Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

One of the things that frequently gets my goat when I read another person’s fantasy world is the lack of effort put into naming places. I see many absolutely beautiful maps upon which the creator had lavished dozens of hours of work completely ruined by a random assortment of syllables with no relationship to anything else in that world.

I’m afraid this sort of laziness frays the edges of my immersion in another writer’s world and if repeated can cause it to unravel completely. People originally name places for a reason. For example:

  1. Sometimes they are descriptive names like Green Mountain, Wild River, Marshtown etc.
  2. They can be the names of the founders themselves such as Harper’s Ferry and Miller’s Crossing etc.
  3. Others are reminders of somewhere the founders came from in another land, such as New York and Boston.
  4. Some are adoptions or adaptations of the names the former owners of that land gave them.
  5. They often qualify a name with an adjective such as green, dark, high, crooked etc.

They do not have to be in ‘English’, but if you use a fantasy language then try to use it consistently. Using ‘mon’ for mountain in one name and ‘cor’ for another in the same area doesn’t feel right. I pick a number of terrain descriptors, usually no more than a couple of dozen and create names for them in my invented fantasy language. To these I add names for colours and some crafts or occupations and a few adjectives such as high, low, big, small, cold, wet etc. If you have developed a little history for your world then add the names of a few of the great people of the past such as Kings, Queens, Generals, Heroes etc.

One last thing. Names often get contracted/mutated by frequent use over centuries, so older names may seem a little nonsensical at first until you untangle them. Try saying a name you have invented several times quite fast, or in an accent, and see how it begins to change.

With just a few words you can then populate much of the map with suitable names. I find that if you do then people soon pick it up and the world becomes a little more real for them.

An example is my long-running campaign world. Coda is the name of the first man to lead his people into this area. His people called themselves Codain and their first and main city is Codai. The great river upon which the city stands is the Afan (river) Coda. My players quickly picked up that ‘afan’ meant a river, just as ‘torn’ was a rocky hill, ‘tump’ a rounded hill and ‘rath’ an old tower or fortification.

A good source of such names to draw upon can be found in books or internet pages on place names. Another is dictionaries of current or old languages. Even such greats as J.R.R Tolkien did this, drawing upon his knowledge of old Welsh, early English, old Norse, and even Finnish to create the names of places in Middle Earth. Would Minas Tirith, Minas Ithil and Osgiliath be as full of meaning if they had just been made up a a jumble of syllables? Personally I also draw upon old Welsh and Norse and adapt it for use in my campaign world.

Place names can then be the kick-off for entire adventures or hold vital clues for strangers to the land.

  • Why does that hill still have an elvish name in the middle of an area settled long ago by men?
  • Why is that lake called ‘Green Pond’ in mannish, but ‘Gold Bottom’ in dwarvish?
  • Does the unintelligible name of a current town relate to its founding under an ancient and terrible empire?
  • Is it likely that the village of Stonybridge does indeed have a bridge over a river?
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About Craig

For those who need to know these things: - I'll never see 50 again. - I'm tall enough to see well in crowds and fat enough to leave a wake. - I'm well married to a woman with twice my smarts, three delightful and challenging children (er-hem), and one cat overlord. - I am Welsh. - I have to work for a living, but do nothing that makes me perspire.
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