This entry is part 4 in the series A Good Name Is Hard To Find


Welcome to “part 3a” of this series on names and naming things – and finding the right choice. Today’s post was actually intended to be part of the previous entry in the series, but the subjects of Mononyms (got it right this time, thanks again elijah!) and bi-structured names just sort of grew… a lot.

So, we’re still talking about Name Structures, and there is a still a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dive right in…

Tertiary Names

In our society, Tertiary names come in three principle varieties: Middle Names, Maiden Names, and Addenda. This barely scratches the surface of the potential value of such names.

Middle Names

With increasing populations and rising levels of communication, two names can become insufficient to identify a specific individual. How many Paul Smiths are there in the world? How many John Jones? The practice of Middle Names usually begins in those with sufficient prestige that many members of the one family are known publicly throughout the land – the aristocracy, the wealthy, and the nobility. To preserve and utilize the prestige that past family members have accumulated, these often have very similar Christian Names and (of course) the same Surname – so some means of identifying two different individuals within the family becomes necessary, especially since these groups tend to have greater longevity and hence a greater probability of two like-named individuals being alive at the same time.

Another way of looking at this trend is that as christian name choices become relatively constrained, the flexibility and freedom that most citizens enjoy with respect to christian names needs to be transferred somewhere. It follows that in important families, most of the advice concerning choice of Christian Names in the previous article actually applies to the Middle Name of the individual, while the Christian Name becomes an adjunct to the Surname.

I once read – and I no longer recall where, so unfortunately I can’t cite the reference – that it was only in the 20th century that middle names became routine and common. That, if true, simply speaks to the power of Christian names as a means of unique identification, especially when coupled with an address or locality. Even now, it is not all that common for people to emphasize all three of their names – though the trend would be for this to become more common in the future if the population continued to increase.

Ethnic Alternatives
Middle names are not the only solution; they are principally a Western-society approach to the problem. Chinese Names, Arabian Names, and (some) Indian Names use an entirely different approach, for example. In fact, this seems to be an excellent place to point to the excellent series of Wikipedia articles on Ethnic Names, which I wish I had discovered many years ago (assuming that it existed then)!

In particular, the Chinese approach to naming reflects the dangers inherent in using English as a cultural basis for assessing the limitations of language. Because the Chinese written language contains so many characters, (3-4,000 in general usage), they will not reach the point of needing additional names beyond their current three-character (three-syllable) system for centuries, even if their population growth were to continue unchecked.

Nevertheless, the majority of our readers – and of game settings – are Western in derivation. So this series will continue as though the Western approach is the ‘natural’ solution, even though I – and now you all – know better.

Middle-Name emphasis

That means that within the context of a general population level, it is possible to infer things about a character simply from the emphasis he or she places on his middle name. In any pre-20th century westernized setting, emphasizing a middle name is a mark of arrogance. Where it may be necessary as a point of identification, it would be more common for characters to reduce the middle name to an initial, and this continues in formal address to this day – my bank uses this format, for example, to refer to me. Consider the (fictitious) name of Patrick Jonathon Bellweather, which I will be using as an example throughout this section: ignoring the middle name and reducing the Christian name gives a fairly typical name, “Pat Bellweather”. Slightly more formal is “Patrick Bellweather”. More formal again (in a modern context) or – perhaps – more rebellious, is “Patrick J. Bellweather”. This same name, in a sixteenth-century setting, carries a distinct overtone that is diminished or lacking completely in the modern context.

Another approach, especially where first names are controlled by inheritance issues and eccentric demands, is to reduce the Christian name to an initial and to use the middle name as the Christian name. This conveys the same overtones of wealth and authority, but without the same level of formality. Compare “Patrick J. Bellweather” with “P. Jonathon Bellweather”. Because this particular approach is no longer as popular as it once was, modern usage carries overtones of a traditional formality, while it would not be all that remarkable 150 years ago.

In particular where one name is Unisex (or has a masculine equivalent that is only different in spelling, if at all), these approaches were often used by women to disguise their gender when participating in male-dominated fields of activity, especially literature and science at the turn of the 20th century and even all the way through to the 1950s and 60s.

The Impact Of Culture

It is clear, from the preceding examples, the extent to which cultural attitudes can impact names and naming conventions – and hence, the capacity of a given naming convention to reflect a character’s social and cultural background. The name is all about where the character is coming from – his or her reaction to those origins is a key component of the character’s personality.

Equally importantly, by placing a group of characters and their current circumstances within a visible social context, a GM can generate naming conventions and give them an original context simply by persistent usage, adding to the uniqueness and verisimilitude of an original society within his game. The preeminent exponent of this approach remains J.R.R. Tolkien, with his many imitators walking in his footsteps. The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit employ this approach throughout, and so accustomed is the human mind at detecting such nuances that we don’t need to be told that “Aragorn” and “Arathorn” are related – the names themselves do most of the work, all we need is the specific relationship. This is also true of the Halflings, the Dwarves, the Elves, and even the Rohan – names are used to bind them collectively into a cohesive social entity within the stories.

In modern times, naming conventions and name sources have become so homogenized that this approach leaps out at the reader, almost hitting him over the head with the cultural indicator to make sure that he doesn’t miss it.

Maiden Names & Regnal Names

And speaking of the impact of culture, consider the practice of Maiden Names and Regnal Names. Both use a change of name to symbolize a change of social status – whether that be by marriage or ascent to a throne (Civil or Ecclesiastic).

Prior to the mid-20th century, the change of name on marriage was symbolic of the domination of women in society by men. In the course of the latter part of that century, this attitude was challenged by extremist proponents of Women’s Liberation, but even as they did so, the social convention was changing. These days it is viewed as a commitment to the union, not a gesture of submission; and some of the practices discussed below in “Decadent Naming Structures” such as hyphenating the surnames have also become accepted practice, as has the option of the woman retaining her maiden name.

It is one of the most obvious examples of using naming conventions to invert the traditional practice for a matriarchy. It was thinking about this that led, in part, to the “syllable exchange” of Ullar’s society (whose naming conventions were discussed in the previous part of this series).

Addenda as Tertiary Names

Patrimony, Lineage, and Ancestry are often displayed through tertiary names, and in far more traditional ways than simply playing around with Middle names. In fact, western society has three means of doing so, and many game cultures import a fourth from other sources.

‘Jnr’ is applied when a child has exactly the same name as a surviving or famous ancestor – most commonly father, but sometimes applied to a grandparent or older relative of sufficient fame. It is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) coupled with ‘Snr’ for the elder – so it is possible for three generations of child within a single family line to have exactly the same “primary name” without confusion (Senior, no suffix, Junior). Rarely, “Senior” is used as an alternative, and usually denotes a case in which the younger generation has become famous despite coming from (relatively) common roots.

One of the easiest (and perhaps, best) ways of giving a society a different feel is to preserve (and make more common) these practices, but translating the suffixes into the language of the society or using a synonym such as “elder” or “the elder” – effectively, using the tertiary name as a title. Titles are a subject we’ll get to in a little while!

Junior imparts a sense of youth, innocence, and even naivety to a name, while senior imparts a sense of seniority, maturity, and even gravitas. Compare “Patrick Bellweather Jnr” to “Patrick Bellweather Snr”, picturing the image that each name brings to mind – it doesn’t matter if “Jnr” is 81 years of age (with a still-older father), the first image most people will have is a youngster, early-20s or less – while “Snr” brings an image of a middle aged-man.

The third approach that is common is to employ numbers. Where this familial naming convention extends beyond two generations (or three at the most), this is the accepted practice. This is a technique for demonstrating lineage that avoids the immediate connotations of “Junior” and “Senior” while implying a larger family history. “Patrick Bellweather IV” could be of any age – but the emphasis placed on lineage reeks of old money and family history, even as the (relatively common) primary names indicate working class roots. The name itself is a capsule history lesson.

The final approach that fantasy cultures often assimilate from other sources is the use of ‘bridging words’ to tell the story of the family in condensed format – the equivalent of “son of”, or “of the”.

All these are useful ways to reinforce character descriptions, adding to the backstory of a character without wasting time on descriptive irrelevances – a shorthand approach, if you will.

The Lack Of Female Equivalence

Once again, the male-female social dichotomy that is part of western history has an influence, in that there are no female equivalents to Jnr and Snr. In part, that’s because the female was expected to change her name when she married, but it is also in part due to inheritance precedents, which were generally to males. Even money bequeathed to a woman was likely to be actually placed under the control of a nominated male administrator, be it a brother, and uncle, a legal representative (conservator or trustee), the local priest, a family friend – almost anyone short of a passing stranger, really. There have even been a few cases where celebrities and trusted political figures have been named as trustees without ever having met, or known of, the decedent or heir. In general, these are refused, though legend & rumor has it that a few have accepted – but it is equally possible that these are examples of Hollywood scriptwriting!

The general method of distinguishing “Marie Obatelli” from her mother remains with another change that occurs with marriage, the change of title. One is referred to as “Mrs.” while the other is “Miss”, “Ms.”, or uses no title at all. It is also relatively uncommon – for the reasons espoused in the preceding paragraph – for female children to be given the same middle name as their mother, thus using the middle name for its purest purpose. If the use of “junior” and “senior” had remained as popular in the modern day as it was 50-60 years ago, it seems virtually certain that some female equivalents to those terms would have entered the lexicon, but the fading from popularity of the masculine terms left little demand for the creation of a feminine version.

Any society with anything approaching gender equality with gerontocratic tendencies (rule by the elderly) – such as most fantasy Elven cultures – would either forbid direct name inheritance, have some other naming structure, or would need both male and female equivalents of “Junior” and “Senior”.

Bridging Words

The use of bridging words is not all that uncommon. Spanish has “de la” which means “of the”, or just “of”. “De” and “Du” are also “of” in French, and prepended to many surnames, as is the Italian “di”. “De” also recurs in Portuguese. German for “of” is “von” and I’m sure that it is immediately recognizable as a part of names from that part of the world, as is the Dutch “van”. Finally, the Irish use an abbreviated form of “of” – as in, “O’Brien”, “O’Kelly”, and so on – and the Scottish “Mac”.

Some cultures use patronomics for daughters as suffixes – these are the syntactic equivalent of bridging words. The Scandinavian nations are especially prone to this practice.

There are an almost-unlimited number of relationships that can be acknowledged through bridging words, the only restrictions are on the imaginations of the GM. These should always reflect the society in which they are found (or vice-versa) – a traditional meritocracy might well have “student of” and “teacher of” as bridging words! They won’t look so strange when they are translated into an appropriate language – though these will usually yield polysyllabic results, and if there is one thing all the real-world examples have in common, it’s that they are short.

Monosyllables tend to be the early words in a language, expressing things that are fundamental to the lives of the primitive cultures from which they derive or that they judge important – so the use of bridging words in this way implies a fundamental trend in their history toward valuing the relationships described by the bridging words. Anything that is too long would be eventually “worn down” by regular usage. Take “Student” and “Teacher” – in most languages, these are immediately recognizable to English-speakers when translated. But Icelandic offers “Nemandi” and “Kennari” as translations. “Nem” and “Kari” would be entirely appropriate “condensations” of such roots after centuries of usage – “Jon nemMagnus Eriksson” would be “Jon, son of Erik, student of Magnus”, while “Magnus kariErik Vigfusson” would be “Magnus, son of Vigfur, teacher of Erik”. This usage also suggests a one-to-one apprenticeship system similar to what many fantasy games have for Wizards.

By all means, strive not to be literal. By far the easiest way to simplify a relationship to a monosyllable is to use a metaphor prior to translation – “light of”, “fire Of”, and the like will work well in just about any language. “Jon Eldur Erik” works quite well (“Jon, fire of Erik”) as do “Louis foc de Vega” (Louis, fire of Vega), “Helena luz de Ruiz” (Helena, light of Ruiz”), and “Marcel lumi Versoire” (a condensation of the French for “Light Of”).

An Orcish Diversion
Just for the practice, let’s try applying these principles to an interpretation of Orcish society – even though it means briefly skipping ahead to some of the content from later in the series on manipulating languages.

Orcish male names would tend to be simple and violent in nature, and fairly guttural. “Crush” and “Kill” and “Axe” and “Blade” and “Make bleed” and the like. The most guttural languages are things like German and Russian and Hungarian. Just because we haven’t mentioned them before, let’s go with Hungarian as the basis for our fantasy Orcish and alter the words as necessary/desirable. Orcish female names would be more prosaic, and probably related to other natural phenomena that the Orcs encountered, like “running deer” (somewhat Amerind in flavor).

There are two ways children can be perceived within most Orcish societies: As weapons to be hurled against the enemy (sons), or as shields against time that will breed more weapons (daughters). [Side-note - this immediately suggests that the women are the keepers of culture, craft, treaties, records, and the like. It is arguable whether or not - in light of this side-note - inheritance would be through the mother (the stay-at-home keeper of the culture) or the father (very Nordic, always looking for trouble somewhere). The best solution when this is the case is to try it both ways and see what looks best. Or perhaps to take a third choice: daughters acknowledge Mothers, sons acknowledge Fathers. I like this option, so that's what I'll choose.]

So: “Kill, blade of Sword”, becomes “Oldmeg Penge Kard”, which we can simplify to “Oldeg pengKard”. “Sunshine, shield of Flower” becomes “Napzutes Pajzsa Virag” which we can simplify to “Napzutes ZsaVirag”. Both sound like perfectly acceptable names, and furthermore, names that seem to have a cultural depth and realism behind them that is otherwise hard to convey, especially in so short a statement. You could waffle on for five or ten minutes of narrative about Orcish society without it sounding anywhere near as convincing.

Decadent Naming Structures

When you are a person of influence, you tend to marry other families of significance. And, when you are a person of influence, you occasionally need to remind people of the power and authority at your command. Using your name to do so is one of the more subtle techniques available, and one that is open to anyone – whereas philanthropic personalities can’t readily employ ostentatious displays of wealth. The latter also tends to work against credibility in business negotiations. So there is a continual pressure amongst the wealthy and powerful toward what I describe as “decadent naming structures”.

Hyphenated Surnames

The most common approach employed in the early-to-mid 20th century was the hyphenated surname. With better communications and the advent of the PR machines, this has become less needful in more modern eras, but prior to the rise of Television for the masses it was frequently the best approach for advertising an overt connection between two major power-blocks.

To see how effective this is, let’s try adding a couple of hyphenated names to our usual test subject, “Patrick Bellweather”. Picture the character that is so named in your mind, and then compare that image to:

  • “Patrick Bellweather-Rothschild”
  • “Patrick Bellweather-Hilton”
  • “Patrick Carnevon-Hughes-Bellweather”

Now, if confronted with one of those hyphenated names, how would your impression of the Bellweather family change? That’s right, all of a sudden the entire family is given a degree of cache and significance that is beyond the reach of someone who is just a “Bellweather”.

The Significance of Hyphens
The hyphenation indicates that the character is important – but what does that actually mean? In our culture, that of Western Europe, the significance is attached to wealth or political power, because those are things that we value – even if that is only at the insistence of those who possess wealth or political power. In a different culture, it would be expected that those values are different. Wisdom, physical strength, athletic prowess, even seductive capacity and hedonistic appetite – choose something appropriate to the culture that you have created.

Extended Names

The wealthy of some other cultures take the principle of hyphenated names a step further, and use their names to tell a story. The use of bridging words in names is a sort of ‘watered down’ version of this practice, though I have no idea if there is an actual cultural connection. Traditional middle-eastern cultures are strong proponents of this naming practice.

For example, consider “Muhammad Saeed ibn Abd al-Aziz al-Filasteeni” – which translates to “Praised Happy, grandson of the Palestinian slave of The Magnificent”. Muhammed (Praised) is the name of the character, Saeed (Happy) is the name of his father, Abd al-Aziz (Slave of The Magnificent, which is one way of referencing God in Islamic cultures) is his grandfather, and the family are Palestinian in origin. So what we have here is the grandson of a Priest.

More than anything else, this shows the extent to which religious thought dominates the society in question – the most important thing about the character is not anything he might do, nor any achievement of his father, but that he had or has a grandfather who dedicated his life to God. This verges on the obsessive, in western eyes – which fits our perceptions of the culture in question.

Extended Names In Games
By now, you can probably predict what I’m going to say. To employ this technique for characters in a game, simply pick something that your society obsesses about, compose a relevant description, then use an appropriate language to develop names that reflect that society.

Dwarves are probably the perfect example of this approach, obsessed as they are with mining and the earth.

So, “Son of the brother of the digger of silver on the western slope of Mount Implacable”.

Trying that phrase in different languages eventually turns up Basque, where it reads “Zilarrezko Digger anaia Son mendiaren Implacable mendebaldeko malda”.

With a little tweaking, we get “Zilarrezko mugitzeko lurra anaia gizonezko umea mendiaren ez da gelditzen mendebaldeko malda”. Now, that’s a dwarvish name to reckon with!

In ordinary usage, this would be “Zilarrezko iloba gizonezko”, or “nephew of the silver man”.

Sounds pretty good to me.

Abstract and Descriptive Names

Of course, there are a lot more things – and people – that need names. Supervillains and heroes pose a particular challenge, as do things that people name – supernatural monsters, ships (both naval and star-), organizations, places, projects – and adventures. These are all slightly different problems, and some people have trouble with them. In general, they can all be categorized as ‘Abstract names’ or ‘Descriptive names’, so these are what these sections are all about.

Naming Superheroes & Villains

Superhero and villain names are all about projecting a dramatic identity in a single word – usually a noun, sometimes a verb, and sometimes accompanied by a title. The simpler and less intelligent the character, the simpler and more straightforward the name usually is – but sometimes names are bestowed by the media, so this is not always a reliable guide.

More intelligent characters have a wider palette to draw apon, and some choose a nom-de-plum which represents a subtle in-joke (which they never explain, but which makes them smile every time they hear it – useful for endearing yourself to the media). Others like to subtly reference their powers without blatantly advertising their nature. An example from my superhero campaign is “St. Barbara”, named for the patron saint of artillerymen, rocket scientists, pyrotechnicians, and all others who deal in high explosives, and who wields explosive energy beams (amongst her other abilities).

Others reference abstract qualities that (they believe) they represent, or national values, or simply have names that sound “cool” or “threatening” or whatever the image is that they want to put forward.

And then you get the really clever ones, who deliberately use their identification to mislead others as to the nature of their powers so that their enemies will underestimate them, or prepare defenses against the wrong things, or simply be steered away from some weakness that they would really rather not see exploited. One obvious example is a former PC in the supers campaign prior to the original Zenith-3 campaign, who went by the name of Behemoth to disguise the fact that he was both the gadgeteer and the brains of the team. It didn’t work so well when they became famous, but it did give him a decided edge in his early adventures.

So, how do I choose a superhero or villain name?
Taking into account the intelligence level & creativity of the source of the name, I start by considering the various factors and approaches listed above and choose the one that seems most appropriate.

Once I know the naming philosophy that the character is to embody, I can start listing possible names that express the concept of the character in the appropriate manner.

I then employ a thesaurus to find synonyms for all those potential names which are added to the list of potential options. I’ll also do a web search and check Wikipedia for more ideas.

Once I have about 10-12 items on the list, each new possibility gets compared to those already on the list; unless it is at least as good as those I already have, it gets left off. If it’s noticeably better, it replaces one of the lesser choices.

Unless the character is being named by the media or some other English-speaking source, the next step is to translate the list of potential names into the native tongue of the character.

Finally, I’ll go through the final list of contenders, one by one, assessing them for drama, pronouncability, and “appropriate overtones” – the subtle qualities that distinguish a workable name from an inspiring one.

(I was going to insert an example at this point, but this article is running a little late, so we’ll take that as read).

Ships & Starships

These are named for those who have historically represented the ideals of the operators, those who have commissioned or constructed or even designed the vessel (or their relatives or pets), or those abstract qualities that are generally or ideally symbolic of those qualities.

For a military vessel, that generally means a famous captain or admiral, a shipyard/dockyard, or other great city, a ruler or member of the aristocracy, or an abstract quality that reflects other naval traditions or ideals or the specific military role of this particular vessel.

Merchant vessels are named for famous traders or merchants, the trade routes taken by those traders, the merchandise that the vessel is to carry, a figure of which the owners wish to curry favor, a city with a great trading history, etc. They tend not to be named for abstract qualities as these are not considered all that attractive, but many are also named after wives or girlfriends or pets, or qualities like luck that the owners hope they will enjoy.

Ships of exploration are generally named after famous explorers, after those who have commissioned or funded the expedition, for the abstract qualities of discovery or endurance, or for a family member of the owners.

Pirates, on the other hand, like booty, bawdiness, alcohol, freedom/liberty, and intimidating others. Their ships are often named accordingly, though sometimes they will choose a name that lets them claim innocence – at least in the eyes of a nation they wish to become a privateer of. All that having been said, it’s surprising how often a ship will be named for the figure nailed to the prow! (One of our regular readers, Ian Mackinder, runs a 7th Sea campaign; and, in the past, he’s run Traveller and Star Trek and Klingons, so between them he’s worked with vessels in all of these categories. I’m sure he’ll enlighten/correct me if I’ve left anything significant out.)


From the other direction
I want to close this subsection by mentioning an idea presented in “My Enemy, My Ally” by Diane Duane (now getting hard-to-find, I’m afraid). The Romulans in this Classic Star Trek novel take the concept of sympathetic magic and apply it to the names of Starships, believing that the ship’s subsequent history will reflect and be shaped by the name and the qualities it symbolizes – for example, the crew of a ship named the “Intrepid” will forget to feel fear, and so on. For this reason, Romulan vessel names are derived from a specific animal or weapon or equivalent rather than for a general quality, which can overpower all common sense.

Next Time

Whew, out of space and time already! In the next part of this series, I’ll be talking about

  • Naming Places (including Inns and Castles)
  • Alien & Non-human names
  • How to create an Alien Language
  • How to appear to create an Alien Language
  • The Emphasis Of Inheritance
  • Fashions In Naming, and
  • The Importance & Usage Of Titles

Look for Part 5 of “A Good Name Is Hard To Find” in two week’s time…

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