So many aspects of language can overlap with science fiction and fantasy that it’s hard to know where to start. Even if you have absolutely no desire to be J.R.R. Tolkien and design your own language, you can’t get away from all issues. Take characters. Characters generally have to have names. And as soon as they have names, you’re setting up expectations about the kind of world they live in. So let’s think about that for a bit.

For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.” (Mark 5:8-9)

 Names have power.  You know that; everyone knows it at some level.  It’s why characters in the Harry Potter books talk about “He who must not be named,” why some people  refer to “the Little People,” or “the Good People,” why other people torture language with phrases like “manmade disaster” or “workplace violence.”  Ever since Isis gained power over the sun god Ra by learning his true name, humans have respected the power of names. From pre-industrial tribes who give children a secret name, to the Yoruba who believe that all things can be commanded by those who know their true names, to Rumpelstiltskin, the knowledge and use of names is magic. Medieval Jews sought to invoke angels by using their true names, while  Christians expelled demons by forcing the possessed to give up either the name of the demon or that of a saint feared by the demon.

And don’t forget Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

At some point in the writing of your novel, your characters need names. Sometimes they’ll speak up and tell you their names, which may save effort or may require you to argue with them. (“You can’t be named Faure! I’ve already got a Fabre. Do you want to go through the whole book being thought of as ‘that guy who isn’t Fabre’?”)  At other times you may get as far as a five-page synopsis before finding that you can no longer simply refer to these people as X, Y, the café owner, and the dissident professor. I can’t think much about my characters until they have names.  I don’t know what pantsers do about this; maybe Sarah can tell us. I do find life is less complicated if I have captured the central idea of a book and know the roles the main characters play before I start naming them.  And I like to think about names for all the main characters at once, for reasons I’ll go into below.

What names tell a reader about the author’s world

If the first pages of a book introduce you to Tom, Dick, and Harry, you know that either you’re in a present-time or near-future world, or the author wasn’t willing to do the work of finding names that fit the world’s cultural context. If you meet Thomas, Dickon and Heriot, you may expect a medieval or early-Renaissance culture. Tomas, Dietrich and Henri suggest a multi-cultural society with strong European roots. V’t’om, K’Detri’k and and H’ri suggest that you’ve wandered into one of those fantasy novels with three maps and five pages of instructions on how to pronounce everything, and I would suggest that you put the book down and back away slowly, because the author is signaling that he is more interested in the spiffy language and kinship structure he’s invented than in entertaining you.

But my characters all speak Galactic, so they can talk to each other and I don’t have to think about all this. Tom, Dick and Harry will work just fine.

Will they? Sure, if  you assume “Galactic” is code for “English” and that English hasn’t changed at all in the however-many-centuries have passed between the present time and the time of interstellar travel and the spread of “Galactic.”

This is not a good assumption to make. You don’t have to work out a complete description of the language change, and you certainly shouldn’t inflict it upon your reader, but the names should at least indicate that some time has passed since the present day. Tom, Dik and Hari don’t actually reflect language change, just some reform of our current spelling system, but at least they tell the reader that we’re not in 21st-century America any more.*

If you want names that aren’t related to English, obscure – or even not-so-obscure – languages can be a great resort. By the time you’ve met Aral, Piotre, Ivan, and Pierre, and come across a couple of references to “Greekies,” you know that Lois Bujold’s Barrayar contains at least three ethnic groups, with those of Russian origins probably in the majority. And if the language is obscure enough, you don’t even have to use names; common words work just as well.  It’s easy to find vocabulary lists or even full dictionaries for obscure languages on the Internet; you’re seldom more than two clicks away from a generous list of words to choose from.**

Help the reader tell your characters apart

 This is one reason for thinking about a group of characters together. Our friends Tom, Dick and Harry above weren’t chosen at random. They all start with different letters; they use different vowel; two are monosyllabic and one has two syllables. This is called being considerate to  your reader.***.

For another example, think about the English names for numbers 1-10. Apart from “five” and “nine” no two number names use the same vowel sound.**** Military people and, I think, air traffic controllers, who are seriously interested in accurate transmission of spoken numbers, have adopted the convention of pronouncing “nine,” as “nin-er” to avoid that possible confusion. In fact, most languages make the names for these numbers as orthogonal to one another as possible. (Just don’t try this with German, which starts off with “ein, zwei, drei.”)

Titles, kinship structures, and other little traps

  If you’re using the traditional English first name-last name structure, don’t have a given character refer to Tom Fairfax as “Tom” in one paragraph and “Fairfax” in the next. Remember, any time the reader has to flip back to figure out that Tom and Fairfax are actually the same person, you’ve pulled him out of the story. If, in the culture of your book, the only difference is that a wife doesn’t take her husband’s last name, it’s polite to make that clear up front so the reader won’t assume that Guinevere Leodegrance is living in sin with Arthur Pendragon.

If you’re using very different naming conventions, especially those based on different kinship structures, try to get the structure and conventions clear to your reader up front, so they won’t be confused when Signy Ketilsdottir turns out to be Bjorn Ketilson’s sister, or Simon Deveraux, Marquess of Glastonbury is addressed variously as “My Lord,” “Lord Glastonbury,” “Glastonbury,” or “Deveraux.” If the kinship rules are so complicated that you have to spell them out in an appendix… consider simplifying them.

And that’s all I have to say about naming people. If you’ve got more ideas, let me know in the comments. And if Sarah lets me visit again, maybe we can talk about place names and the names of things, First Contact stories, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, and other intriguing crossroads where language meets fiction.

*However, you may have just evoked Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, so you might want to use, oh, Humfri or Henrik for your third name here.

** Back in the days when we inscribed our manuscripts on wax tablets and shipped them to New York packaged in dry ice, I had a bookshelf dedicated to dictionaries of obscure languages.

*** This is a general principle for fiction, not just for science fiction and fantasy. Historical novels can be tricky because you’re stuck with the actual names of any characters who are known to history. The twelfth century is particularly dicey because a quick reading of chronicles suggests that everybody was named William unless they happened to be female, in which case they were referred to as Maud/Matilda interchangeably. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve written a scene with just three characters, all of whom are known to history as William.

**** Which is why, in the seventies, I snickered every time somebody announced, “I’ve made a breakthrough in automatic speech recognition! I tested it on the numbers one through ten, now all I have to do is adapt it to a wider vocabulary.” There were a lot of people who didn’t realize they were building vowel recognition systems.

343 responses to “FIRST WE HAVE NAMING OF NAMES – by Margaret Ball

  1. V’t’om, K’Detri’k and and H’ri suggest that you’ve wandered into one of those fantasy novels with three maps and five pages of instructions on how to pronounce everything,

    So you aren’t a David Weber fan? 🙂

    And talking of Weber, writers please for the love of the deity of your choice avoid accents. No one knows how to pronounce them and eventually the reader just tunes them all out and, if he or she decides to stick with the book, mentally renames Dvőřåç as Dave and ŸåçñêƗ as Jack. That’s probably OK until we get to Rřumplescztilczstyn and AŕģčğƗåçñê at which point the chances of the reader continuing are low

    • This seemed to be a fad of an era about the time David Weber broke in.
      Certain authors are good enough that they can break all sorts of rules and get away with it. I wouldn’t recommend any new author assuming they are that good, however.

      Speaking of accents, there is a reason Sir Walter Scott is a tough slog for most readers. Again, if he was just on the good side of average, that writing in vernacular would have relegated him to the dustbin of history.

      • Okay, now I have to tackle “Ivanhoe” again; I got hopelessly bogged down the last time I attempted it, but that was before I read “Moby Dick” which dinna have nae dialect in it that I ken recollect, but the vocabulary was off just enough from modern to send me to the dictionary a few times—I’d never heard of “dreadnought” having the meaning of coat before, e.g.

      • I do love it though when an author tries something tricky with language and pulls it off. Goblin Emperor has it’s flaws (a supposed-teenage boy who reads exactly like a middle-aged woman, and the inevitable – albeit slight Tor slog in the middle) but the writer uses one simple trick with pronouns to pull off an alien elven court (yet another reason ancillary noun was such an epic fail: author failed to keep her own make-believe rules straight.)

        Brown Girl in the RIng & David Palmer’s Emergence are two other novels that get dialect right: after a chapter it becomes invisible and seamless.

    • I can’t believe I missed this post. ~_~;;;

      Apostrophe-d names and such are common for me in reading (yay, Star Trek) and about the only accent I’d ever want to use is the one you’d see in fianceé, because that is at least somewhat familiar.

      Oddly enough, I’m actually used to having an appendix in the back (thanks to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.) I always thought they were part and parcel of the mental worldbuilding aid for the reader.

  2. > vowel recognition systems

    Particularly since speakers of colloquial Americanese don’t always have a firm grip on “vowels”, substituting sounds randomly throughout a sentence.

    I’m deaf enough I have to *listen* to what people are saying, and “the words what are coming out of their mouth” are often not what they think…

    • Keep in mind such potential factors as English’s (circa 15th – 17th Centuries) Great Vowel Shift, caused by adoption of higher fibre diets. This can be used to explain great piles of things in your language structure.

      • *loads carp-apult with fermented goo from bottom of pile, trots off with lanyard between teeth* Ms. Bell, ma’am, can I interest you in tugging on this?

        • TXRed that goo is no where near nasty enough for what RES did. I vote we load the carpapult with a sunfish. Not the little freshwater kind but the 800 lb monsters of the Atlantic. I’d say toss a basking shark at him but I think they’re endangered.

      • Ghhoooh…

        That was the best onomatopoeia* for a gob-smacked appreciative groan I could come up with.

        *And while we’re on the subject of language, I do expect that a something like “gob-smacked” is going to be a bit of a struggle to get the tablet to accept, but onomatopoeia–?

        For Pete’s sake my cruddy little ancient computer scrabble game has a better dictionary.

  3. Laura Montgomery

    My one universe is near future so I use ordinary names. My problem is that I don’t like using the names of people I know for the main characters. This is starting to become a problem.

  4. “Historical novels can be tricky because you’re stuck with the actual names of any characters who are known to history. The twelfth century is particularly dicey because a quick reading of chronicles suggests that everybody was named William unless they happened to be female, in which case they were referred to as Maud/Matilda interchangeably.”

    You think that’s bad, try early first-century Palestine…as anyone who has spent any amount of time reading the Gospels knows, apparently every Jewish political leader of the period was called “Herod” or some variation thereof, and every woman Jesus knows is called “Mary” except for Martha, the sister of Mary.

    But…yeah, that’s why it’s so hard to remember dynastic names: every English king is called Henry, until they all start being either Edward or George…and in France it’s worse, they’re all either Louis or Philippe, except for the last one who–very imaginatively!–is Louis-Philippe!

    Slightly different topic: the use of “alien” words or descriptors to establish atmosphere…I read an essay once that suggested the problem with this was also the lexicographical one…and you don’t have to be writing SF to know this: as anyone who has had to slog through any 19th-century Russian novel knows, all distances are expressed in “versts”, a term which is no longer used, even in Russia (it’s about two-thirds of a mile…I looked it up!).

    Now of course one way to deal with this is the Jack Vance approach, where you introduce some (fictional) term that is unfamiliar to the reader and then footnote it in a fake-serious way (“As described in B’Dekker’s Guide to Alphanor and the Worlds of the Concourse [3rd Revised Edition]…”) but that is a lot of work, and by the time you’re done you’ve probably written most of B’Dekker’s Guide! [1]

    [1] Kudos if you recognize the reference…

    • Please. As if anyone here doesn’t know about Baedeker’s Travel Guides. 🙂

    • > versts

      Collectors of old Russian rifles are familiar with sights calibrated in arshins and bores sized in lines.

      > Alphanor

      There’s surely a hostel drinking song about Baedekker…

    • On the plus side, though, a well-written historical novel can do wonders for helping you keep all your Williams and Mauds and Herods and Marys straight. I remember a college friend who said that she was the only one in her French history seminar who didn’t get her Henrys mixed up while they were studying the War of the Three Henrys; she had read Dumas and saw all three as such distinct characters that she didn’t see how anything as minor as their names could cause people to confuse them.

    • The wife got me involved in genealogy a few years back. My mother is from Minnesota; her line includes Poles, Germans, Norwegians and Danish.

      I’m currently looking into the German line. The men in the town are generally given anywhere from one to four names taken from the set { Bernard, Gerhard, Herman, Henrich, Wilhelm }. The women are similarly given names from the set { Adelheid, Anna, Catharina, Gesina, Maria } with an occasional Christina (invariably recorded as Xtina) or Gertrud thrown in for variety. Naturally, lots of them wind up using a middle name, although which one they use may change from time to time. I’m currently chasing an Adelheid that I have narrowed down to one of two Gesina Adelheids, but I have not found a way to figure out which one.

      The things that happen to Polish surnames are indescribable, although if you tilt your head, squint your eyes, and know something about a Slavic language, it’s possible to convince yourself that it makes some sort of sense. I was only able to figure out what was going on because one Martin Manynames married one Theophila Łagiewska, who didn’t mess around with her name.

      I have no idea how folks who do genealogy by punching queries into databases get anything useful done.

      • A lot of newbies will look only at the name, the date. Sometimes they’ll look at the place. They won’t look beyond that to see whether the family relationships match, or whether the occupation fits, or the marital status is right (trying to match a woman named Katherine Lantz who is a Lantz through marriage to a woman named Katherine Lantz who is Lantz through birth).

        But if you know what the database contains and the limits of the transcribers and whether the original record image is available, it can help. I worked for Ancestry for a while and I know my way around pretty well. Outside of the US and England, records are more spotty and usually only indexes so it gets harder to use the records. But it is getting there.

      • My (Minnesota) Mom and her cousin decided to do some genealogical research on her Scandihoovian ancestors. They made it back @ three generations and got tied up in ‘Karin Zachariasdottir, child of Zacharia Svensson, child of Sven Ollsson . . .’ Family names? Pah!

        And apparently these conventions still hold in (at least parts of) Iceland. My week spent working at Logan airport in Boston just post-9/11 was under the direction of a lovely Icelandic lady named Julia Bjornsdottir.

    • People were very poor, back in those days, and couldn’t afford as many names as we have nowadays. Official documents came pre-printed to keep costs down, and offered a limited selection of names. Thus political and religious leaders typically adopted new names upon ascending to office, usually choosing according to what documents’ names were in stock. Very high officers, who were given a stamp or seal as symbol of authority similarly had to select from those available and change their names to match. It was considered a great stride forward when some enterprising scribe developed technology to add Roman numerals to those official stamps, thus enabling distinguishing between the various Kings Henry.

      Because of high child mortality rates many families would simply recycle a name and in some cases wouldn’t even assign a child’s name until the little brat was old enough to play outdoors unsupervised. Very poor neighborhoods often assigned the same name to all kids (posher areas used a different name for the girls) in order to simplify calling the little ones home for dinner. In families with more than one child of a given gender the names usually had the same initials so as to make for more easy passing along of monogrammed clothing.

      • It could save on other documents besides birth certificates:

        (AND: Because you are causing ear worms, and I will not suffer them gladly alone.)

        • CACS since your memory goes back as far as Herman’s Hermits, how about:

          “Her name was Magil and she called herself Lil
          But everyone knew her as Nancy.”

          • No relation to any member of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

          • I am ancient. I remember an America when nobody had heard of the Beatles.

          • I woke up this morning thinking of the following:

            “You are sad,” the Knight said in an anxious tone: “let me sing you a song to comfort you.”

            “Is it very long?” Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

            “It’s long,” said the Knight, “but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it — either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else –”

            “Or else what?” said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

            “Or else it doesn’t, you know. The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes.’ ”

            “Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.

            “No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged Aged Man.’ ”

            “Then I ought to have said ‘That’s whet the song is called’?” Alice corrected herself.

            “No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ‘Ways And Means’: but that only what it’s called, you know!”

            “Well, what is the song then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

            “I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is ‘A-sitting On A Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.”

            “But the tune isn’t his own invention,” she said to herself: “it’s ‘I give thee all I can no more.’ ” She stood still and listened very attentively, but no tears came to her eyes.

            Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, chapter VIII, It’s My Own Invention

        • But he only sang the chorus! You’re missing valuable (?) historical data if you don’t have the entire song:

      • Pre-printed forms didn’t really come about until the 1800s. Having to choose from a limited selection of names is more from tradition than it is because of a legal list they had to choose from. You’d get three Williams in a family because the oldest son is named for the paternal grandfather, the second son is named for the maternal grandfather and the third son is named for the father. Or, if the oldest son got extremely ill before the second son was born, they would have named the second son after the first as a tribute or because the second son would have been the oldest son. Sometimes the oldest son survives. Naming patterns are an important thing to understand for an area you are researching.

        Then there was the religious naming. You’d have your saint name because you were born on that feast day, then your middle name or use name that was a more normal one if the saint was particularly obscure.

        • Our family currently resembles this. My husband has four cousins with his first name–it was their mutual grandfather’s. They are differentiated by nicknames. It is also Eldest Son’s first name, and each of the cousins with that name also has a son with that name, and so do some of their other brothers and sisters. Everyone gets a nickname.

          If you end up with a herd of Williams in your writing, give them nicknames, and don’t just stick to Willy, Billy, and Liam. Call one of them Blondie, one Stick (he was a skinny toddler), and one Old Man (grumpy baby face). That’s how people deal with the bunch of family members with the same names. Though often the individuals these days relate to the outside world as their legal name, and it’s only family and friends who know the nickname, which may get too confusing in a book.

          • My husband and his brother have their second names after their dad’s first name. My father and all his siblings, and all their children have names that start with ‘A’ – and I made my father sad when I deviated from it.

            My siblings and I also have a family nickname, because my parents wanted to be sure that if they yelled out a name, there was a very good chance only ONE child would answer it.

            Rhys persuaded me to drop it because ‘it’d be confusing for the children’ so the boyo grew up without a nickname. One afternoon when our housemate went to pick up the then youngest boy, he yelled “VINCENT!” -because son was walking away from the other side of the schoolyard. ” ‘Our’ Vincent came running – so did about seven or eight others.” The teachers minding the schoolyard and pedestrian crossing were very amused at how quick the other Vincents were to rush up because they thought they were in trouble!

        • Margaret Ball

          This custom of naming sons after grandfathers gave me fits trying to sort out informants when I was doing field work. All the men seemed to be called Ali bin Mohamed except for the ones called Mohamed bin Ali.

      • You know, RES, I’m almost tempted to give this to some of our HS Seniors and see if they bite the bait. But I’m afraid most of them will.

        • (sigh) I know. It almost makes one despair of satire, knowing one lives in so degenerate an age that the Onion merits more credence then does the NY Times.

          Even so obvious a give-away as the idea of pre-printed forms in ancient Judea cannot be assumed to alert them that what follows is very winding road.

          • Well, I was going to smirk and read on, since I’m using the thingummy that won’t let me do the WordPress through thumbs-up, but since I want to restore you Faith in, if not Humanity (entropy/Original sin [pick your poison] got there first) at least the Hunnish bits…


          • RES. the NYT has done it to itself. The blame lies mainly on their lameness, by shooting both their feet, both their calves, and both their thighs.

            • You forgot the knee caps, which I fear they have done to themselves as well, meaning they no longer have a leg to stand on.

      • I thought the limited set was due to drop-lists on the web pages. Even 50 states is a bit much.

      • You think the stamps for coins are cheap? much easier & cheaper to name the new king Louis XII and just use the existing stamps with a notch carved in after the “XI” of the old king. a king might reign for a dozen years before he gets his own profile put on the coins instead of predecessor’s (not that anyone can tell, coin profiles all look the same) and some kings didn’t even last long enough to wear out the old stamps and get their face on the money.

        ====and unlike ‘pre-printed forms’ coins were actually struck like this. not always, but often enough. =======

      • Finally an explanation for something that had puzzled me in my genealogical research: a German/Polish family in my ancestry had a baby girl named Catherine who died. The next baby girl was named Catherine; she died, third baby girl was named Catherine; finally the fourth one lived. I wondered why they did that; if it was me, I would have changed names after the second little Catherine died.

        • I would have changed names after the second little Catherine died.

          This is the reason why we’re not allowed to use the name Alexander / Alexandra for a couple of generations. My father lost two siblings; Alexander and Alexandra. Which is a shame; because I *like* those names.

          Variations are considered acceptable though (Such as Alistair.)

          However, since I’ve alreadly lost a Damien and a Brandon, I’m wondering if the Alexander name will be ‘safer’…

    • (To David way up at the top): I recall another story from many years ago (see my comment at approximately #293) about alien invaders who found us to be unconquerable because they couldn’t get a good comparison of our various distance measurements, one of which was versts.

  5. Heck, when I did my first historical, it was based on the journey of a real wagon-train party, so I had to use the actual names of the members of that party. But four of the males (including my main character) were named John, and three of the women were named Mary – and two pairs of father-son characters had the same first and last name!. So – alternate spellings, use of first and middle name, and differentiating by referring to the fathers and sons with the same names as ‘old’ and ‘young’.

    • Wee Jock, Not As Big As Medium Sized Jock But Bigger Than Wee Jock Jock, Medium Jock…

      • Little John (whose father was probably Big John, even when Little John got bigger than him.)

        • John Littlejohn was a somewhat famous hunter… and I knew a family with the surname of Littlejohn, which was unrelated to him.

        • Yup. You notice that in the ballads and old tales, no one explains why he’s named Little John; that’s a modern innovation when people stopped realized it was medieval for “Jr.”

          • My son is named after his uncle (my husband’s older brother) and when they’re in the room together or there might be confusion he always gets the ‘little’ appellation. It is a tradition that’s alive and well.

            • Patrick Chester

              I have a cousin named Patrick. Then he named his firstborn son Patrick. Family reunions can get… confusing. 🙂

      • Young Tom, Tom, Old Tom, Old Dead Tom……

      • Cue “Five Guys Named Moe.”

      • True story:

        After procedures started tightening at the polls, maybe 1970s, a man nicknamed Honeybabe went to vote.

        “Now, Honeybabe, that’s your nickname. I need your given name.”
        “Honeybabe. That’s what everyone calls me.”
        “I know that, but I have to have your given name before you can vote.”
        Here Honeybabe paused, “I . . . I’m not sure.” Then he points at the list. “Read off my family, and let me see.”
        So the registrar reads off the names one by one, and a concerned Honeybabe shakes his head and says “No . . . no.”
        Finally the registrar reads off a name and Honeybabe lights up. “That’s it! That’s my name!. I knew I knew my name.”

    • Once upon a time I was talking by radio (2 meter FM, if it matters) so we were all using our unique and required callsigns for formal ID. Names are fine, just not as proper station ID, and then I made the mistake… for of all the people in that conversation just then, I was the only one (of at least 5, possibly 70 who NOT named “Mike.” This lead to my complaint/quip that, “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named Mike.”

    • Heh, sounds like a get-together with my family. ‘This is John, and here’s John, I think you’ve met him already, and John, you and John come over here so I can introduce all of you at once. Oh and Donna go see if Donna needs help in the kitchen while I give Donna a call and see if she’s bringing the boys.’

      • Professor Badness

        Having both a brother and brother-in-law named Mark, both of which are gaming geeks, makes for a confusing time for all the cousins.
        I can keep them straight in casual conversation, (I’m not sure how) but we refer to them by profession in front of the kids.

        • My brother Mark is married to Sue, his second wife. His first wife was also Sue, and at least two of his current wife’s previous husbands were named Mark (that sounds bad, but they’ve been married almost thirty years now). So they don’t have to worry too much about making mistakes with names!

          • Could be that is why they have managed to stay married for thirty years?

          • A friend of mine is named Robert. So are his father, brothers, and one uncle. They have different middle names.

            Unfortunately his children are all girls, and his wife balked at naming one Robert…

            • I was almost named Robert Adrian after my maternal and paternal grandfathers. One of the many things I thank my old man for was for putting his foot down on the possibility (likelihood?) of going through school being known as ‘Roberta’. Caused a great amount of disappointment in his dad, I hear.

            • I just might have that one beat. See, my given name at birth was not Robin, it was Robert. Robin was a nickname that my parents chose because my grandfather (also a Robert) already had Bob, my cousin already had Rob, and they didn’t like Bobby or Robby. So Robin it was. I had my name legally changed from Robert Munn to Robin Munn about fourteen years ago after an incident where someone bought me plane tickets under the name Robin Munn which everyone knew me by, but all my official ID said Robert Munn.

              As a matter of fact, my father is also Robert Munn, but he goes by his middle name. His father, my grandfather, was Robert Munn, and went by Bob.

              And courtesy of one of my great-aunts who did a Munn family geneology, I found out that my great-grandfather, whom I never knew, was *also* Robert Munn. My great-great-grandfather was also Robert Munn. My great-great-great-grandfather was also Robert Munn. And, finally, my great-great-great-great-grandfather was the first Robert Munn.

              So it turns out that I’m (or I was) the seventh Robert Munn in a row.

              And no, should I ever have any sons, I do not intend to name any of them Robert. Though neither did one of my great-grand-Roberts, since his son Robert whom I’m descended from was his fifth or sixth son. At which point I assume he gave into the pressure his wife had been giving him to carry on the family tradition.

              • I’m told that when they named me, the first reaction from neighbors and extended family was “Where did that name come from?”

                That practice made it almost impossible to get beyond an ancestor on my father’s side born before the 1860 census. Then I found one in the right place and the right age but a different name. Turns out that was his nickname. His official name on his headstone was different. Once that clicked, we managed to go back to the 17th Century, but no further. There’s one that traces it back further, but I’m sort of skeptical.

      • Growing up I knew a family with 17 kids (14 natural and 3 adopted… because apparently 14 wasn’t enough). All of their names started with M, and the father was named Mike, as were two of the boys, one natural, one adopted at an age where he was already named. Then there was Micah, Meikah (a girl) and so on and so forth.

        • I understand that after the first seven or eight the additional kids don’t much increase the effort required and can even reduce some of the work by giving older and middle kids something to do that prevents their looking for more destructive ways of filling time.

          • Yes, this is what I’ve been told by parents with large families, too. And I’ve seen it in action, with older children helping younger children, helping parents with various jobs around the place, and so on. You have to use care with it, though, as I’ve also seen lazy parents take advantage of the older children. But it is one of the reasons why large families are desirable in situations where labor is scarce.

            • Older children in large families often have better language skills because they learned from adults, not older siblings who hadn’t figured out all the rules yet.

          • Yep – we were a family of four, and when we added a teenage foster kid (long story, had to to with my involvement in Vietnamese resettlement efforts in 1975) my mother did remark that it really seemed to make not much of a difference, between four and five, when it came to … well, everything. Just another plate at the table.

          • Can give them? I have heard parents of large families exclaim that they can’t STOP the older kids from looking after the younger.

            • “Let her do it herself if she wants to!”–me, every day, to one of the big siblings, as the two-year-old has a screaming meltdown because she wants to do it herself and they won’t let her because they want to do it for her.

              Other than a pointblank refusal to say her own name, the child has a scary command of the English language, including personal pronouns. No ‘Me do it!’ here, no, it’s “I do it by myself!” So for our admittedly small sample size (six kids), it doesn’t seem to hurt a kid’s language development to have a bunch of older siblings.

    • There’s always Senior and Junior, or Major and Minor….

  6. Actually, in Germany (at least in the military) the spoken pronunciation of the numbers is “ein, zwo, drei…” just so 2 and 3 are distinguishable, for exactly the same reason our military (and whoever else) say “niner.”

  7. Every rule has it’s exceptions, especially in writing. I’m fond of David Drake’s practice, which he explained in the 2nd of his Leary books: if your setting is far enough in the future, just use regular names and enumerations. And pat yourself on the back for being nice enough to automatically ‘translate’ all the foreign sounding words and names.

  8. I used to work at a place with about two dozen employees. Five of them were Jims. So we had Jim, James, Jimmy, J.T., J.W. Then a summer intern showed up. Another Jim. He was instantly renamed Montana from his car’s license plates. He was a bit annoyed that first week, but peer pressure is hard to fight.

    • North Carolina went through a spell (’70s to ’80s) where the governor’s name was Jim or James.

    • I worked one place that had nine people on night shift. Six of them were named Dave…

      • Most powerplants have a public paging system that is one of the first systems to be commissioned. During construction at Comanche Peak, everyone was to page someone by using their full name, which still caused problems, as John Smith (really) or Jim Smith were the most common. If they stuck around long enough, those guys all got nicknames….

      • At one point, the company I work for had seven employees, three of whom were named Steve. We held after-hours martial arts practice sessions in the office that we referred to as “Steve-do.”

    • Margaret Ball

      There was a time when my younger daughter’s best friends were called Allie, Callie, Ellie, and Kelly. I don’t think she arranged this just to drive me crazy, but I’ve never been completely sure.

    • My D&D group had 4 Mikes. Michael, Mike, Mike A and Tucker. Tucker was whining about being called by his last name, and we all went over to my Parents for dinner. My Mother referred to him as ‘Little Mike’. On the way back, we asked him was Little Mike, and he decided Tucker was fine.
      The same Michael (who doesn’t like to be called Mike) named his son Michael Jr. His son doesn’t mind being called Mike, but I have named him Billy.

      • Brother of friend was named Kirk Newkirk. He tried to name his son Brand. The new mother threw a royal fit when handed the birth certificate form.
        I mean what’s wrong with Kirk Newkirk’s son being Brand Newkirk?

    • Last year, in class: Katherine, Catherine, Cait, Kate, Katie. Four of them were in the same section.

      • This is why I go by Kathleen. One of my friends here (also Kathleen) goes by Kathy so we don’t get confused. My family still calls me Kathy (which I never liked, even when I was small), but I don’t answer to it from anyone else. I’ve also been called Kate or Katie or Katie-did (my grandfather). Kit is another possible nickname.

      • Once upon a tiny, same floor in the freshman dorm: six Jennifers. All of whom hated Jenny.

        One got fed up with the confusion, and snapped “Just call me Bob!”

        And thus Bob (Or Jen-Bob) became so named, and started a long career of confusing people in the theater department. The geeks, on the other hand, adored her. Not just because she could cook, but because that sense of humour is quite compatible with geekdom!

      • I knew someone who went by the nickname “Fourth.” He and his male siblings had the same first given name, so they went by “First” to “Fifth”.

    • I can believe it. There are popular names in clusters, effected by popular culture, where you were born and family tradition. I noticed that there were fads of girls called Alexis due to a night time soap and Jason because of a popular family program.

      I grew up surrounded by boys named James, John and David Common names for girls were Mary, Ann, and Deborah (invariably called Debbie). When I moved the list shifted, but not much. At college one small girl’s dorm of fifty had six different Susans.

      The Daughter was surrounded by numerous girls named Jessica, Amanda and Kate, and boys named Joshua, Robert and Daniel.

      • And then there are the outliers like my sister and myself; I have an outside chance (as in non-zero) of finding my name on the personalized doo-dads at gift shops. Her? No way.
        Then there’s my late uncle Bud; because my grandmother really didn’t want to name him Ivey.

        • One reason why I am very leery about putting my real first name online (ended up doing it on FB because they demand it, and by the time I got there I had heard stories of accounts being closed when you used something fake) is because it’s not common, and Finnish names (or fully Finnish language names, people do use fully English and other foreign names here too) are a smallish pool to start with so it’s not overly difficult to find out who I am, where I live, who I work for etc if you see that – and if you also get my last name which is also somewhat rare, well, I seem to have an unique full name. Makes me feel a tad exposed. And not everybody is sane, or nice, or needs a good reason or any reason at all before they decide to harass complete strangers.

          • That’s one major reason why I consider Facebook’s policies evil. It’s nice that Zuckerburg doesn’t think privacy is nice, but some of us have very good reason to be private.

            This “real name” policy has had serious problems with people who have real but fake-sounding names (a notorious problem in Hong Kong) and for people who have fake names that are practically real (some people have used their online name so much, both online and in person, for example, that no one they know would know them by their real name).

            • And yet I seem to recall that Bandit Six has a facebook page. From what I have heard and observed, Facebook’s policies are enforced rather capriciously. If the administrator’s don’t like you or your posts, and they notice, they will be enforced and often enforced quite rigorously; otherwise you can get away with practically anything and as long as no one complains, the policies are unlikely to be enforced.

              • Polliwog the 'Ette

                It’s a problem for legitimate dissidents and journalists covering real corruption (I.e. doing their actual job) as well. Then again, I guess that Zuckerberg’s conversation with Merkel shows pretty clearly what his opinion of journalists doing their real job is.

                • Hit’s all a matter o’ wot you think that real job is, ennit?

                  Is it a politicians’ job to serve the public, or to serve the public (to whomever is greasing that politician’s palm.)

                  Just as when Barry O’ swore to faithfully execute the law o’ the land, I suspect he was using a different definition of execute than prior presidents had.

              • I believe that there was some grandfathering of names involved, so the new policy was actually from here on in must use their own name when they register.

          • The optimum solution is to have a consistent internet name different from your IRL one.

            It provides a neat balance between accountability and protection from the internet crazies.

            • I still use the nom de cyber I had back before the Blog Wars, but only on three or four blogs/sites that know me as that. Otherwise its TXRed or Alma.

          • My ex’s maiden name wasn’t uncommon, but her family didn’t spell it in the most common manner – there was a difference in one of the vowels used, and her family was apparently the only one in the US that used that particular variant.

      • And there is the fact that every Travis I’ve met was from Texas.

        • Nope, neither me nor the three other Travis’s in my kindergarten class were from Texas.

          My parents chose that name because they didn’t know anybody named Travis, but that year it became a popular name.

          And I just met another Travis today, that is barely old enough to talk, and he isn’t from Texas either.

      • My graduating class, senior year of high school, we had eight Jessicas, Five Amandas, and almost as many Jennifer/Jenny/Jen names. For guys, Jason, Justin, and Michael were most common.

        Seems to go in cycles that way. My father was a James among Jims, Jimmys, and Jacks. I sometimes wonder how far back this “popular name” bit goes. Was there a rash of “Humbaba”s back in the days of Gilgamesh? Was Thjalfi ever third Viking’s name on the ship? And did we have trouble determining which Hecuba was being bawled out on the banks of the Scamander?

        I know as far back as the 16th or so there are duplicates, and ancient Rome had its share of “Lefty”s and Gaius’s a-plenty. It may be part of the common human desire for comforting familiarity (or calling back to earlier generations, part of the same). Or maybe again the Mommies and Daddies just like how “Attakullakulla” rolls off the tongue. *grin*

      • I’m Mary because it was not until her second daughter that my mother decided that she didn’t CARE how popular Mary was as a name, she wanted one of HER OWN.

        And then it was my younger sister Jen who was surrounded by people of the same name.

    • One place I worked for three years. All that time I was “New Dave.” I swore they didn’t even bother learning my own dang name! Was frustrating for a while, but I got used to it.

      After I left, I learned my replacement was “New Dan.” *chuckle* I tend to think the office ladies were putting one over on us labor types. *grin*

      Good thing I got used to it, though. My next job, they didn’t bother learning my name either. I answered to swear words because that’s how I knew they were wanting something from me (construction job- seems to go with the territory). Also, industrial plumbers have dirty minds. Who knew?

      • At Otto in the ’80s, we had a salesman named Bob Clements — hight Clembob by the staff. Some time later, they hired an artist, Bob Newman, who was instantly dubbed Newbob. That was how we told them apart. Then, in the early oughties, we had a salesman named Theresa, whom all and sundry called T. So, when they hired a marketing manager named Teresa, she was instantly dubbed T2. This was about the time that was the shorthand name for a Terminator movie, which was funny, because she was a tiny little thing, who was at eyelevel standing next to people who were seated.

  9. “At other times you may get as far as a five-page synopsis before finding that you can no longer simply refer to these people as X, Y, the café owner, and the dissident professor. I can’t think much about my characters until they have names.”

    I’m at this exact stage in my own fantasy work. Though I’m about 20k words into it. It’s definitely not been a pantsing effort, but I’ve dealt with it by tossing in placeholder names. The problem is that the main characters come from an Asian steppes-ish style culture and I just threw in some Irish names (no idea why) for now.

    The problem is that I’m starting to think of them in those names. When I was telling the wife a bit more about them and how they’re displaced from their nomadic culture into a rural farm, she said, “Wow, I had a totally different picture of who they were because of those names.” A wonderful example of the power of names.

    So I’ve ground to a halt for a little linguistic development, just for the names. Which, of course, then open up the whole language can of worms.

    • What I wrote for the kids was going to be fantasy, but ended up an adventure set in a fictional 14th Century kingdom. I ended up going to SCA sources for names. Since this sort of think is usually quasi-British Isles, I went with period English names for most of the kingdom. That worked well because they’d spent some centuries under Scandinavian invaders until they kicked them out, so their old population centers have a mixture of period English and Scandinavian names. A neighboring kingdom never did kick out their invaders, and the names are practically all Scandinavian. Another adjacent kingdom has a Slavic feel and period Slavic names.

      Not all characters have a surname. One character has an assumed named, which oddly worked out well. One character, a pagan who became a Christian, changed his name because he no longer saw himself as the same person.

      One conceit is that the characters all have different names. No duplicates. Maybe not realistic, but the kids didn’t notice.

      • It’s much easier on your readers if you use all different names — preferably ones that don’t start with the same letter. I kind of ignored that one in a story I’m working on with several (mostly grown) children — the boys’ names all start with D and the girls’ all start with K. But generally I try not to do that. So never mind realistic — think of your readers, LOL!

        • Ah, with the exception that it could be fun to have two characters with the same name and have some resulting confusion, or something. But otherwise, best to use different names if possible.

        • Dyslexics have a particularly hard time when the first letter is the same. Especially if the rest of the name is the same shape as the other, or several of the first letters are the same.

  10. Elmore Leonard:

    “In my novel, ‘Bandits,’ which is set in New Orleans, I originally named the main character Frank Matisse. I thought Matisse sounded like a New Orleans name, but he wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t open his mouth.

    And he acted too old. So I changed his name to Jack Delaney and then he wouldn’t shut up.”

  11. “Just don’t try this with German, which starts off with ‘ein, zwei, drei.'”

    That makes me want to cry, or sigh, or go eat pie. 😛

  12. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I was once one of three Roberts on a team. We used Bob, Rob, and Robert. Luckily we didn’t have six, because I don’t know what comes after Robin and Hob.

    Anime names. Full Frontal, Lelouch vi Britannia, Godou Kusanagi, Asia Argento. Sometimes there is a good reason for it, sometimes it just needs to sound foreign.

    • My name was always unique, but my second grade class had three Lauras and a Lauralee. And my best friend was one of four Amandas in third grade.

      I used to wonder at the fact that anyone would, for example, consider “Peggy” a nickname for “Margaret” or “Jack” a nickname for “John” or any of the others where we’ve only got one or two letters in common. It wasn’t until I started looking at history and realized that when you have sixteen Margarets in town, you’ve got to come up with some way of differentiating them, and some of those will be pretty far from the original name.

      • My name is not particularly unique, but any place I’ve been people have seemed to quickly adopted nicknames to avoid being confused with me. Alternately I soon became known as “that one”.

        I’ve never quite sussed out why so many of my venues undergo such transformations, although I have noted a significant tendency for them to go out of business or experience ownership change shortly after my departure for new employment. (This last is >not a datum included on my resume.)

      • I can’t remember the linguistic rule for it but Peggy makes sense when you consider the word chain – Margarent to Margie/Maggie to Meg to Peg. The M to P thing shows up in the Mary, Molly, Polly thing too. A similar rule applies to John and Jack and other nicknames.

        • Actually Jack and Jock are forms of Jacques, which is Jacob. But English is weird and does what it wants to do, and it wanted to use them as nicknames for John.

          • I’ve never figured out how Sasha is derived from Aleksandrs.

            • Many a nickname enters the lexicon due to a younger sibling’s difficulties pronouncing a name, particularly when the older child is prominent. Thus little Princess Natasha’s mangling of Prince Aleksander’s name might produce Sasha.

              OTOH, given Russians’ consumption of vodka …

              • With Russian, you can pick almost any syllable in a name (usually an accented one, though), add a diminutive suffix to spin it out, and get a valid nickname. There is traditionally a difference between male and female name diminutives, but that’s about it.

                Picking on the “Sander” part instead of the “Alex” part is also something that happens pretty frequently in various parts of the word.

            • Well my grandpa was named Marvin, and he went by Bill for short.

            • Names and words evolution can be a lot of fun. The common term hood comes from an Irish gang called the Muldoons. Someone mangled it into Noodlums, which became Hoodlums, and finally just hoods.

        • Now, Margaret to Daisy requires some knowledge.

    • My dad was a Robert, usually called Bob. The nickname you missed is Bert.

    • From experience- another job I worked on the farm- after six you go to “Bobby,” then you hyphenate. Bobby-John, Danny-Rob, Helvi-Robert (yes, Helvi), and Joey-Bob, after the first six RobBobRobbyBobbyRoberts that is. Of course, that may just be the South. *grin*

  13. In the Powers books I ran into the problem of name order. Hungarian still writes last name first (family name, personal name), and for married women it can become quite complicated. And some names are both family and personal names (Szombor Attila or Attila Szombor.) Five chapters into the first book I pretty much gave up and went to the Western style, unless there was a point to using Hungarian convention.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Slightly off topic.

      I got seriously annoyed when Star Trek Next Gen introduced the Bajorians.

      Ensign Rou (?) informed Picard that Star Fleet got her name wrong.

      IE Bajorians use the Family Name first and Star Fleet recorded her Family Name as her “First Name”.

      Considering how many Real Life cultures use the “Family Name first”, I saw it as more stupidity on the part of STNG writers. 😦

      • It’s Ro Laren.

        Not to mention the fact that we clearly have alien members of Starfleet who clearly don’t use family names (Spock, Worf, Guinan) and those who do have two names but those names don’t precisely correspond to the “Personal-name Family-name” convention (Dax). It seems like there’s no way that Starfleet should meet a new species and automatically assume that standard American English conventions apply. I would try to use headcanon and say that it was just Riker being a jerk to her by screwing up her name, except that later in the episode we have a Bajoran expressing astonishment that trained diplomat Picard could master the difficult concept of recognizing that Bajorans use the family name first. So really, there’s no way to rescue the writers from their stupidity here.

        P.S. I’m amused by the fact that the spell checker says that Worf and Guinan are misspelled but has absolutely no problem with Spock.

        • scott2harrison

          Spock is a name that pre-dated Star Trek. Notably used by that abuser by proxy of children Dr. Spock.

          • So they used a normal American surname? How common is that name anyway? Although even if it is rare it doesn’t save whoever came up with that name for the character since I as far as I understand Dr. Spock was rather well known in the 60’s.

            Unless the idea was that he got the name because his mother was from northern America (was she?) and perhaps it was some sort of family connection to somebody with that name.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        Bah! That’s just because those super-enlightened 24th century humans have evolved beyond those petty 20th century non-Western naming conventions! 😉

      • Eh, and if it wasn’t the writer’s fault, it was her fault. The forms are pretty dang clear modernly. I doubt they made them less clear in the Star Trek military. (Bureaucracies LOVE their paperwork after all.)

        Though the story of Ronly Bonly Jones might also be apropos here. There was a gentlemen in the navy of my grandfather’s acquaintance who was born R B Jones. Just letters no names. He enlisted for WWII. They kept kicking his paperwork back with a ‘no initials’ note. So he put R(only) B(only) Jones. They took out the parentheses. He legally changed his name to Ronly Bonly Jones because it was easier to do that than convince the Navy they’d gotten it wrong.

        • I’ve never had to deal with military forms, but when registering for scientific conferences, they always have little “help” icons next to the place where you fill out your name, and those tell you what to do if your names are not in the English order or if you don’t have a first, middle, or family name. I have a hard time imagining Starfleet would be worse at paperwork than societies run by busy scientists in their spare time.

          The idea of Ro Laren filling out her paperwork incorrectly just so she could complain and act like a martyr when people got it wrong would kind of fit with her early character, but again there was the scene of Picard with the Bajoran leader I mentioned above. It’s pretty clear that Starfleet was written as having absolutely no clue that “Family-name First-name” is even possible.

          • In the TNG universe Bajor was some backwater hole so while we see Picard as uber diplomat, we really mostly saw him deal with major species (to the Federation) and a few smaller ones which he was clearly brushing up on before the meetings. He could have just been doing a good job of cramming before those meetings (or they didn’t make episodes out of the ones where he restarted tribal wars).

            or) Maybe it went the same way as “Not Sure” of Idiocracy fame?

            I’ve given up on names in the Star Trek, Star Wars, Weber or Anderson books. If they don’t describe the person well enough for me to figure out who it is talking I just fill in the name as “Dude” which wipes out some of the major characters authority at times but that’s what you get for making the name impossible to read out loud.

          • Well, it’s Star Trek. They slap a forehead appliance under makeup and call it an alien.

            • Babylon 5 was better at that. Though it took me until Season 3 to realize the Narn starships were “flesh color.”

          • 1. In the advanced society of the Trek Federation all naming conventions will have become standardized.

            This became necessary because:

            2. Official forms will have drop down menus offering 7,497,214 various options for pronouns, thus obliterating any data storage for alternate naming conventions.

          • The fact that I don’t have a middle name is occasionally bit of a problem with Finnish paperwork.

        • It is a trifle surprising that there is nobody in the Trekverse with the middle name NMI.

        • My great uncle “Dan” had something similar happen to him. His given name was D. R. Murphy. He kept insisting that was his name. D, period, R, period, Murphy. Finally the recruiter asked what his father’s name was. Daniel Robert Murphy. Uncle DR (Dan) became Daniel Robert Murphy Jr. to the US Army.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Then’s there’s my grandfather Howard.

            When he joined the army for WWI, he was Ralph Howard (no middle name or initial).

            The army wanted at least a middle initial so he put down “X” as a middle initial.

            Dad came along later on and was “Ralph X Howard, Jr.”.

            Of course, Dad’s lack of a middle name is part of the reason that I wasn’t named after him or Granddad. 😉

          • WWII why we have clear notation on paperwork for “NMI” for people with no middle initial and “NFN” for “No First Name”.

            • I new a Benny Lindsay. Finally had to show his birth certificate to prove that Benny wasn’t a nickname. He only had the two names. The recruiter wrote none in the middle name space. So he was Benny None Lindsay for the duration.

              • A friend of mine was named “Don Steve” [lastname].

                That caused him a fair amount of trouble in the military…

                • Heck, I had a friend whose husband went through AF basic training (although it all came out well, and he was a colonel the last time we we were in touch) and his name was Bruce Lovely. Seriously. Fortunately for him, he was also about six foot and change, and build like a brick outhouse – and both he and his wife were good-humored about it all – being of course, a Lovely couple.

                  • Way back when I was collegial I had a class taught by a grad student whose surname was Mann. As he was not a professor he insisted we not address him with an unearned honorific, but for the life of me, as often as I raised my hand to “contribute” in class, that whole semester I could never bring myself to address him as Mister Mann.

                • I’ve heard of a Taylor Jane. Yes, in that order. (A girl given a family last name as her first name.)

              • My father was named Billy Joe. Not short for anything, but being from Texas, perfectly normal. Namingwise, anyway.

                • last name Hillger?

                • Margaret Ball

                  Mine too! He went by Joe, which made it easy to screen out telephone solicitors: if anybody calls for “Billy”, just hang up.

                  • My boss’s name is “Kim”. He’s also very male. So anyone asking for “Ms.” is 99% a solicitor. (We had one case of an old acquaintance forgetting to tell his secretary that “Kim” was a guy when asking her to set up the appointment. Only one though.)

          • My wife had the opposite problem when we got our marriage license. She had a first name, four middle names, and a last name, all of which are listed in full on her birth certificate (and these aren’t short names, like Mary or Lisa, either). The marriage license people insisted that her full legal name had to appear on the marriage license. There was enough room to squeeze it all in, but we had to be creative.

            And now her name is even longer.

            • …That’s going to be interesting. I have six given ‘first’ names. Naming convention in the Philippines has it that the ‘middle’ name is the mother’s maiden name and the family name is father’s surname.

              Rhys’ surname is also very long.

          • Fans of the MASH television series might recall an episode revolving around the question of the “real” name of Captain B.J. Hunnicut who was, it turned out, named for his parents, Bea and Jay Hunnicut.

            Then there’s the question of the middle name of General (and President) Grant, about which we need not go into now.

            • **blink** I thought it was common knowledge by now that Ulysses was his middle name, at least as a child.

              For the longest time a member of my extended family thought we were related since his mother was a Simpson. (I have since disproved it. A simple cross up of two families with a John Simpson, son Jesse and daughter Mary.)

            • On my mother’s branch of the family was a fellow who’s given name was TC. Just TC. And why TC? Well, his father had just been elected tax commissioner and was proud of it.

        • Schwarzkopf had same issue. Noted in his autobiography (iirc) that he made an impression first day at West Point because his first name was H. They used FIO to identify first initial only. One of presidents had it too for middle initial (parents disagreed on name so compromised on a letter)

      • All the crazy name talk inspired by this comment reminds me of this blogpost that I encountered a while ago, titled “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names”.

  14. One interesting resource for non-modern day names that I’ve found is that Behind the Name has “family trees” for most names that show how the name has evolved. Looking back at some of the historical versions can give some interesting “fantasy-sounding” names. Also, looking at how the name has evolved in the past can give you some ideas if you’re trying to evolve it forward into a sci-fi setting.

    • If you are trying to evolve names into the future, keep in mind that many of the first names now in use were once family names or names of objects or occupations. So a future name might be Programmer, for example (or some derivative).

      • yes, but they shifted over to last names from bynames. Nowadays, it would be very rare that you had to tell someone you meant Madison the Programmer, and if you did, it would be a one-shot thing where you had two (or more) Madison Lastnames. It would be that it’s very unlikely that both Madisons would be in the same social circles everywhere, so it’s unlikely to stick with enough force to even be her permanent nickname, let alone pass to her kids.

        Not only do we have more names to tell people apart — first, last, middle — we also use a much larger naming pool, which helps limit the need for bynames.

      • My company sells single-board computers and peripherals. One of our customers has the last name, “Coder.”

    • Of course, sometimes what you really want to know is when it came into use. When Caroline showed up, I was going, hmm, what is the earliest era in which she would be plausible? (To map the technology to about that era. Georgian England, I concluded.)

      • Margaret Ball

        I’d be willing to bet there were some Carolines in the preceding century, when the English had two King Charleses.

  15. One possible approach is to pick from current names, but not English ones. Many other languages offer names that are not all that hard to deal with. Finnish, for example. (San names may be more trouble.) Some countries put the family name first. Chinese and Japanese are well known; less so that Hungarian does it also. In a number of countries, a single name (no family name) is common; Indonesia for example. And Iceland mostly goes by patronymics, so you might have an Ingrid Eriksdottir.
    Some foreign language names can look easily as exotic as, say, the names Larry Niven used in his Ringworld series.

    • I have used some Finnish names, but since I am Finnish and assume at least some of my friends may read them I fiddle with them a bit, an extra letter there etc. Unfortunately that can also result in a name which is in use in USA, and not necessarily for the right sex. So I have had a couple of boys named Sue incidents… thank heaven for internet and search engines. No guarantees that I have noticed everything though.

      And btw, several Finnish male names are the same or very similar to American English girl names, and some of our female names can look rather masculine to English speakers. I did play with that in a few short stories where one of the main characters, an American with a Finnish father is named Matti, after his father, and bullheaded enough to insist on using that instead of switching to Matt.

      And I have also used completely made up names, and then found out that it actually is a name in use somewhere – once a deity name, and a deity who was not at all similar to what the character is supposed to be like. And worse alternative, is a word in use somewhere, and not necessarily a word you care to use in polite company. I guess it is surer to find a real name (or groups of names) in some obscure small language or a rare and ancient deity or royal name and just use that.

      • Reader expectations can limit you, although many readers are used to French or Latin male names being the same as typical USA female names. Long ago I once used Stevie for a female character (Stevie Nicks was popular at the time), and had casual readers thinking she was a little boy. All I can say is “grass mud horse”.

      • There’s more than one Finnish boys name that is a Japanese girls name. And quite possibly vice versa.

    • Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy has an interesting backstory; a planet colonized by roughly equal number of Japanese and Hungarians. Which evolved a culture resembling a blend of California surfer and Yakuza…

    • It may seem like family name first is a Chinese custom, rather than an American one, but I’ve noticed that I’ve filled out an awful lot of forms that ask for “last name” or “last name/family name” and then first and middle names.

      It just seems that certain places have made it a formal custom, rather than a haphazardly applied custom.

  16. When you offer the example of “V’t’om, K’Detri’k and and H’ri”, your comment on it seems to suggest a readership bias that is different from mine. I have no problem with authors who invest massive effort in worldbuilding, in the style of Austen Tappen Wright or J.R.R. Tolkien or Donald M. Kingsbury; I’m happy to play the game along with them. What bothers me about those names is that they reveal—in fact they make glaringly obvious—that the author tried to get the effect of worldbuilding without actually doing the work of building the world, and in particular without making up plausible languages. I would put that one back and look for something that had believable exotic names. . . .

    • One trick I could think of is whatever translation technique is used to go from human english to alien can’t translate the proper nouns. Could be lampshaded with malapropisms in cities or landmarks. Sorta like Google translate fails

      • I had a dinosauroid named Clark. His actual given name was “Clrrrk,” and he decided “Clark” was close enough. His culture was only a century removed from a caste society, and the normal nomenclature was profession/caste first, followed by given name. His family were fishermen, so his name was Fisher Clark. Among humans he went as Clark Fisher.

        Something I didn’t succeed in doing with that tale was making it clear that this was the norm of his country, not planet. His world was no more unified than our own, and his home and culture was one country of many.

        • Ya. At least it wasn’t Prys, nee Price.

          And occupation is a common source of family names. ‘Of the dogs’ is one interpretation of mine

          • Mine . . . it might be one of those things best left hidden by the mists of time.

          • Occupation is a common source of family names — yet we never meet a character named Slutty McSlut, Horace Roundheels, nor John Thomas Pimper.

            For that matter, where are is Bull Scheisselöffelentes? Or Alderman Taschendieb?

            • Well, Irish names are often familial (Mc is ‘son of’). As for the rest I have no idea what euphemism they used

            • In the past, people were less squeamish about terms regarding, er, reproduction. There was at least one street in London who’s name I don’t dare say in polite company. But our casualness regarding blasphemies might have cause them difficulties.

              Or not. I think one term the French used to refer to the English was a profane byword then in common use. Said byword is still in use today.

              • [O]ur casualness regarding blasphemies might have cause them difficulties.

                I recall an explanation for the abundance of swear words in the TV series Deadwood is a recognition that what was “hard words” then is “mild language” now.

                • “Hard words” strongly implied that words meant something. And that meaning could come with the application of force, be it fists, broken bottles, or whatever else comes to hand.

                  Young men *will* get into fights. Everywhere. Anywhere. Channeling that natural impulse to violence is key to civilizing the young man. Something that certain segments of the population are willfully ignoring, to all of our peril, but that’s another story…

                  • “In elder times an ancient custom was,
                    To swear in weighty matters by the Mass.
                    But when the Mass went down (as old men note)
                    They swore then by the cross of the same grote
                    And when the Cross was likewise held in scorn,
                    Then by their faith, the common oath was sworn.
                    Last, having sworn away all faith and troth,
                    Only G_d **** them is their common oath.
                    Thus custom kept decorum by gradation,
                    That losing Mass, Cross, Faith, they find damnation.”

                    -Sir John Harington, Epigrams, 1615

            • Though we do have a Thomas Crapper, inventor of the (a?) flush toilet.

          • Yes on occupations. My professional name last name means file- or die-maker in Dutch. Apparently the machinist gene goes waaaaaay back.

            • And places. More than half of Finnish surnames mean something like on the hill, by the lake, by the river, some sort of tree or some type of forest, and so on, especially names from west Finland where the habit was to use the name of the house or farm as a last name well into the 20th century. Which also meant that if a family moved they changed their last name. The houses or farms had names rather than families.

  17. In my W-I-P all characters are sexless clones of Teh One Great One and all are named “Citizen #” (with the # assigned by order of appearance in the novel.) This is developing into a four or five volume trilogy, all relaying (in stream-of-consciousness that would make James Joyce cry) the events of a single day in the life of Utopia.

    I have a thirty-seven page description of breakfast, a flavorless, colorless, scentless porridge that provides all the nourishment that state-appointed nutritionists have determined is sufficient for the needs of all citizens. (Fourteen pages of the description are spent on the Citizen’s recitation of appreciation for being spared the burdens of such challenging decisions of alternate breakfast foods, three pages of which involve thanks for being spared the trauma of having to choose fruit for the mush.)

    Everybody works from home, (so as to spare the burdens of commuting) manipulating Waldoes for a production line which first disassembles Waldoes and then reassembles them. To protect against the risks of people taking pride in their work all Waldoes are randomly assigned and at random intervals the Waldoes a citizen may (or may not — that is the plot-driver) are randomly swapped for other Waldoes which may (or may not – Plot Twist!) be active on that or some other production line.

    I firmly expect a Hugo nomination, at minimum.

  18. Once upon a time I had a (second) job at a convenience store (still oft called a gas station, but really it’s a cigarette stand that sells a few other things – including motorfuel – on the side) and would have to give the morning’s tank readings to someone who called for them. I used the “niner” for 9, and used the (stereotypical, oft made fun of, old fashioned) “telephone operator” pronunciation for the rest (e.g.: “fi-uv” for 5). The store manager remarked that the fellow who called for the readings found my manner a bit odd… but he NEVER had to ask for a repeat of a reading – which means the ‘oddness’ did the job it was supposed to.

  19. Completely off topic, please feel free to ignore me or delete if you feel it, but since you folks were kind enough to help me find a name for my daughter last year I wanted to ask another question. How do I start a good home library for her?

    We have a ton of baby/first readers that she loves and she likes going to the library now that she doesn’t judge books solely on taste but I have no idea how to transition from baby books to real books. She’s not at the stage yet to read (or talk) but I don’t want to wait. Modern books seem to go from baby book to young adult candy to oh wait kids don’t read because they’ve lived on candy their lives until now.

    Educated people of the 18th and 19th century would laugh at our lack of understanding of general science, history, philosophy, etc. Is there a category out there of books not crippled by modern PC ideas, not geared on longing for a vampire or witch and not so adult it covers the roman orgies and gladiator games in excess detail for a kid?

    • Dunno for sure, but the folks left the 1950’s textbooks out in the open, and a good many others, not all “age appropriate” (school, not vs “adult content”) and allowed “free range” reading to happen. The actual library was frustrating as it divided things into “you can have access” and “you actually desire” without the sets intersecting.

    • scott2harrison

      Kipling’s “Just So Stories” are always a good choice. They are fun for both kids and adults.

      • And when she gets chapter book ready (and it may take you that long to find it.) The Man Who was Magic is delightful, but out of print. I do NOT recommend the same author’s Alexander Hero stories for a child though.

    • I am not sure I understand the question. Are you looking for books to be read to her, books she can read or what?

      Children’s poetry seems to work well. I was never fond of A.A. Milne’s poetry books but that may simply be a matter of taste. Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends is usually a hit. Wallace Tripp has some delightful collections of English whimsy and poetry; I particularly recommend his delightfully illustrated A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me: A Book of Nonsense Verse. Kipling, as others have mentioned, is usually a hit. The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry by Louis Untermeyer is also worth investigating.

      Often the best thing is to simply browse the appropriate section at the bookstore, with child in tow, to see what sparks interest. If you’ve convenient access to your state’s Home School association they often hold an annual convention where the dealers’ room alone is worth the admission fee and a wealth of reading matter for all ages and tastes is available. You might find a set of the McGuffey’s readers worth the investment as they offer a series of graduated reading encouraging the child to attempt more demanding selection.

      If the child has sufficient manual dexterity to handle a CD player it might be worth your while to invest in some audio books, such as those offered by Rabbit Ears Entertainment might be worth investigating. They offer reading of various folk tales by talented actors and companion books enabliing the child to follow along. These have the benefit of allowing the child to “read” the same story over and over to her heart’s content — without exhausting parental patience, a resource which is not infinite. There are also such delights as Cyril Ritchard’s reading of the Alice books, and the Narnian tales as read by some very gifted actors.

      As always, investment in the Andrew Lang [Color] Fairy books and classic collections of myths and fables (from Hercules to Paul Bunyan) are generally worthwhile. Although they came along after my household had passed the need, I gather William Bennett’s anthologies — The Children’s Book of Virtues, The Children’s Book of Heroes, etc. — are excellent compilations which ought be available at your local library. If your young reader likes them they can be readily bought.

      The niggrest thing, of course, is that she get to see you reading and sharing time reading with her. Nothing impresses upon a child the importance of an activity like sharing it with a parent. For that matter, purchasing a good dictionary and establishing it as a resource for looking up words, parsing meanings and etymologies is about as good an investment as you could make.

      • Hey, RES, thanks the question was vague. I guess I’m asking how you find the books that expose them to the books that progress in detail without being excessive for age. Right now she’s doing good not to tear the flaps off the See Spot books so this is all for as she grows and learns.

        I remember a post long ago by Sarah saying her kids read histories of Rome and she found out later they’d managed to jimmie the lock to break into the adult history of Rome books. I’m just not sure where to get the kid friendly Rome books, or Greek, or any other history or even what I’m looking for. Fairy tales are easy enough because everyone has made a disneyfied version of the Grimms tales by now so that’s more a case of me having to find the more grown up version as she gets older.

        TxRed, wyrdbard, bob and poh, I’ve read your posts too and I’m taking notes!

        Thanks again!

        • Keep in mind that there is no substitute for a parent who reads with the child and engages the child in the elements of the book. When we read the Little House books with the Daughtorial Unit we always made a point of discussing various elements, such as the amount one could travel in a day then compared to now, and the more limited availability of consumer goods back then.

          You can also encourage the habit of looking for further information on a topic or doing extra reading (see Sarah’s post yesterday) to check the author’s representation of the era.

          I might ought have mentioned that the D.U. devoured (literally) the Sandra Boynton board books as well as the Helen Oxenbury books and the Max & Ruby books by Rosemary Wells (well prior to the Nicleodeon adaptations.)

          If you go for Lang’s Fairy books it is a good idea to discuss the way the same story seems to appear in various folklores around the world.

        • My suggestion is read the books yourself, and read to her the ones you like/think good. This is what I did with my daughters (starting before the oldest was even born; the other two got in utero whatever I was reading to the older ones). They got read to them the Bible and Swiss Family Robinson, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service, Little Women and Laura Ingalls Wilder, and many, many more. Don’t worry about vocabulary being suited for a little one — they learn vocabulary from what they hear (and later read), so you want to expose them to adult vocabulary, not dumbed down pap.

          What books did you enjoy reading when you were young?

        • As a child gets older there are all sorts of marvelous books which you can look forward to. Take these recommendations with a knowledge of your particular child.

          Daddy read me the all the original OZ books and The Little House Books. I listen over and over to the Cyril Ritchard recordings of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

          There are a number of excellent English authors, Edward Lear (Nonsense and Limericks) George MacDonald (Fantasy), E. Nesbit (Fantasy), and Joan Aiken (Fantasy).

          I have found memories of We Shook the Family Tree by Hildegarde Dolson. I enjoyed Howard Pyle (Arthurian and Robin Hood legends). I didn’t discover Narnia until my freshman year at College.

          Courtesy of The Daughter I discovered Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, Rosemary Sutcliff (historical and Arthurian legend) and Diana Wynne Jones. The Daughter wore out her first copies of The American Boy’s Handy Book and The American Girl’s Handy Book. The Daughter also dearly adored the Heinlein juveniles and H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy Books. And when we were home educating I discovered the historian Albert Marrin.

          Do not be put off by the name, The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden, is a joy for girls as well. (I am unfamiliar with its companion The Daring Book for Girls.)

          • I have very fond memories of Harold Lamb’s “biographies” of historic figures, and imagine I’d have been equally delighted by G. A. Henty’s books had I but found them.

            Many in the Home School community hold to the older pedagogy’s creed that the best way to teach History is through biography, giving the child dramatic persons as landmarks to eventually be connected. The best done ones offer a feel for time and place that more academic works usually fail to offer.

            When the child is a bit older, Joy Hakim’s series A History of US is a reasonably balanced overview of US History, although periods about which one has strong opinions and/or personal recollections may seem somewhat unbalanced. Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe does an amazing job of covering much ground very concisely, although as with Hakim (or any history) there are reasons to argue. Look upon it as an opportunity to teach children how to critically engage with an author.

            • I will second the recommendation for Harold Lamb, although it will probably be a little while before she is quite ready for novel length biographies.

    • I second RES’s comments about folk-tales, from all around the world. Some might need to be toned down a little, or saved for when she’s older, but there’s a wealth of things, and they can ramp up into chapter stories when the time comes. And older children’s histories (pre-1985) tend to have lots of pictures.

      Verse poetry is good, because she’ll learn the sounds even if she doesn’t get all the meanings – Kipling, Browning, some Longfellow and R. L. Stevenson. Louis Untermeyer’s big anthology of children’s verse has ballads, funny poems, folk-sayings, and neat illustrations.

      Do live near one of the stores that sells books and supplies to home-school families? They might have some suggestions, if not anything quite age appropriate yet.

      • Oh, yeah, older (pre1990) Caldecott winners and nominees. Beautiful illustrations and good stories.

      • On the poetry theme. Again if you can find it ‘Silver Pennies’ is a good collection of children’s poetry. (Why are my favorite kids books out of print?)

        • Because you have better taste than NYC publishers?

          • This keeps proving itself to be true.

          • Keep in mind that the Great Book Burning (well, shredding, to get rid of those nasty leaden books) of [? – look up date: late 80s or 90s, IIRC]* served to reboot the world of children’s literature, ensuring little’ns were only exposed to “good” books by approved authors.

            Not that I am suggesting that was a goal of the drive to ensure children were only given healthy books; that was simply a fortuitous byproduct.

            *Couldn’t Google** the info, but did find

            **Okay, did find this:
            ” … Called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), the law was passed in August 2008 — quickly, without scrutiny, and nearly unanimously — in response to the Chinese lead toy scare of 2007. The act defines its mission so broadly as to cover all “children’s products,” including children’s books. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the agency charged with enforcement, issued guidelines days before CPSIA was to take effect in February 2009 specifying that all children’s books published before 1985 would become illegal to sell unless they passed a lead-content test: less than 600 parts per million, dropping down to 300 ppm in August 2009 and 90 ppm in 2011. Prior to 1985, lead in miniscule amounts was a common ingredient in ink (useful for its plasticity and softness). But lead is hazardous only when ingested. As Jay Dempsey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the Associated Press, “on a scale of one to ten, this is like a 0.5 level of concern.” Eight-year-olds do not eat their books, there is no evidence that any child has ever been harmed by spending vast amounts of time with nineteenth- and twentieth-century books (certainly not the diminished intelligence associated with lead poisoning!), and the loss we’d suffer by following this directive would be enormous.

            Booksellers face a $100,000 fine for passing on these books, even giving them away.

            • I’d actually seen this before (from politics blogs) and have a standing order with any family member that comes across one of these books at a flea market or second hand bookseller or anything else to pick it up and I’ll pay them back for it. So far haven’t had any come up though 😦

            • Oh, yes – the ghastly CPSIA law of 2008, which was – as far as I could see — an exercise in how far one could go in overreaction to a relatively minor threat to kids just by squealing “But it’s for the chiiiiiildrennn!”

              Basically, this is one of these nasty discretionary laws which can be used against just about anyone who does home crafting for sale to the public, or has a second-hand/used retail business – at the whim of any authority who chooses to make a stink. Sensibly, I don’t think there have been too many of those, although the blasted law is still on the books .

              There was a huge ruckus about it when it was passed: home crafters, tiny bidnesses doing wooden kid’s toys, home seamstresses doing baby clothes, Indian tribes doing home-made costumes for their kid’s native dances … and how it would put children’s books printed before 1985 on the bonfire, because — LEAD!

              Refreshingly, I note that the second-hand book venues that I frequent moved all those suspect volumes to a shelf marked “collectible”. Honestly, I can’t think of too many kids over the age of about two and teething who see a story book as an aperitif or a main-course.

              • Scanning and putting the e-version online? I suppose copyright laws do get in the way with the newer ones, but since it gets done anyway with anything people want surely at least some people have been doing that for those books which are out of print and in danger of getting lost?

      • Folk tales! Yes! Don’t let Disney decide what fairy tales the kid knows!

        I grew up on Andrew Lang — twelve volumes of dozens of fairy tales apiece. Of somewhat variable quality but it exposes you to the possibilities.

        • You know, I recently came across a term, “faux-tales”, to describe Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and a few other American folk-tales. The reasoning behind this was that they started off as vague tales told by lumberjacks and cowboys, but have since been highly commercialized, so they can’t be “true” folk tales.

          The notion resonated at first, but then I thought about it, and realized that these people were saying that commercialization isn’t a sufficient reason to justify dismissing these stories — after all, America is a young country, America is a *very* commercial one (hence, spreading tales via commerce is *very* American), and even with this commercialization, we still get variations of these stories.

          We have a Pecos Bill children’s book somewhere (after having moved twice in four months, I have no idea where at this point); don’t let anyone dissuade you from sharing a good story, so long as you enjoy it yourself!

          • Worth trascking down …

            Pecos Bill narrated by Robin Williams with Ry Cooder accompanying.

            Caution, cultural appropriation risk!

            • That’s a very old delusion in fairy tales. Remember the Grimms purged their second edition of all tales they deemed French.

          • Part of that springs from a delusion that normally folktales sprang from the primordial ooze and were transmitted in pure form unless tainted. to this day, folklorists call a retelling that incorporates a new element “contamination.” Like, Grimms’ “Little Red Riding Hood”‘s ending was a contamination from tales like “The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids.”

            In reality, literary tales have influenced the folk tales since they first existed.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Beware of exposing children to adult level books on Midway, lest they grow up to become Tom Kratman. (The Earth will explode if the human population ever becomes more than 0.3% Tom Kratman.)

      Before my mid-teens, I think I’d read everything from The Bobbsey Twins to Crane Brinton.

      I read a lot of Joan Aiken and Rosemary Sutcliff, but some of their works were adult enough that I got into them at the wrong age.

      Consider Swiss Family Robinson, The Gammage Cup, Redwall, Susan Cooper, The Bagthorpes, and any of the series of that one company that knocked out Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, etc. the older the better.

      • Enid Blyton? The original versions…

      • Consider Swiss Family Robinson, The Gammage Cup, Redwall, Susan Cooper, The Bagthorpes, and any of the series of that one company that knocked out Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, etc. the older the better.

        I know that the publishers have been busy updating Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. (They say it is to remove offensive language and situations and bring in modern technology.) I suspect the same can be feared for The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift.

        My Step-Mother got a copy of a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys adventure for The Daughter. The Daughter disliked it thoroughly. She complained that there was, ugh, kissing! (She was already a big fan of David Suchet’s Poirot. We determined that she just wasn’t ready for ‘romance’ in her stories.)

        And, yes to Susan Cooper. Also Redwall, if you can check out the audio read by the author Brian Jacques. They are superb.

    • This is the pre-first-grade suggestions from the home school curriculum we use:

      But look through the first several grades lists as well. You’ll find plenty of good things to read to/with your child there, under the literature and free reading sections.

    • Yes there is. Your local children’s librarian OUGHT to be able to help, but if you happen to get one of the rare whackadoodles (every field has them, some more than others) drop me a line at kirstedw — at — kcls — dot — org and I’ll walk you through a core collection, plus how to sieve the public library’s stuff.

      • The Daughter made friends with a number of very good librarians, who were more than happy to share their love of books with such an eager reader and understood the concept of books appropriate to the individual child. It was one of these people who found for The Daughter a short story collection, at the time housed in the basement reserve stack at the main library, where we discovered Diana Wynne Jones. We shall be forever thankful.

    • Thought of another one that she could read (or you read to her) a bit earlier than my other suggestions: The Ordinary Princess. (Also an object lesson in the Inadvisability of Inviting Faeries to Christenings.)

    • Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles, especially if read out loud.

      See if you can get your hands on Encyclopedias, dating at least the 80s and 90s, ‘How Does It Work’ / “Tell me Why” “Imponderables” books also make one a curious reader. I have an old ‘The Children’s Bible’, which distills the Bible into stories with rather lovely illustrations. Getting your kid into reading about animals tends to help; while exposure to history I was started on the Egyptians, the Romans and the Greeks; as well as pre-history.

      I’m rather sad that I no longer remember how to do math using an abacus, personally.

      Roald Dahl’s works seem rather accessible to children still.

      I got my son interested in reading through his interest in dragons. He reads his Wings of Fire series of books as comfort reads, enjoys the (xnumber) Story Treehouse books, got into Matthew Reilly and is also reading The Little House books now.

  20. I seem to recall hearing the term “pantsing” somewhere that wasn’t referring to pulling someone’s pants down, but maybe not. Could someone enlighten me? (And why did the ‘e’ get dropped from lightning as in “Get in the house! It’s lightning!”—as oppose to “lightening” which is a medical term?)

    • Writing without a plan. Writing ‘By the seat of your pants’. Sometimes called ‘discovery writing’ these days.

      • WordPress delanda est, this was supposed to go up to the guy asking for book recs.

        • And I’m just going to stop posting now… I’m not sure if it’s WordPress any more or me! Ignore my last on this, please.

          • Make sure you’re not dehydrated!

            (Speaking of being well-hydrated –and names too, as many as could, would you lend a prayer for those going through Hurricane Matthew and those who are dreading it. The National Hurricane Center has shifted their forecast track –of the storm’s center–east for the NC portion, and their ETA has changed from 8 AM Saturday in Wilmington to 2 PM Saturday. It looks like something changed in regards to Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to remember what this morning’s forecast track was for them.)

            • re: Matthew

              We’ve been watching it carefully, even nestled comfortably under the auspices of the Blue Ridge. I believe that it didn’t lose as much force as anticipated threading the needle between Cuba and Haiti (something about not getting as broken up by Haiti’s western peninsula as expected.) It also seems to be picking up more water as it goes, meaning more to rain down later.

            • Not changed much. I’ve been watching the computer models at Weather Underground’s tropical page and the surface condition map and forecast maps at . That’s NOAA’s site and is not to be confused with the URL ending in .com – that’s The Weather Channel. I also pay close attention to the National Hurricane Center at .

              Something I do with these things is plot the forecast track, note the probability cone and the predicted quadrant winds, and note how that relates to our utility. In the old days I marked a laminated hurricane tracking map. These days I use Google Earth. If anyone wants to try their hand and this, note that these things are huge and mind the probability cone – even a little variation can have huge effects.

              Since this thing is subject to change a great deal, I haven’t mentioned it at work, but got my first “What’s it going to do?” this afternoon. Note that I am not a meteorologist, and the best I can do is read these forecasts and official discussion and look at weather maps. Short answer is that no one knows.

              Will say this: The focus now is on Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, but folks on up the East coast should keep a watch on this, too. Oh, and do not trust any one model or assume that it will run where most models agree.

            • Personally, on possible direct hit on New England, my thoughts veer between: could be very, very nasty, and — but we need the rain.

              • The Kingston Trio’s “Merry Minuet” comes to mind: “There’s hurricanes in Florida/ and Texas needs rain.” (And New England)

      • Oh, shoot, that’s kinda obvious.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      “Pantsing” means “Writing by the seat of your pants”.

      IE Not outlining your story. Just sitting down and writing.

      • And then the one scene character insists on staying, and the love interest doesn’t interest the hero anymore because he got smitten with the barmaid, and the sidekick ends up doing most of the hero stuff, and the original main object turns into a subplot… it can end as a coherent story anyway, with a plot and all, but may need some intensive editing at some point.

  21. The sinister Java prepares to express his opinion of the Kibble God (aka Furniture That Feeds Us) sleeping in past breakfast…

  22. Christopher M. Chupik

    Rewatching the first season-and-a-half of the TV series Andromeda, I am struck by how great a lot of the names are. Warships called Andromeda Ascendant, Pax Magellanic, the Continuance of Politics. One race of aliens, the Than, have names like Reflections of Dawn, Sky Falls in Thunder. One race is called Nightsiders, because they evolved on their tidally-locked home world’s night side. Another race, the Magog, were named so by their enemies, while they call themselves Harbingers of the Abyss.

    I really miss the show Andromeda briefly was.

  23. I can’t even start thinking story beyond the very basic initial spark of an idea until I know the characters. Those characters just aren’t “real” to me unless they have names, and at least an idea of who they are as a person. I don’t have a formal way to document this or anything, it’s just in my head. Kind of like info about people that I know.

    For instance, In the story I’m currently working on, there is a character named Tic. Tic’s a smart kid, but quiet, and is one of the youngest characters in the group. Without being able to get into Tic’s head, I can’t even begin to figure out what he would do in the context of (his part of) the story. Tic’s counter-character? opposite? friendly rival? (really, not sure what to call it… Not the villain though) is named, oddly enough, Piglet. Piglet is the older boy that the girl Tic has a crush on is obsessed over (poor Tic, she doesn’t even acknowledge that he exists). Piglet also has his own part in the story aside from his interaction with Tic of course. Those three, plus a few others, are the main characters. The story is an adventure/coming of age story. Think Goonies… group of friends going out to find answers (and see if Piglet really did see a naked girl hanging out by the caverns) Until I knew the characters, they couldn’t interact in my imagination. I had no idea there would even BE a (puppy) love triangle… Trapezoid? Parallelogram??? Hey, it’s a group of teenagers… it gets complicated. The point is, until I knew the characters, I had no way to know how they would act. In the past, when I have tried to work from strict story outlines, the stories seemed flat and the characters one dimensional.

    I’m still a wanna-be writer who has yet to publish anything, so what do I know. Funnily enough, the notebooks for the story I’m currently working on are doing penance on the floor of my van because my writing ground to a halt. So I tossed them there in frustration. I think the problem is that, while I developed the main characters in my head, I gave short shrift to the villains. There are two. So I got to a part of the story where the main characters are bouncing back and forth between the two villains, not yet realizing that there actually ARE two of them, and the story got overly repetitive. First they were in the clutches of one villain, then the other. Back and forth until the whole thing crashed to a boring, messy pile. What’s next? Hell I don’t know! The villains aren’t even “REAL” yet. oops. I know what their GOALS are. At least I did that, but I forgot to figure out their motivation. Why are they doing these things? Why do they want what they want, and why do they thing “X” is going to get them there?

    On a happy note, this all got me thinking about the story again. It feels like it’s time to rescue my notebooks and dive back in (before they get tromped to death). But first, I need to remember that Villains are characters too, and I need to do the work of fleshing out who those two jackals really are and what they want and why. Really, I thought I knew… but in hindsight I mistook GOAL for motivation, and an unmotivated villain is a boring villain.

  24. C4C from a lurker…
    I enjoyed this post. I guess names have power is why it’s hard to pick alternate names when making a screen name. What do I want to share about myself through the name? Gender? Favorite book or world? Place of origin or beloved place? In my case, can’t decide=initials.

  25. After watching Spy Kids, I decided my name was too boring so I embellished it a bit: Mark Russell de Wrasse con Howard pod Blackwood Sizer. I often forget to introduce myself that way, but when I remember, I am nice enough to end with, “but you can call me Mark.”

    I wonder if Google indexes the comments here. This is the first time I’ve typed the whole thing on the Intertubes.

  26. I love thrillers, but have a pet peeve about them. They are so plot driven that the characters don’t usually talk or think dissimilarly. I frequently can’t follow who’s talking in a 3-way (or sometimes even 2-way) conversation. Gives actors a chance to show their chops in the movie versions.

  27. German science fiction author Kurt Mahr is said to have come up with unusual alien names by picking words out of dictionaries for obscure ancient languages like Sumerian or Akkadian. The drawback with this technique is that some of your readers may realize that your character’s first name is the Sanskrit word for the male sex organ and start snickering every time the character is mentioned.

    From the same German SF series, Karl-Herbert Scheer is said to have come up with the names of the original Japanese members of the Mutant Corps by getting ahold of a Tokyo phone book and randomly picking names out of it. As a result, apparently to those who know Japanese (or are at least familiar with Japanese naming conventions), the result is a bit jarring as only by chance does the gender of the name happen to match that of the character.

    • If I remember right, the online comic MegaTokyo had a character who’s name was slightly adjusted at one point because the author found out that the traditional gender of the name didn’t match the gender of the character. It wasn’t so bad though, because the new name was very similar so it didn’t create all that much confusion.

  28. I have a friend named Don Spain. When he visited Spain the passport people couldn’t believe it, probably American security would react with similar confusion then delight at a visiting Spaniard named ‘Captain America’. Mr. Spain was treated very well on the trip everywhere he went.

    • That would be fun. My best friend’s name was French–he was Irish. Then we did have a Captain Marvel in the Navy. Not quite Major Major, but amusing nonetheless.

  29. Very fun post: thank you so much. The daughter product was looking for just this information recently.

  30. I love names. They fascinate me endlessly, which often proves to be a distraction. And I like to think I’m pretty clever about it. Like to, I say.

    When I was casting _Geppetto’s_Log_, I determined that I would need a bunch of red shirts. I listed them by their functions in the story — Wizard, Gay executive officer, artist (limner), technomage, lesser elf communications specialist, und so weiter.

    On a separate track, working with the same group of red shirts, I conceived of a couple of arch middle school girls (think: de Lint’s Crow Girls) called More and More (Mor and Mor — Morag and Morgan). Not initially conceived to be lesbian lovers, but a notion worth playing with (though eventually abandoned, part way).

    Only one of them (Morgan) finally kept the initial name I tagged her with, but she came to be nicknamed (by the team, not by me) as Witchlet. Her full name says something about her ethnic heritage for those who have the wit to see — Morgan Gitan Miranda.

    The other (Morag) (the artist) got a bit of a back story. Her name revealed itself to be Gillian Mary Elizabeth Katherine Paul. She was an orphan who managed to escape the clutches of the nanny state and grew up emancipated. She supported herself as an art (and identity papers) forger. The boys who wanted to get in her pants used to call her Gee Pee (her initials GP), which quickly got shortened to Jeep.

    In all truth, I lit on the name Jeep from a favorite tune of mine “I Remember Jeep” from George Harrison’s _All_Things_Must_Pass_ album. The rest is rationalizing invention.

    Then there’s POV character Mitchell Drummond’s middle name Cary, which I stole from Joni Mitchell, and added another bit of back story, that of the tale of the song “Carey”.


  31. Many years ago I read a story in which the characters were the Captain of the space ship, the Navigator, other members by Crew Position, and I knew by the 3rd page that these were not from our planet.

  32. I came across the notion that because English has certain anomalies in their number system (particularly having multi-syllabic numbers, and having certain numbers — the teens are particularly bad at this — that are backward from how they are written (eg 16 is “six – teen”), that the system is that much more difficult to learn, and it’s more difficult to remember sequences of numbers.

    Chinese has monosyllabic names, with no extra words for positionals (no “teen” or “hundred” or whatever); so sixteen would be “one-six”.

    I toyed with the idea of “simplifying” the English number system a little bit, but I didn’t get serious about it until I encountered IPv6 addresses. I really like how it’s fairly simple to remember IPv4 addresses (eg but IPv6 addresses are so much larger.

    I seriously considered a 65,000-ish base number system (an IPv6 address would consist of eight of these) but you would have to translate the numbers to names and back, so that wasn’t practical. I fell back on simplifying digits — zo, wa, tu, ti, fo, fi, si, se, wi,ni, te, bi, ki, di, vi, ki, fe — then added a little bit of punctuation (ko for :, sqo and sqa for [ and ])…and then, because I’m a mathematician, I ended up adding a few syllables for mathematical operators as well (in particular, ne for “negative”). I probably even have special names for the quaternions i, j, and k, but I can’t remember them off the top of my head…

    It’s a work in progress, and one of the ways I’ve tinkered with it has been to address ways that two digits might be mixed up with each other. I would like to explore this further, but between things pressing me for time, and having lost track of my notes after a couple of moves…well, it’s that much more of a work in progress.

    But one of the things I discovered, is that, yeah, playing with names for things as basic as numbers is really interesting (and it drives home the fact that in binary, 100 isn’t “one hundred”, it’s “four”…and it’s “four”, no matter *how* you choose to represent it!).