What's in a Name?

Coming up with names for things can be arduous and frustrating, but when you hit upon those magic combinations of letters that speak to your heart, they are lightning rods for inspiration.

silhouette of a willow tree against a sunset

Old Sally's Daughter, a corrupted undead sapient tree that stalks The Gray Fens.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been working on a submission to the Fill in the Hexes jam. I am now at the stage at which I need to start naming things; replace the generic placeholders that I've been using so far with setting-appropriate labels. It's hard. Sometimes it feels impossible. It is a depressing exercise in futility until suddenly it's not, and by some wonderous magic, the right combination of letters arrange themselves into the right order to make linguistic music.

I like to spend a lot of time on names, perhaps too much time. On some occasions, a fair sounding bit of nonsense will do but, usually, I like to dig into the languages of the real world for ideas and inspiration. For this, a good dictionary and online resources like etymonline are invaluable. Lately, I've been digging even deeper and I've found a treasure trove of digitized etymological dictionaries that have thrown open the doors of my imagination (I'm not sure of the legality of these scanned copies; many of them can be found uploaded to Archive.org).

In these massive tomes, you can find entries such as this:

Etymological dictionary for "naus" meaning "died, dead one."

Etymological dictionary for "naus" meaning "died, dead one."

Just this single entry is a treasure trove. I could probably write an entire post just waxing poetic about these three paragraphs but, suffice it to say, if the only take away was "*nawi-saiwi" as a word or phrase that means corpse-sea, that would be enough!

This is probably a rare case in which the digital versions of these books are superior, at least for my purposes, to the physical copies. This is because the digital copies can be very easily searched. I mine these books and there is no finer pick and shovel for rapidly digging into these dense entries than the search bar of a PDF reader.

I have no concrete process to share. I start with a word, I search for it, see what references are unearthed, sift them, and write down the ones that speak to me. I repeat the process again and again and, periodically, I'll take what I have and try to piece some of them together like a jigsaw puzzle until I get a shape that pleases me. There's not much science to it.

Old Sally's Daughter

Last night I was on the subway. It's not an insignificant ride time so I sat in an open seat and, smartphone in hand, went back and forth between a dictionary and my notes app. I started with "dead" and ended up on that entry for "naus" but nothing clicked for me so I kept looking. At some point, I had a fairly long list of words, some of them about death, others about trees, because I needed to name an undead sapient tree creature (it's a long story).

I spoke different combinations of words in my head: some of them just didn't fit together. I liked one word but not with the other word. The sounds were too similar or I couldn't figure out how to bridge one part into another part. Finally, I found two words that clicked for me: the first was "sally" which means "willow," and "dauthr" which means "dead". Putting them together, I had Sally Dauthr: the Death Willow. I liked it. I rolled it around for awhile.

It doesn't take a genius to see it as a person's name but this isn't a person, not quite anyway. I did see an opportunity to inject a bit of worldbuilding and lore into the setting through this name. What if, in some older tongue, whose lore was mostly lost, the creature was called the Sally Dauthr but, over time, this became corrupted into a more familiar name of local folklore? What if "dauthr" slowly got turned into "daughter"? I just stuck "old" at the front to make it seem even more homespun. The Sally Dauthr became Old Sally's Daughter. To me, this is perfect.

Not only did I have a name, I had a story behind it. It could even be a story that could come up in play if a character seeks out or is knowledgeable in the right sort of lore. The story has practical value too. Figuring out that references to Old Sally's Daughter actually refer to a creature called a Death Willow could certainly come in handy!

I was so inspired that I wrote some (bad) poetry to go with the creature:

Alone in grim Grey Fens, Old Sally’s Daughter stands.

Under a misty shroud, she stoops still proud.

Auburn are her dresses, pale green are her tresses.

From her crown hang the drowned, ancient lovers dangling down.

She dances ‘round the fen in her finery of dead men

To voices none can hear save those to whom death is near.

For the eyes of the doomed, beneath the bone white moon.

For a last love’s embrace, Old Sally’s Daughter waits.

A poem entitled, "Old Sally's Daughter".

I tend towards Indo-European words as my raw materials but there are resources for most every major language out there at your disposal. I also prefer older dictionaries to newer ones. In the end, the up to date accuracy of the information isn't my primary concern. So why not just employ nonsense?

To be honest, I'm not sure. There's something about teasing these tangled threads out of our collective culture and knitting them into the fabric of my fictional worlds that just speaks to me more than randomly throwing letters around chaining one to another like an extended game of Boggle. I'm no Tolkien, I'm not going to make my own language out of whole cloth. I can, however, snatch some odds and ends from clothes already made and quilt them for my own use!