Developing Fantasy Names for Worldbuilding
In order for us to understand how to properly develop fantasy names for the locations in our stories and worlds, we first need to take a moment to look how different cultures have named things historically. Chances are that any developing society will take the same routes.
So how did London get its name? We know for certain that Roman tablets recovered from the area showed that the Romans referred to the area as Londinium, but the proper etymology of the name is highly debated. Some suggest that the name came from King Lud, a legendary king from pre-Roman times who built a fortress where London now stands. Others cite that the word came from the pre-Celtic Old European word lowonida, which meant “river too wide to ford,” referring to the Thames. Others still hold the belief that a Celtic derivative of a proto-Indo-European word lend which meant “sink,” or “to sink,” combined with the suffix -injo described the area as a “place that floods.”
All three explanations are perfectly reasonable, and more importantly, very useful when considering the naming practices of your world, and the different languages and cultures within it.
The city of Los Angeles, for example, means the angels in Spanish. When the city was originally founded it was called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula. Translated again, it meant The town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porziuncola.
The city of Tokyo takes its name from Japanese, which literally means Eastern Capital. Hong Kong takes its name from the Cantonese word Xianggang, which means fragrant port, likely named due to the incense factories. The city of Nairobi takes its name from the Massai word nyrobi, meaning cold water, referring to the river that passes through the city. Riyadh in Saudi Arabia means Gardens in English, so named for the oasis towns that historically occupied the area.
The star Betelgeuse got its name in 1515 from the Arabic phrase Ibt al Jauzah, meaning Armpit of the Central One, so named due to the star being one of the shoulders of the constellation Orion. Orion was so named for the Greek hero, although the name of the hero in question is a subject of debate, some suggesting the origin is actually an Akkadian word meaning the Light of Heaven. However, Orion isn’t the only name for the constellation. The Greeks also referred to it as Kandaon, a title given to Ares, the God of War. The old Irish called it Caomai (meaning The Armed King), the Norse referred to it as Orwandil, and the Saxons called it Ebuðrung. A thirty-seven hundred year old Mesopotamian text refers to Orion as the True Shepherd of Anu.
Naming conventions of real-world places and things can come from many different sources. Oftentimes they are phrases from an array of modern or ancient languages, abridged and loaned to other languages over time. In many cases, these names are just simple descriptions of the landscape surrounding the location. However, sometimes places take names either from already-existing locations (Such as New Orleans, New Albany, New Amsterdam), or are so named for the person or people that founded or discovered place (Vancouver was named for Captain George Vancouver, while America was named for Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer.) And others are a simple descriptor named in modern language (Boulder, Colorado for instance is surrounded by boulders. Grand Rapids was so named for the rapids within the river.) Others still are named for events that happened there, such as the Matanza River in Florida, which translates to Slaughter River, where 200 Protestant Frenchmen were mercilessly slaughtered by the Spanish for settling on what was generally regarded as Spanish land.
A good general practice when developing fantasy names for settlements and locations is to take a moment to consider what that place is known for.
- Is there some unique feature in the area’s landscape or environment?
- Was it founded by or in honor of a famous person?
- Did some great event happen there that caused people to settle there, or perhaps be renamed?
- Did the original settlers in the area speak a different language?
Many of these conventions hold true for small locations like camps, sections of road, or unoccupied buildings as well.
How you choose to name the places and things in your world is ultimately up to you. But how they are named will often depend on how many cultures and languages exist in your world, the age of your settlements and other locations, and ultimately, the history of the regions so named. It’s definitely worth sparing a few thoughts to the meaning of the names you apply to your world.
With that said, don’t let yourself become hung up on it, either. Don’t be afraid to give it a placeholder name and change it once you’ve fleshed out the location more. You could even use your change of name as an anecdote within the world of your story as well. Just make sure you keep great worldbuilding notes.