Names can be hard to create if you don’t have a method—and finding a method that fits your world is not easy. So let’s look at five ways you can improve your scifi or fantasy names to make your world more solid and real!
1. Consider your geography
When a place doesn’t have an established name (or it does but we don’t know it), we often use geographical features as a reference. For example, “I went to that town by the river” or “she lives in the house on the hill”. Over time, these phrases become names. For example, the first one can be shortened to “river town”, which could eventually become Riverton. So, look at the settlement’s surroundings and see if there are any important geographical features. A good way to make geography-based names consistent is to look at other towns that are also next to the same kind of terrain and mirror their same naming structure.
The real world is full of names based on geography—the Netherlands is a very clear example! But let’s dig a little bit deeper: Bournemouth is an English city that’s next to the river Bourne (which also means “river” in Middle English! Speak about being original…). Another example is Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean named after the mountain in Spain of the same name (in Catalan, “Montserrat” means “serrated mountain”). Of course, there are also historical reasons for this name, but it’s a good example of how geographical names are not always next to the feature they refer to! We are pretty chaotic with our names, so don’t be afraid of moving things around and adding some randomness to your world’s fantasy names.
2. Think about politics…
Important people (like leaders and politicians) love making sure everyone knows how important they are. And is there a better way to do that than naming a town after them? Washington D.C. (or Washington state) are obvious examples, but there are town names with sneakier references to people! For example, Buckingham, in England, means “Home of Bucca’s people”, in reference to an Anglo Saxon leader. But it can be even more hidden than that! New Jersey is not named after a person, but after the Isle of Jersey. It turns out that one of the original proprietors of New Jersey had been governor of the Isle of Jersey, so he decided to use the same name! After all, home is where your heart is, right?
Politics play a very important role in our everyday life, so it makes sense that some places will be named for political reasons. For example, Saint Petersburg was called Leningrad for over 70 years after Lenin, a Soviet leader, passed away. In fact, the original and current name of the city was chosen by Peter the Great, the Tsar at that time (coincidence? I think not!). Political names can also evolve over time—for example, Essex, in England, comes from East Seaxe, which means East Saxons. It’s just a description of the people who lived there, but the name stuck!
…and don’t forget about history!
Think about your world’s history too: what important cultures have made contact? This could be through an invasion, but also through foreign traders interacting with the locals or an explorer discovering a new land. This is likely to produce names that are a mix of words of both languages—for example, an Elvish country with some city names that use orcish suffixes! In Middle Earth, many human settlements (like Minas Tirith, Gondor’s capital) have names in an Elvish language. This happens in the real world too, of course. The chester part in Manchester (and other cities) comes from the Old English ceaster, which meant “Roman town”.
3. Remember to be lazy with your fantasy names
Let’s be real, we are lazy. Ok, maybe not you in particular, but laziness plays a big role in language evolution! Why say something in two words when you could just use one? Why spell colour when you can just use color? The same principle applies to names: the older the town is, the more its name will have evolved. Need examples? Well, we already talked about Essex, which is a contraction of East Seaxe. But there’s also Leicestershire, which is pronounced “less-tu-shur”. And let’s not forget about the US (or America)—because who has time to say The United States of America?
Of course, that doesn’t mean long names can’t exist! There are some stupidly long names that have grown more complex for a variety of reasons (looking at you, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—no, I didn’t make that up). Making a name longer than it should can be a great way to talk about the place’s history or political situation.
4. Taboos and vulgar language
Vulgar language and words that are considered taboo are very frequent in popular culture—and this includes names! Shitterton is a real town in England after all. But vulgar names can sometimes appear by accident. For example, Nottingham (England) used to be known as Snottingham, after Snot the Wise, the Saxon chieftain who ruled that area. Now, snot might not be as vulgar as shit, but it’s probably not the first word you’d think about using when creating a name. This brings us to evolution!
We already talked about evolution in the previous section, but you can use it here too! Names that sound too vulgar might evolve over time to make them more pleasant to the ear. Nottingham is an example of that, but Satterford (formerly Shitterford) is an even clearer one. Now, evolution usually happens naturally in the real world, but because you control your world, you can use this to hide some pretty funny names behind evolution!
Need to organize your language? Learn how to organize your languages on World Anvil with this blog post!
5. Embrace the chaos in your fantasy names!
Unless your world is inhabited by AIs, there will be chaos and randomness. Names that don’t seem to fit, others that sound funny, and even multiple places with the same name. The real world is full of this: we’ve seen some weird names in the blog post, but there are so many more. Now, you might be thinking, “isn’t consistency so important to make the world feel real?” Well, yes, but actually no! If everything follows the same rules without deviations, the world will feel artificial. Try to strike a balance where most names follow these rules, but from time to time there’s one that completely ignores them and shamelessly goes in the opposite direction.
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