Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Nicknames (shortening names)

Did you ever hear of a character named Ikiolaraldian Var Orkesh mis Anok'rand?

Of course not, because I made him up - but there are plenty of books out there where the character names are so complex I have difficulty pronouncing them, remembering them, etc. One of my friends typically takes any name over a certain length and remembers it by shortening it to the first syllable, just to simplify things.

My friend T.L. Morganfield works with the Aztec world, so she has to name her characters the way the Aztecs used to do it, leading to names like Acatl-tzin, etc. This is a challenge, and I've seen her take two primary approaches to it: using the names as written, when they're shorter, or translating them into their meanings, when they're so long that they become hard to parse.

Some names are not directly translatable. In English this is typically the case with first names. We've got a number of strategies for nicknaming people.

1. adding an "ee" sound to make a diminutive, which actually can make the name longer, like James (1 syllable) to Jamie (2 syllables).

2. shortening a name, like taking down Robert to Rob, or Elizabeth to Liz, Beth, Betty (two strategies there), etc.

Australia has some interesting nicknaming strategies. My favorite is the Barry->Bazza, Harry/Harold->Hazza, Larry -> Lazza pattern, which I'm less sure how to analyze, but I'm thinking it's a type of diminutive or at least an indicator of solidarity with the person in question.

Japanese also has a name-shortening strategy, which takes a name and reduces it to the first two syllables (or single long syllable), then adds a diminutive suffix. So for Mariko it would be Mari-chan, and for Michiko it's Mi'-chan (double consonant to start the chan). For males you could have Haruki becoming Haru-kun, etc.

If you're dealing with naming in a fantasy or science fiction world, you might want to ask yourself whether your population has a tendency to nickname. Depending on how your names are designed, this could be done in different ways - based on the English, Australian, Japanese
or other Earth-language pattern, or based on a pattern that fits the culture in question.

The example I'm thinking of comes from Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. The Karhidish character who befriends Genly Ai has rather a long name: Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. Fortunately, and fascinatingly, the pieces of the name have meaning, and this influences who calls him what. Therem Harth most closely matches our first and last name pattern, while rem ir Estraven is an indicator of his geographical affiliation , the land from which he comes. At first, when their relationship is entirely diplomatic, Genly Ai calls him Estraven, but after they become close, he invites Genly to call him Harth, i.e. by his last name. Difficulty arises when they attempt to communicate telepathically and discover that Genly can only refer to him as Therem in this form of communication - in part because using the first name indicates intimacy.

What is so awesome about LeGuin's approach is how each name choice means something different, and culturally specific, because of the way she's put the names together in the first place. I should also note that the names of people from Orgoreyn don't work this way, because the language and culture are different.

Naming and nicknaming don't have to be just for fun and convenience. They can also reveal a lot about the world your characters live in.

Upcoming posts at TTYU: health, worldbuilding in foreground vs. background


  1. The whole question of how a culture handles names and nicknames is pretty interesting (I'm deep into a study of Imperial Chinese naming conventions, which are... well, rather challenging because almost every relationship is associated with a different name--there's the name you take when addressing an official, the name for your good friends, the name for your literary circle...)

    T.L. Morganfield and I often run into trouble with Aztec names, because Aztec culture is a bit of an exception: the shorter the name, the more humiliating. (and, conversely, a long name means not only that your parents were thoughtful, but that you have a bunch of honorifics at the end and that you're therefore high in society. Referring to someone by a very short nickname is pretty close to an insult).
    Which is a real bother, since most civilizations (the Western World, for instance) do not think that way at all.

  2. Good to see you, Aliette, and thanks for the comment. I should have mentioned you in the main post! I can definitely see the argument for long names, inasmuch as taking time with someone's name could be considered a direct measure of your respect or fondness for them. It's unfortunate that the meanings, and the phonology, are so foreign that they become problematic for English language readers.

  3. That's a problem with a lot of things, and drawing a line between being faithful to your culture and losing your reader is still something I'm working on...