NANP: Word, Weird, Wyrd

Stopping by the blog today for the first Names: A New Perspective post for June is Elizabeth Bear, author of numerous fantasy novels of all varieties and also the winner of a fair few awards, the kind that make you go all “I wish that I was that good”. We can all dream right? Anyway, Elizabeth is an author that I’ve been wanting to read for a while now, and her The Edda of Burdens trilogy is on my reading list this year, since I put it on my “Top 25 Series I Want To Read In 2013” earlier this year. I will hopefully be getting to it either in July or August, and I’m looking forward to it. Also Range of Ghosts at some time, which has one of the most beautiful covers on a fantasy novel I’ve seen in a long time. Amazing stuff. In the meantime, here’s Elizabeth to talk about names.

Range of GhostsWord, Weird, Wyrd

by Elizabeth Bear

Fiat Lux


When it spoke, it sounded like a bassoon blowing words.

“You are not the one,” it said, “for you are smaller and older. Yet . . . that blade . . . It could be his. Who are you?”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Strygalldwir is my name. Conjure with it and I will eat your heart and liver.”

“Conjure with it? I can’t even pronounce it,” I said, “and my cirrhosis would give you indigestion. Go away.”

“Who are you?” it repeated.

“Misli, gammi gra’dil, Strygalldwir,” I said, and it jumped as if given a hotfoot.

“You seek to drive me forth with such a simple spell?” it asked when it settled again. “I am not one of the lesser ones.”

“It seemed to make you a bit uncomfortable.”

“Who are you?” it said again.

“None of your business, Charlie. Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home-”

“Four times must I ask you and four times be refused before I may enter and slay you. Who are you?”

“No,” I said, standing. “Come on in and burn!”

–Roger Zelazny, The Guns of Avalon


Name. Noun, “appellation, reputation,” from the Proto-Germanic *namon via Anglo-Saxon. Verb, “to call, appoint, appellate” from the same source.

Names are words that delineate identities. Names are words, and words are magic. Names are words, and to write is to spell: to cast a spell.

Your word is your vow.

To name a thing is to create it, or control it, or possess it.

Word, weird, wyrd.

Names, in other words (you saw what I did there), are very important. They evoke setting and space; they delineate character. In the sense that names are titles, stories themselves have names, and those names tell us what to expect from what we are about to read.

The world is in a name, and in fiction, the worldbuilding starts with the names. What do these people of whom we are writing consider important enough to hang on themselves for life? To identify themselves by? Trade, religion, family relationship? A culture where people name themselves for their family relationships is likely to be very different at the root from one where people name themselves for their trade.

Or do they only adhere to that identity until the next name change? Because not all names are permanent. There are names of war, names of art, names of convenience, names of love.

There are names that only certain people are entitled to use.

My relationship to Aleksandr Iseyavich is very different than my relationship to Sasha–even though they are the same man.

We may have different names at different times of our lives. A hated first name falls by the wayside after grade school, to be replaced with a middle name.

There was a time in the Western tradition in which I write when characters were not generally intended to accurately reproduce real people, as they do in modern fiction. When they were archetypes, inhabiting parables. We still do this; we do it with sound and with meaning. An Arachne makes the reader think of spiders; a Potter seems earthy and sound. Names have history: I took advantage of the historical accident of two great central  Asian warlords sharing similar names, and called a character Temur.

I have called a prince of a fictional version of England Henry, for that same reason.

Names evoke, and evocation is a kind of magic as well.

There was a time when real people generally bore the name of their trade, when John Baker got his wheat from John Miller who got it from John Farmer who got it out of a furrow he and his oxen had ploughed and planted.

Now, generally speaking, we get our names from our ancestors. And for many of us living in United States of America today (I speak of America because it is where I live, and what I can talk of definitely), those names are subjected to Procrustean mutilations to make them fit into forms and bubble sheets. We may come from a culture that regularly uses more or less than three names of ten letters or less.

Names can be a tool of oppression: we can take your name from you and give you one of ours. They can be a tool of assimilation: I can take my foreign name and make it sound like it belongs in the land I have come to. They can be a tool a person uses to control the identity he or she presents to the world. Some people have several names; Stephen may be Esteban when he is home with his family. His diver’s license may have his first and last names; his baptismal certificate may have six, including the surnames of both his father and mother.

Sunny may be Sandhya to her parents. What an American reads as her surname may in fact be the name of the village her grandfather was born in.

Does the family name come first? Is there a family name at all, or is there a patronymic–or both? A matronymic? A clan name? A string of all of the above, or several of each?

Names are magic.

Names illuminate everything.


For those of you who never took Linguistics 101, that little * means that namon is a reconstructed word, our best guess based on trends and cold logic, because there aren’t any Proto-Germanic speakers around that we can ask, and have not been for a very, very long time. (About two thousand years, more or less.)


Elizabeth Bear on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is Gini Koch, and her post will go up this Thursday on the 6th. You can see the full schedule in the link up top.

Posted on June 3, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee and commented:
    The latest in the series!!!! Keep reading, and if you have time go back to the previous series, you won’t regret it!


  2. Reblogged this on Andrew Michael Schwarz and commented:
    This is just…awesome


  3. Reblogged this on Attempt at Conlanging and commented:
    Awesome. Names are important, y’all.


  1. Pingback: Monthly Report: June and July 2013 | Shadowhawk's Shade

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: