The Name Game

When we write, we build worlds. We name places, people, and things. Some writers seem to have a real knack for names. What’s the secret? Etymology.

Etymology is the study of the history of words. Familiarize yourself with etymology and you’ll find names that work for the people, places, and objects of your novel on multiple levels. Etymology is what makes a name feel right.

J.K. Rowling, whether by design or instinct, is very good with etymology, often marrying French, Old English, and Latin to create the words of her world. Let’s look at two of my favorites, with much help from the Harry-Potter-specific etymology resource, “What’s in a Name?”.

Albus Dumbledore. Albus is latin for white, while Dumbledore is Old English for bumblebee. According to WiaN, J.K. said it “seemed to suit the headmaster, because one of his passions is music and I imagined him walking around humming to himself.” I would also humbly submit that like a bumblebee, Dumbledore is always busy, always working, usually with a false demeanor of fuzzy, harmless bumblyness to distract his enemies from his sharp sting.

Sirius Black. Black is obvious, of course. Sirius is the Dog Star, but also Greek for scorching. The Dog Days marked by the rise of Sirius, usually July 3- August 11, is noted as the hottest and most unwholesome time of year (via Etymonline). NO reason why I mention that, of course.

All fangirling aside, Sirius Black is one of my favorite literary names of all time. It’s fun to say, and it says exactly who the character is. So how do you build a name like Sirius Black or Albus Dumbledore? Well, baby name books are all well and good, but most of them are categorized alphabetically, NOT by meaning. Fortunately, online baby name generators are often more flexible.  Parents Connect lets you search by meaning, and was the only name generator that passed my test- I searched for “dog” as a meaning (obviously names that mean “lovely” or “strong” are going to be a dime a dozen) and Parents Connect was the only site that delivered correct results, yielding Caleb (dog, heart) and Maelgwyn (defender, prince, dog of battle).

Or, if you want to create a name, as opposed to just finding one (nothing wrong with either), look to an etymology dictionary. My favorite by far is Etymonline as I find it the most comprehensive. There are others out there, but most of them are fun-fact oriented, rather than research oriented.

Say you want to name your protagonist’s home town, a sleepy burg where nothing ever happens. Think of a word that describe that place. For instance, Safe. Plug in safe to the etymonline search engine and you get a cornucopia of hits, everything relating to the history and meanings of safe, from harem to baseball. I like the little town of Gesund, personally, to me it sounds like a sturdy hamlet, but you may prefer Kiester or Sarvah or Hunk. Or Gesundhunkiester. If nothing seems exactly right, copy down what you like, pick another word, and give it a whirl. Play wordsmash until you get just what you want. It’s a lot of fun, you learn new things, and in the end you wind up with a name that means exactly what you want it to.