found they tend to break down and become ‘Fred the Paladin’.
  • Purely random name generation, as by using word fragments assembled randomly (a common technique) can emulate the language the fragments come from, but often sound silly in my ear.
  • Name based on epithets or descriptive phrases. ‘Fiery Sun’ (flaming battleaxe), ‘Fading Twilight’ (could be anything), and the like can be workable. I find this method leads to flowery descriptive names that get tedious after a while.

Even so, the techniques above can be workable for character names. However, I find they fall down when naming places, creatures, and other things.

The single best mechanism I’ve found for naming things: Google Translate. While I would not want to use it to try to translate anything of significance, beyond trying to gain a superficial understanding, it works very well indeed for naming characters and setting elements.

The process is dead simple:

  • Enter a word or phrase that describes the entity being named.
  • Translate to other languages until you find something that looks or sounds the way you like, or close to it.
  • Munge the translation a bit as needed.
    • English is my primary language, and I’m good at emulating other language sounds, but even so there are letter combinations I find are hard to pronounce.
    • English uses very few accents compared to other languages. I tend to discard them when using this technique.
    • Sometimes I like how part of the translation looks, either a word fragment or even the ‘wrong word’ if there are multiple words in the translated result.
  • Write down the new name. I usually make notes about what languages were used in the translation and the exact phrase I translated, in case I want to recreate or adjust things later.

I use this method frequently. Beobachten, The Dragon Watching, is named based on ‘watching’ or ‘watcher’ in German. All of the goblin deities are named using English words or phrases translated to Czech. The deities of the Elemental Tetratheon are named using English words or phrases translated to Bosnian. The  halfling deities are named using translations to Chinese. In fact, I only learned they were Chinese when I found the name of their culture — Shu-shi — and it worked out quite well.

This technique has several benefits:

  • You can start with a word or phrase that describes the subject (easy starting point), but hides it.
  • You can get names that ‘feel similar’ (word fragments, sounds and rhythm), without being random.
  • You can manipulate things so similar entities have similar name structure (much as many German cities have names ending with ‘burg’ or ‘stedt’).

Between them, you can generate names that are consistent in form and yet distinctive, something I find difficult to do simply making things up. By switching target languages you can work with several cultures and evoke different feel for each group or source of named objects.

A useful tool to have in your pocket when it’s needed.


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