Guidance – Roleplaying 101: What’s In a Name?

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about names.

Names. They’re arguably the most important type of words that we have in our language. Names are important because they’re the labels that we attach ourselves to when we seek to describe a person, place, idea, object, or concept. As GMs, the names that we give to our characters and locations have a huge impact on the overall feel that a location has, and honestly, naming things is much more a science than an art form. Names need to “feel” right in order to be right.

As with all types of true art, no one can really teach you how to make a good name and like any art, naming is subjective. But hopefully after today’s article, you’ll have some ideas of what to look for.

Names for Characters

First off, let’s talk about naming characters. When people pick names, its usually for one of two reasons: A) the name is popular or B) the name has some sort of meaning to the PARENTS. That’s right, the PARENTS. Unless you’re dealing with a character (or race of characters) that allows people to name themselves when they reach a certain age, a name will usually be picked by someone other than the character herself. So when you choose a name, stop to think, “Why would someone give this person this name?”

Popular Names

If the name is popular, then typically it should be a common name. I like to think that the names listed as racial names under a race’s entry are its race’s “popular” names. For example, Lem is listed under male halflings as a naming suggestion, so it stands to reason that the name “Lem” is simply popular among halflings for some reason in the same way that John or Mary are popular. But then, of course, that leaves open the question, “How do names become popular?” Well, names become popular when they have some sort of widespread cultural meaning to a group of people, which leads us into our next subtopic.

Names with Meaning

Names typically develop because they mean something specific, whether that meaning is on the personal, communal, or societal level. For example, in 2008 the names Barrack, Obama, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha jumped drastically on official United States censuses for infants. Why? That was the year that President Obama won his election and took office. Regardless of your political opinions or affiliations, the practice of naming newborns after a newly-elected president is nothing new in America; names such as Dwight and Lyndon first surfaced in the United States after Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson first took office during their first respective terms.

But of course, political leaders aren’t the only source of inspiration for names. Many names come from famous people throughout history, and many more have religious roots. Peter, Paul, Mark, and John all have connections to the Christian bible, for instance. And in other parts of the world, naming traditions are completely different. Where Western countries tend to have a number of specific words designated as “name words,” For example, if you plug “Alexander” into Dictionary.com, this is what you get:

  1. Alexander the Great.
  2. Also, Alexandros. Classical Mythology. Homeric name for Paris.
  3. Franz [frants,, franz,, frahnts] (Show IPA), 1891–1964, U.S.psychoanalyst, born in Hungary.
  4. Grover Cleveland, 1887–1950, U.S. baseball player.
  5. Sir Harold R. L. G (Alexander of Tunis) 1891–1969, English fieldmarshal.
  6. Samuel, 1859–1938, British philosopher.
  7. William, 1726–83, general in the American Revolution.

Names work differently in the orient, however. Written Chinese and Japanese is vastly different from Western languages; where our letters represent phonetic sounds, Chinese and Japanese kanji usually represent specific words or ideas. For example, there is a kanji that exclusively means “beautiful,” and that kanji has its own sound. For that reason, Chinese and Japanese names are picked not only for their literal meaning, such as “Usagi” meaning “Rabbit,” but also for what the phonetic kanji mean when used independently. Furthermore, in traditional (pre 1870) Japanese, people were given childhood names that they replaced with adult names during their coming of age ceremonies, lending to a much more fluid naming process then what we’re used to today.

In summary, when picking a name for a character, don’t simply settle on what “sounds cool.” Think about where (or why) the character received that name. Is your general named after a famous, local hero? Maybe the local barkeep is named after a particular type of flower whose sap is used to a manufactory a medicine that saved his mother’s life while she was pregnant. In either cases, these details make your naming style more believable.

Names for Places

Whereas names for people typically have some sort of significant meaning behind them, names for places typically do not. Historically speaking, people are VERY lazy when it comes to naming their stuff. Take, for instance, my hometown of Philadelphia. Famously, “Philadelphia” comes from the Greek words “philos” (love) and “adelphos” (brother) because the city’s founder, William Penn, wanted the city to be a place where anyone could practice their religion of choice without fear of prosecution. While it sounds impressive now, it has a very literal meaning in a foreign tongue: City of Brotherly Love.

To give another example, a nearby township is called Trevose. That sounds like a cool, original name, right? Well, I’m sad to say that its not. Trevose Township was named after the home of its original settler, Joseph Growden, and Joseph named his colonial home after his homestead in England. And over on that side of the pond, the word “Trevose” comes from the Cornish word “Trenfos,” which literally means “farm.” So his homestead was named “farm,” and in Cornish this Township is literally called Farm Township. Another nearby Township was also named by Mr. Growden; “Bensalem” was originally named “Salem,” which is the Semitic word for peace. Joseph Growden often referred to William Penn, Pennsylvannia’s founder, “the son of peace,” for his dedication to religious freedom. The word “Ben” was added in 1701, and while its obviously not true because of the year discrepancy, folk myth claim that it was added because Ben Franklin was believed to have performed his famous kite experiment in his Bensalem estate, which took place in the 1740s. But I digress.

Keeping on with that, ever notice that MANY countries have the word “land” in their name? Typically, those country names translate to “Land of X,” where X is a specific ethnic group. For example, England was historically called Engla Land, which translated to, “Land of the Angles,” which is one of the two major Germanic tribes that settled in England.

How about fantasy names? Remember Rivendell, from Lord of the Rings? That beuaitful valley with a flowing river and fertile farming soil? “Riven” is short for “river” and “dell” means “valley.” Together, that town name literally translates to “river valley.” When they said Tolkien was a master of etymology and linguistic studies, they weren’t kidding. Not only did Tolkien know how words were synthesized over time, but he also understood this fundamental idea of locational naming: people name to describe. Rivendell is appropriate because it is a city that is located in a river valley. Philadelphia is appropriate because it is a city founded on religious freedom. Trevose is appropriate because it was originally farmland and founded by a farmer. Furthermore, newer settlements are less likely to have gotten linguistically blended. Rivendell was probably called River Dell for a long time before people started shorting it and mucking it up with their sland. So just remember, name places for landscape and function first.

Names for Things

When naming items and equipment, remember that most objects are going to have descriptive names, meaning that the name tells you what they do or what they look like. This even applies to weapons. For example, the word “sword” comes from the Indo-European root word “swer,” which means, “to wound” or “to cut.”

Does this mean that every item that you develop needs to have a boring, literal name? No. But if you’re able to note the item’s linguistic origin in your description, then you’ve added a little something extra that makes your item name immediately feel more real.

For example, you might think that an item called “eszasosphere” has a pointless, impossible to remember name. But then if I include in the description that the item is a black sphere made of obsidian and that “eszasosphere” comes from an Ignan word for obsidian, then all of a side you have this clue that “eszaso” might be related to the Ignan word for “obsidian” somehow, which makes your item feel more real then it would have otherwise felt.

The Big Picture

When designing names, it is important to remember these three rules:

  • Practicality Trumps Epicness: Remember that a name should, at its core, describe what the person, place, thing, or idea is. That word may have been slowly changed and altered over time, but that starting ground makes a lot of difference linguistically.
  • Namers are Lazy: People don’t think about naming things to sound cool when they’re first naming them. They name things so people have an easy to remember, common name that they can universally use.
  • Names Change Over Time: Just as Salem changed to Bensalem or River Dell changed to Rivendell, language is fluid. Therefor, newer places should be easy to trace while older places should be a bit more obscured, but not so obscured that the meaning is lost forever.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about names this week! Don’t forget to leave any questions, comments, or anecdotes that you might have in the comments and check back in two weeks for another exciting GM’s Guide to Pathfinder, and tune in on Friday to see why there won’t be a GM’s Guide next week. Take care!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune nameopgraher.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

2 Comments

  1. Darrell Vin Zant Reply to Darrell

    This is a very interesting article. Naming usually has me stumped on things, but, more often, for different reasons. I like to hide references in names, often via scrambling letters or parsing them apart in weird ways.

    For example, a guy I built inspired by Cao Phan as a rock thrower, I based, mentally, off of Fezzik from The Princess Bride. His name, Daezzn Keifer, when uncrambled, is Andre Fezzik, after Andre the Giant, who played Fezzik.

    Sneaking these references into a character without people discovering them is usually which makes it hard for me. Sometimes I use a code, like shifting every letter 12 letters to the right and then scrambling them, or sometimes I might use the initials of a sentence describing something, or I might use a word backwards.

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