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Author Topic: The Meaning of Words in Homebrew Worlds  (Read 871 times)
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« on: January 04, 2017, 12:16:55 PM »

Hi everyone - this thread is intended as a discussion on words you apply to things (people, creatures, places, titles, etc.) in your homebrews, but that already have historical significance in our own world. As a most recent example I name August, which derives from Augustus, a name Octavius Caesar, the adopted son of Caesar who was able to become ruler of the Roman world after the death of the latter, gave himself and that later was given to his successors, as Caesar was. (And we could go on about these two words and how they were employed during the span of the Roman Empire.) The word has great historical relevance.

So, I have a strongman in my own homebrew that rules over a vast realm. I'd like to refer to him as His Majesty, or His Excellency, or His Holiness, or August Emperor, or a lot of titles that, obviously, have already been taken in the real world. How do I go about creating a word that looks prestigious to use as a title without copying something already made? Or is it that I don't yet understand that it's common wisdom among writers of this age that, however hard you try, you just can't invent anything anymore, so just do that thing that already exists? How do you proceed to create words that look like they have meaning and hold considerable prestige, but that are completely custom?

And I speak here of titles, because admittedly it's what's blocking me most when I write (I go from top to bottom in my creation process), but the thread also applies to naming places. And people. How do you name the steppes under a sun so burning hot you can die easily from dehydration? The Burning Steppes? Isn't that something that already exists in World of Warcraft? The Scorching Steppes? The Flaming Steppes? If that hasn't been used, then I must say I understand why. It kind of... doesn't look good. What about naming the races, and its individuals? Cheap fantasy names from made up languages like Arathil, Nien'man, and other elvish/dwarfish things like that I find absolutely repulsive. (I might, however, abandon hope and proceed to using this method...) So, how does one come up with elegant names?

I understand a lot of it comes down to imagination and creativity and if I lack that, well... ''you just ain't gonna make it''. But is there something, a trick of some kind, a formula perhaps, to come up with something good when naming things in Homebrews?

Not sure if this makes any sense the way I'm explaining this. But I hope it'll generate some discussion and help me with what I think is the most difficult part of world creation.
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« Reply #1 on: January 04, 2017, 03:19:59 PM »

Magnus Pym

How do you proceed to create words that look like they have meaning and hold considerable prestige, but that are completely custom?
I think one important thing you can do is to establish the context in the setting, and then use the word consistently within that context, so it starts to hold meaning to your audience. Giving your fictional word a very similar etymology to the actual term can also help, because then the historical allusions will be able to connect to your own history. For example, in Asura, the ruler of the nation of Latoria is called the Ashina. She has this title because a very powerful ruler a long time ago was named Ashina, so the title has parallels to Caesar. It generally only took one session for players to be completely comfortable with the title and use naturally, because it then had meaning to them. There's a small initial hurdle, but if you present your material right, you can make it a pretty small hurdle.
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« Reply #2 on: January 04, 2017, 03:38:29 PM »

sparkletwist

Magnus Pym

How do you proceed to create words that look like they have meaning and hold considerable prestige, but that are completely custom?
I think one important thing you can do is to establish the context in the setting, and then use the word consistently within that context, so it starts to hold meaning to your audience. Giving your fictional word a very similar etymology to the actual term can also help, because then the historical allusions will be able to connect to your own history. For example, in Asura, the ruler of the nation of Latoria is called the Ashina. She has this title because a very powerful ruler a long time ago was named Ashina, so the title has parallels to Caesar. It generally only took one session for players to be completely comfortable with the title and use naturally, because it then had meaning to them. There's a small initial hurdle, but if you present your material right, you can make it a pretty small hurdle.

I'm glad you could get to the crux of the matter directly. I wasn't sure I had explained my concern properly, but looks like I did.

So then, let me go further into the example you've provided. Another concern of mine was that it remains to be known why Ashina was chosen. Is it a sort of Asian-ish word that appealed to you? If you type it in Google, you see it's an ancient Turkic people that was important at the time. Did this historical fact even come into consideration when you made your choice? Or did the word simply roll out of your tongue and you decided that was it? If indeed you thought there was an appeal because of the ancient Turkic thing, did you seek another word or really sat on this one right off the bat? And furthermore in the same vein, if it's relevant, does this Ashina person and his people share similarities with the ancient Turkic tribe?
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« Reply #3 on: January 04, 2017, 04:04:38 PM »

I think a lot of this depends on what kind of feel you want to cultivate. I often like my worlds to feel sort of baroque and strange and uncanny, so I tend to avoid made-up words and repurpose rarely used ones, and sometimes I like to come at names sideways - so rather than naming something an obvious thing I name it something adjacent to or somehow related to the thing.

So, for example, in the setting I'm DMing right now there's a section of the city that's basically the gnomes' quarter, and also the mechanists' quarter - a big, whirring, clockwork, steampunk morass of machines. I could have named it Gnomehome or Clockwork Row or something, but instead I went with "Mainspring." Or when I was coming up with a name for a rival city to Hex, the wizardly city-state I've set the game in, I looked for esoteric words that would convey that rivalry somehow, so I went with "Tetractys," a Greek word referring to a triangular figure of ten points in four rows, with mystical significance - it's a weird, old word that feels genuine rather than made-up, which also connotes magic and geometry, much like "Hex" does.

For Burning/Flaming/Scorching Steppes, I would go one of several ways. One might be to add an extra word in, to make the adjective a new compound word - so, like the Firewraith Steppes or the Sunbloat Steppes or the Burntbone Steppes or the Scorch-Skin Steppes, or something like that. The other might be to find an adjective that evokes something similar but without being quite so obvious. Like, salamanders in folklore are fire elementals or are associated with fire, so how about the Salamander Steppes? Surely there are other qualities that these Steppes have than being hot that could lend them their name.

For "August," how about Magisterial or Dread?

In general, I feel like words like Excellency or Majesty are fair game in ways that something like August isn't, since August is derived from a very specific person while a word like Majesty just comes from the Latin for "great."

EDIT: For species names I usually go for compound or repurposed names as well, if I'm inventing something without a mythic cognate. Leechkin, Hagmen, Shade, Waspkin, Fungoid. For personal names, for human or near-human characters I'll frequently emulate Peake or Dickens. A few surnames for NPCs in my current game: Wolfsheart, Sullengrove, Gravewort, Redbell, Wren, Yowl, Snuff, Crutch, Skewstone, Sickle, Nettlecrave.
« Last Edit: January 04, 2017, 07:20:44 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #4 on: January 04, 2017, 04:39:38 PM »

Thank you for the tips - Steerpike. Also, kickass names. The Hex thing and all, brilliant.
« Last Edit: January 04, 2017, 04:48:38 PM by Magnus Pym » Logged


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« Reply #5 on: January 04, 2017, 05:15:33 PM »

Magnus Pym

Another concern of mine was that it remains to be known why Ashina was chosen. Is it a sort of Asian-ish word that appealed to you? If you type it in Google, you see it's an ancient Turkic people that was important at the time. Did this historical fact even come into consideration when you made your choice? Or did the word simply roll out of your tongue and you decided that was it?
The creation of the title in the real world actually paralleled the fictional etymology. I came up with the person named Ashina first, and later on, as I was writing history and establishing her importance in the setting, I liked the sound of her name and decided to give it broader historical significance when I wanted a unique title for the ruler of the nation, rather than just using "Queen" or something generic. Basically, I was having some of the same problems you were, I think. I actually have developed the Midvaran language fairly significantly so I then came up with a whole etymology for the name itself, but that came later. Oh, and I was unaware of the ancient Turkic people, so any similarities with them are just coincidental.

Steerpike

I tend to avoid made-up words and repurpose rarely used ones
This works well, too, although if you choose an obscure enough word then a lot of people are just going to think you made it up anyway. For example, going back to my own setting again, there have been quite a few people that I introduced it to that didn't know that "Asura" was an actual word, and thought it was just some euphonious thing I made up. I guess it works either way, really. Something fun you could do along those lines is create words out of actual morphemes that sound like they could be actual obscure words but aren't. That would make it easier to convey cultural connotations, too, although you have to take care that your word doesn't unintentionally mean something ridiculous in the original language.
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« Reply #6 on: January 04, 2017, 07:26:26 PM »

sparkletwist

This works well, too, although if you choose an obscure enough word then a lot of people are just going to think you made it up anyway.

That is definitely true, although usually it will still have a semi-familiar feel etymologically, as opposed to a made-up word. This is why Tolkien's names actually tend to ring surprisingly true despite being mostly made-up: he invented the languages they came from, so he isn't just stringing syllables together. There are some other purely made-up names in fantasy/SF that work pretty well, but I think they're outweighed by those that don't.
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« Reply #7 on: January 04, 2017, 09:04:14 PM »

You could also pick a seemingly arbitrary or strange title and work backwards in deciding why, in your setting, this title is important. If you have an empire where the ruler is bestowed with the title First Fisher, it may seem weird. But if that empire grow from a few scattered fishing villages, it makes more sense and is unique to your settting.
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« Reply #8 on: January 05, 2017, 05:15:49 AM »

Personally I don't see any problem with using names or titles from the real world at all!
Obviously it could get a bit grating if the capital of the world-spanning empire in your steampunk setting is called London or something but on a smaller scale, implemented intelligently, I think it can actually help as a kind of shorthand form of description in a way.
Like, in Dark Silver, most personal names are actual real-world names from history, and for the Grimdowners they're drawn from Viking and Anglo-Saxon names, the idea being that hopefully players would initially encounter Grimdowners and be, consciously or not, encouraged by the culture's naming conventions to imagine a kind of "Vikingy" feel to them.
Not that Grimdowners are meant as direct analogues of either Vikings or Anglo-Saxons, but there is a shared aesthetic that I wanted to evoke and I thought borrowing the real-world naming conventions helped to do that. Similarly some other words they use - thane for a noble chieftain for example, or gedriht for his household warriors - are borrowed directly from the real world.
Of course this isn't always going to be appropriate or the best idea, but I just wanted to say you shouldn't be put off using real-world names or terms. They can definitely make sense in some circumstances. You just have to accept and embrace the fact that they will come with certain baggage attached to them, based on their real-world significance, that a purely invented name wouldn't - but it's totally possible to use that to your advantage!
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« Reply #9 on: January 05, 2017, 02:02:19 PM »

There's definitely an art in finding the balance between the hamfisted and the nuanced in names that evoke a particular something.
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« Reply #10 on: January 05, 2017, 06:59:59 PM »

Steerpike

That is definitely true, although usually it will still have a semi-familiar feel etymologically, as opposed to a made-up word. This is why Tolkien's names actually tend to ring surprisingly true despite being mostly made-up: he invented the languages they came from, so he isn't just stringing syllables together. There are some other purely made-up names in fantasy/SF that work pretty well, but I think they're outweighed by those that don't.
I know what you mean, and I think what you're getting at is that the key is that the words have a relatively consistent phonology and morphology due to having actual linguistic rules behind them, regardless of whether those rules are from a natural language or a constructed one. It seems to me that most of the names in fantasy/SF that do not work are usually just random combinations of letters thrown together, either blandly following the rules for English phonology or intentionally breaking them in a way that is stupid. The typical example of the latter is an alien language looking "alien" just because it uses lots of q's and x's and consonant clusters that don't exist in English, or whatever, and of course lots of apostrophes that don't have any meaning.

Kindling

Personally I don't see any problem with using names or titles from the real world at all!
Obviously it could get a bit grating if the capital of the world-spanning empire in your steampunk setting is called London or something but on a smaller scale, implemented intelligently, I think it can actually help as a kind of shorthand form of description in a way.
One other concern is to make sure that your "shorthand" doesn't encompass any sort of stereotypes or whatever other historical nastiness that may give your names connotations that you didn't intend, which may possibly be offensive to people who actually have connections to that culture. This is a problem with purely invented words, too, if your invented word happens to mean something offensive in some language, but it can be an even greater problem when you're actually taking real words with a cultural context. I think we're all careful of that kind of thing around here, but it never hurts to mention as a potential thing to be aware of.
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« Reply #11 on: January 05, 2017, 08:39:47 PM »

sparkletwist

I think what you're getting at is that the key is that the words have a relatively consistent phonology and morphology due to having actual linguistic rules behind them, regardless of whether those rules are from a natural language or a constructed one. It seems to me that most of the names in fantasy/SF that do not work are usually just random combinations of letters thrown together, either blandly following the rules for English phonology or intentionally breaking them in a way that is stupid. The typical example of the latter is an alien language looking "alien" just because it uses lots of q's and x's and consonant clusters that don't exist in English, or whatever, and of course lots of apostrophes that don't have any meaning.

Yeah, exactly.

sparkletwist

One other concern is to make sure that your "shorthand" doesn't encompass any sort of stereotypes or whatever other historical nastiness that may give your names connotations that you didn't intend, which may possibly be offensive to people who actually have connections to that culture.

This is an interesting point, do you have an example in mind?
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« Reply #12 on: January 06, 2017, 05:47:44 AM »

sparkletwist

One other concern is to make sure that your "shorthand" doesn't encompass any sort of stereotypes or whatever other historical nastiness that may give your names connotations that you didn't intend, which may possibly be offensive to people who actually have connections to that culture.

I suppose this is part of what I meant by implementing it intelligently. If you make sure you're using the real-world word's intellectual, cultural and emotional baggage to achieve what you wanted it to achieve this should never be an issue. It'll only be offensive if you have intended it to be offensive.
So if the officers in your setting's order of Lawful Good paladins use Waffen-SS ranks you'd better have a very good reason beyond "they're just cool-sounding military titles." But as long as you have that reason, and have thought sufficiently about the kind of gut reactions players might have when confronted with Hauptsturmfuhrer Lancelot in his gilded plate armour, then you know... you have chosen, thoughtfully, to provoke those reactions, so you're kind of successfully achieving your design goals I suppose!
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« Reply #13 on: January 06, 2017, 11:17:53 AM »

Kindling

Hauptsturmfuhrer Lancelot in his gilded plate armour

The Matter of Britain as told through WWII is kind of an amazing idea. Arthur as a Churchillian war-hero. Lancelot would be French, part of the Resistance. Obviously the Knights of the Round Table need to get the grail before the Nazis. Mordred is a German spy. In the oldest source material Arthur is constantly fighting Saxons anyway, and invades Rome.
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« Reply #14 on: January 06, 2017, 05:33:12 PM »

Steerpike

This is an interesting point, do you have an example in mind?
White Wolf is probably full of this stuff, because they tried to be all "edgy" and as often as not just ended up being tactless. So there are probably multiple examples if you go delving through their stuff, but one that came to mind was specifically their use of the term "jyhad." Granted, this was pre-9/11, but even in the 90's jihad was a term that had different connotations to different people, and terrorism and Islamophobia were still important issues, so I think they could have thought this through a bit more. Using a quirky spelling just made the whole thing even more dumb. Eventually, they renamed the Jyhad card game to "Vampire: the Eternal Struggle" so I think even they eventually got the hint.
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