What IS In a name?

Now a village but once a Scandinavian settler’s farm

by: site of a Scandinavian farmstead

On my return home while walking our border terrier, Freyja, I passed the road sign announcing entry to my home village of Ulceby. As I looked at the sign I reflected on the name’s Viking origin. The suffix ‘-by’ is typical to many towns and villages in eastern England. For instance, in this immediate vicinity we have Brocklesby, Barnetby, Somerby, Grasby and many others. Names ending with –by are typical to all of our eastern counties. The origin of each will have been a simple farm created by Scandinavian settlers – by being the Viking name for farm. So, then, the names we take for granted and to which we often give no thought have meaning. There’s a reason they bear the name they do. Take my dog Freyja, for example. She’s named after the Viking goddess of love and fertility. She’s lived up to her name so far as she is loving. With luck she’ll have some beautiful pups one day.

Ermine Street
The A15, once the Roman Ermine Street. And Saxby, also a former Viking farm

A Former Hospital

Lincolnshire has a number of villages bearing unusual names, each one with its own unique origin. Only a few miles from here, Spital-in-the-Street occupies a position on the A15 north of Lincoln.

The not so straight A15 today, showing its 'kink' at RAF Scampton
The not so straight A15 today, showing its ‘kink’ at RAF Scampton

That stretch of tarmac runs straight and true but for a kink created in the construction of a runway extension at RAF Scampton, once home to the Dambuster Squadron. The reason for its direct path? It was built on the old Ermine Street, the Roman Road that once connected Lincoln to the River Humber. Spital-in-the-Street was the site of a hospital in a hermitage strategically located to extend hospitality to travellers. Chester-le-Street in County Durham is also on the site of a Roman Road.

Naming our Babies

Fictional names must also have meaning. As writers we are tasked with creating characters, giving them a backstory and injecting life into them before setting them on their carefully chosen paths. But what of their names? Yes, we like to give them names that are memorable and easy on the tongue, but what is the rationale for the choices we make? A passage in Ecclesiastes states:

“Every man has three: one his father and mother gave him, one others call him, and one he acquires himself.”

Tenuous Links

Sir Edmund Hillary - my own namesake
Sir Edmund Hillary – my own namesake

Names should never be given without some thought as to why. My own surname of Wand has a number of possible sources. One is that it originates in Germany where it was an occupational name – Wand being the German word for ‘Wall’. My ancestors, then, may have included German builders. However, it could equally have derived from a nickname given to a short-sighted, or even shy, person. My middle Christian name, too, is there for a specific reason. I used to believe my parents had christened me ‘Hillary’ as a means to toughen me up – as with Johnny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue’. But no, my birthday – January 2, 1958 – occurred two days before Sir Edmund Hillary reached the South Pole. Having spent years hating my middle moniker, I now have sufficient maturity to feel proud of my tenuous association with the brave New Zealander.

Sweedlepipe & Peerybingle

Dickens' creations: Comic sounding but memorable
Dickens’ creations: Comic sounding but memorable

In addition to an author’s need to prevent confusion regarding character names – such as avoiding scenes in which there’s a Timmy, Tammy and Tommy – the names themselves ought to be memorable. We can all bring to mind fictional characters who’s memory lives on long after their creators have shuffled off this mortal coil (a phrase originally penned by Shakespeare). Should life-forms ever be discovered on one of the planets in a far-reaching galaxy, I feel sure they will already have heard of Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn and even Ichabod Crane. Charles Dickens was a genius when it came to naming characters. Yes, the likes of Paul Sweedlepipe and John Peerybingle may sound comic but they are unforgettable. As are Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit. J.K. Rowling showed similar flair when naming her Harry Potter characters. We writers may be temporal, but once we publish the results of our toil our characters achieve immortality. It is fitting, therefore, that their names be notable.

Whacky Monikers

There is an added responsibility on writers of fantasy fiction to create memorable names that are also otherworldly. Many fantasy writers have achieved this and, in all probability, those same alien life-forms mentioned above will be equally clued-up about Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf. For my own project, in addition to creating contemporary human characters, I needed to generate a host of animal ones. I also had the task of creating the land they inhabited. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not complaining. It’s been great fun. If you’ve not already done so, please read my post ‘World Building’ to see how I approached the task. As for the place and character names, I’ll explain here how I went about it.

Famous world(s)-over
Famous world(s)-over

My Own Approach

My two main characters are young children. Levi is thirteen years old. As for his younger sister, Poppy, I’m not sure how old she is – eleven probably. But like most girls, she’s mature for her age and certainly more grown-up than her insecure brother. I wanted names that were no more than two syllables, were memorable and went some way to reflect their personalities. Levi’s handle has Jewish origins, so reflects stability and steadfastness. And, I guess, when linked to 501 his name also reflects his resilience and (though he isn’t aware of it) toughness. Poppy, for all her femininity, is also tough. Anyone who’s viewed poppies buffeted by a gale at a field-edge will know what I mean. The wind may dash the corn-stalks but the poppies endure. In my tale so does mine.

Barleyfield Poppies 2 (2)
Poppies – attractive yet durable

I suppose I was influenced by English history when creating my fantasy world. Whereas England in the ninth and tenth centuries was populated by English – or Angles – and was under threat by Scandinavian invaders, similar circumstances prevail in the fictional land of Caellfyon. In Caellfyon, however, the Angles are represented by a native population of badgers, stoats, weasels and polecats. The invader role is played by mink. In my tale the mink have settled in one corner of the land and conflict is created by their need to expand territory. Look at a map of England and you’ll see that Anglo-Saxon names prevail in the west whereas those of Scandinavian origin dominate the east. I’ve used a similar framework of typical Anglo-Saxon names for land occupied by Caellfyon’s native population, and for the mink territory I’ve used Scandinavian name structures.

My own fictional creation: Caellfyon
My own fictional creation: Caellfyon

Replicating History

I first of all listed a number of actual place names. For the Anglo-Saxon examples I used such as Alnwick, Fishbourne, Jedburgh, Muchelney, Lichfield and so on. From these I separated typical prefixes from suffixes, giving Cob, Monk, Stone and Win  and gate, henge, field and coln etcetera. It was then a case of ‘mix and match’. I did the same with the Scandinavian examples. So, from Oseberg, Nordland, Trelleborg, Kaupang and Vastergotland I had such as Trom, Ribe, Sig and Ytre and delev, kild, land and stad to play with. The result was fictional names that sounded authentic. For example, Caellfyon place names include: Carnsteads, Monkgate, Wormwich and Blockharrow, as well as: Tromsala, Hegeborg, Sigstad and Agersund. It was so simple it felt like cheating.

It was a similar process for the animal characters. Here, however, I began by looking at the respective animals’ characteristics and features. For example, polecats have the reputation of being extremely smelly; badgers have dense, wiry coats, weasels and stoats are slim and willowy. I then did some ‘mind-mapping’ to give me a sizeable collection of keywords from which I could call on to produce names. I’ll list some resulting examples – feel free to guess the animal’s identity from the name: Barkstripe Aldersides, Lapblud Slimfitch, Bullyrag Hoarhide, Rasse Rankwolf, Sable Denbrok, Diggle Bristlesides and Foulsom Fleck.

Scene from Redwall - part-inspiration for my own tale
Scene from Redwall – part-inspiration for my own tale

There you have the underlying principle governing my own naming of fantasy characters. I try to give them a name that reflects their appearance and/or personality. I’ll finish with the words of Christina Skye, author of Defiant Captive – different genre but the principle remains the same:

Names are very important. Often a character doesn’t click for me until the name is right. A name can convey so many subtle connotations. The Chinese say that a person rectifies himself to his name; in other words, he becomes his name. I think there’s a great deal of truth to that.

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