TT: Mis-Naming Imaginary Places

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to read about why permitting yourself to mess up is an important part of being a writer.  Then come back here and join me and Alan while we talk about SF/F place names that might have worked a little better than they did…

JANE: Last time we were talking about imaginary place names that work.

Some Imaginary Places

However, too often I find that SF/F place names seem to have come out of a random name generator and show no sense of consistency or internal logic.  Use of such programs can cause another  real problem.

As a writer, I know I favor certain sounds and initial letters almost subconsciously.   I’ve known other writers with this tendency, too…  Roger Zelazny, for example, had a fondness for the name “Jack.”  He uses it in “Shadowjack,” “Halfjack,” and, I’m pretty sure, a few other places.  When it reappeared in “Donnerjack,” I pointed this out to him and he just sighed.

Anyhow, when writers use random name generators, they tend to pick similar sounds over and over again, leading to duplication not only within a single book but also within their body of work.  Using such programs can be a great way to become generic.

ALAN: Ah, but Roger also had his names of genius. I am particularly fond of the Dung Pits of Glyve where Jack of Shadows gets resurrected. And you have to admire the sheer cheek of placing the Dung Pits at the West Pole of the world!

JANE: I’m the last person to argue if you want to say Roger was a brilliant writer.  I certainly agree.  He was another writer who had the skill to interweave real place and imaginary places in a fashion that helped make the imaginary more real.

There’s one writer I know – but won’t name, because what I’m going to say isn’t kind – who has such similar names and name structures repeating in some of his books that I get confused as to which series I’m reading.  Turns out he uses a random name generator and then picks what “sounds good.”  And, of course, what sounds good is often the same type of sound.

ALAN: Oh, guessing games! I love guessing games. Let me see…

JANE: Nope.  Not telling…

And then there are the just plain stupid place names…  They can work, like the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride – a movie in which  exaggeration is the rule, but I am amazed how often, especially in the work of newer writers, these sort of names come up.  It’s as if these fictional places were named by real estate developers looking to sell suburban housing.

ALAN: My particular bete noir in this area is the practice of stuffing names full of apostrophes. It seems quite common, particularly with writers who are just starting out (though Anne McCaffrey did it all her life long). Just what are the apostrophes meant to indicate? Xhosa clicks? Glottal stops? Contractions? Again I find that they break the spell of the story while I puzzle out how to pronounce them.

JANE: I think the apostrophes are meant to indicate contractions, indications where something has been left out in pronunciation.  Certainly, that’s what McCaffery intended with her Dragon Riders of Pern.  When you became a Dragon Rider, you lost vowels…   I was never sure why.

Sometimes using apostrophes works when the writer is trying to indicate how a language has evolved away from its original meaning, so that parts of words are missing.  An example might be a futuristic piece where New York has become N’Yawk.  Mostly I avoid apostrophes even when transliterating languages where they are used to indicate pauses or sounds not found in English.  When I was writing Changer’s Daughter (aka Legends Walking), I learned that one of the most common transliterations of Yoruba used both apostrophes and lots of accent marks.  I decided to leave most of these out because they’d drive a reader insane – but I did apologize in my Afterward for doing so.

ALAN: Personally I’m glad you left them out. No apology was necessary as far as I am concerned.

Fictional place names lend themselves well to humour. Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork springs to mind here. But actually there’s a better example which isn’t related to SF at all.

On April 1st 1977, the Guardian (a newspaper in the UK) published a travel supplement which gave glowing reviews of a trendy holiday destination in the Mediterranean – the island paradise of San Seriffe. All the carefully described locations on this island were named after font faces and typographical conventions, though sometimes the names were slightly abused so as to make them look and sound more real (so san serif became San Seriffe, for example). It’s probably one of the best April Fool jokes ever played. Enormous numbers of people were so convinced of the reality of San Seriffe that they even tried to book themselves holidays there, much to the confusion of their travel agents!

JANE: I love it!

And so we come full circle. We started with real place names, digressed into imaginary places in fiction, and finally we finish with an imaginary place that many people were convinced was real.

By the way, if you’ve enjoyed these Tangents, Alan has put the first series together into a free e-book.  They’re available at  I’ll eventually have them on my own website’s e-book store, too.  I’m just not as efficient as Alan!


6 Responses to “TT: Mis-Naming Imaginary Places”

  1. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    Hi. Agree with just about all of these (San Seriffe sounds like a hoot- gonna try to find the original). You *knew* I couldn’t resist this one. (greetings from George!) I felt so strongly about wanting to avoid the common scew-ups that as a tyro, I let myself get paralized. Better now, but it’s still a struggle to avoid sounding like something pulled from a Scrabble rack.

    • janelindskold Says:

      To clarify for other readers…

      Tom routinely wouldn’t name anything in his imaginary world. His friends threatened to name everything unnamed “George” in homage to the Bugs Bunny routine “and I’ll take him home and call him George…”

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Since I have a passing fondness for the Hawaiian language, I never really get bothered by the apostrophes. Since I’ve got Beckwith’s Hawaiian Mythology, I’ve also realized that writing Hawaiian names isn’t necessarily a great idea in a story. They take a bit of getting used to.

    Another bit of synchronicity around apostrophes. Yesterday, I ran across a blog entry titled: Singing Snails and Killer Whales, about snail conservation on Hawaii (or Hawai’i, if it won’t provoke Alan). follow the link if you want to find out what the snails sound like. The writer mentioned over 30 traditional songs and chants that mention the snails, with a link to ‘Olelo Hawai’i, which is where I found out about all the problems native Hawaiians have had with teaching their language and passing on their culture.

    One of the biggest problems turned out to be how to use the apostrophe in a computer. In Hawaiian, an apostrophe is a character (a glottal stop, known as ‘okina), while to a computer, the ‘okina is either punctuation, or used to delineate text strings. It took Hawaiian language advocates quite a long time to figure out how to represent their language on computers (both PC and Mac), so that they could use Hawaiian on the internet, ‘okina and all, as well as being able to search documents written in Hawaiian. Primarily, they wanted to provide easy communications between Hawaiian language schools and to link up the few remaining native speakers to the web, and they’ve overcome numerous technical problems to do so.

    Ultimately, there’s an irony here for science fiction. Due to the way the internet has redefined so many characters for their functional attributes, it seems less appropriate to use them in stories any more. Still, it seems sad if the future (or fantasy land) only use standard English characters from here on out.

    • janelindskold Says:

      By “characters” you mean computer characters, right?

      I must admit, I got a bit confused by that last paragraph.

      Here’s a question … Do those apostrophes help or hurt a reader’s appreciation for Hawaiian? Does the use of them bring a person who knows nothing of the language closer to “hearing” the language in their head when they read?

  3. heteromeles Says:

    Yes, in Hawaiian, an apostrophe is a character for a glottal stop. It’s the difference between pronouncing Hawaii (ha-why-ee) and Hawai’i (Hawai eee, with the space pronounced).

    To a computer, an apostrophe can have multiple functions, including something like “treat everything from this apostrophe to the next one as a character string for a function, instead of as text.” Some things, like web addresses, don’t accommodate apostrophes. Basically, the people programming computers to handle Hawaiian had to come up with a special character that looked just like an apostrophe, but which wasn’t read by the computer as an apostrophe. It’s not an impossible task, but it is a chore.

    Hope this makes sense.

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