Naming beyond the names

When I was on study abroad in Berlin, our professor came to have dinner with the family that was putting up with–I mean, putting up six students from our university. This professor was an 80-year-old German who was kind of a grandfatherly figure among the students: gruff, soft-hearted, funny, exasperating, totally uninterested in political correctness, and dear to our hearts in spite of the times he drove up absolutely up the wall.

We, being young American students, generally addressed him as Herr when we were being good, though he tolerated a number of less-formal nicknames during those three months we traveled together. So when our host mother asked us how she should address him, we all looked at each other blankly.

After some scrambling to recall the German protocol for titles, we hesitantly responded, “Herr Professor?”

She didn’t look convinced. “Isn’t he a Doktor as well?”

“Oh, yeah. Herr Professor Doktor.”

Still not good enough. “Is it Herr Professor Doktor or Herr Doktor Professor? That’s an important distinction, you know.”

Uh . . . it was? We shuffled our feet and shrugged, and she finally gave up on us. When he showed up for dinner, she apologized profusely for not knowing his correct title and blamed us. We tried to look repentant, but I was mostly wondering how appalled our host mother would be if she knew my friend occasionally referred to our professor as “Kelly -Belly.”

I still don’t know the difference between a Doktor Professor and a Professor Doktor, but the experience drove one thing home to me: the effect of culture on names and titles.

Writers put a lot of effort into names. We look at meanings, look at sounds, look at origins, sometimes changing a character’s name twenty times before we find the one that fits just right. Names are a big deal, especially when that’s the only visible representation of your character to the reader.

But to be honest, I’ve never liked picking out names. I don’t like doing the research, and if the character isn’t on the main stage, I’m guilty of just making a name up out of thin air and throwing it on the paper.

What’s far more interesting to me is the culture of naming. How a society dictates the framework of its citizens’ names. Not just what mother name their babies, but how people refer to each other, levels of formality, titles, nicknames, etc.

Determining the naming practices for your fictional culture not only adds depth to the society, it also creates a unique unity that subtly tightens the believability of a culture that does not, in fact, exist. What people are called leads to exploration of why they are called that; and even if the answer to that why is only barely hinted at in your story, the important part is that you, the author, have a deeper understanding of the motivation driving the culture as a whole and where that motivation has come from.

For example: in Demon’s Heart, the length of names determine social status on the Courei peninsula. The longer the name, the higher the ranking. Another culture, in quiet disdain of that practice, keeps all names to one syllable. Yet another culture cares nothing for the length of the name, but every person is given a title before their given name, even the children. If the person is important enough, the given name is dropped, leaving only the title.

I’ve enjoyed finding naming cultures in other books: the titles in the Lunar Chronicles, the changing of names with age in Gathering Blue, the naming/numbering system in The Giver.

What are some books you’ve read with unique naming cultures? How do you incorporate the idea of naming into your stories?

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3 Comments

  1. The Pern books by Anne McCaffrey. Once a candidate is chosen by a dragonette, their name is shortened with an apostrophe (except for female dragonriders). And all the dragons’ names ended in “th”. As for my own work, mythic Sidhe characters have “common” names, and “true” names which hold to the belief in the power of true names. Urban fantasy by Jim Butcher and Kim Harrison, for example, also utilize the “true names have power” tradition.

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