What’s in a name?

So at the writing group last week, one of my cohort read an excerpt from a novel that include a character Hilda, who’s nicknamed “Brunhilda” because she’s a brawny, burly kind of woman. This bugged the hell out of me.
The thing is, the novel isn’t set in the present or even on Earth, and there didn’t seem to be any Vikings around—so why would “Brunhilda” have the connotations it does in our world? As it turns out, the setting is alt.Europe and there are Vikings so I was wrong (the drawbacks of only hearing bits of novels in group is that it’s hard to put them together) but I think I was right on principle.
If someone were ever to ask me why characters in the Hyborian Age or Midkemia or Nehwon all speak English, I’d tell him they don’t: The writer simply translates Cimmerian (or whatever), just as with historical fantasies. When I read C.L.Mooore’s Jirel of Joiry, for instance, she’s talking medieval French of some sort, but I still read her words in English (there are a few exceptions, such as Narnia, where everyone really is speaking English).
That works fine except when the protagonists encounter “foreign” words that are recognizably from another language on our world. In one of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth books, for instance, there’s a “strega,” a witch—which is an Italian word in our world. That makes no sense as the nation she comes from isn’t Italian. Or in one of Raymond Feist’s Midkemia novels where he gives the origin for the word “buccaneer” and it’s exactly the same as it is in our world (where it’s derived from French).
Even with Vikings in my friend’s work, I’m not sure “Brunhilda” works—the connotation comes much more from Wagner, I think, than anything in Norse culture (but that may be getting picky).
As Lin Carter said in his excellent Imaginary Worlds some 40 years ago, picking any sort of a name in a fantasy world requires thought (including people, kingdoms, weapons, plant species, whatever). It has to sound right (I’ve discussed this in the context of super-hero novels). It shouldn’t be a name heavy with connotations unless you intend them: Years ago I read a comic-book with a guest character named Abdul Alhazred the Mad Arab who had nothing to do with Lovecraft’s Alhazred; it was incredibly distracting. Likewise, having someone named “Zeus” or “Julius Caesar” just because the author couldn’t think of a better name will have me wondering what, if anything, they have to do with the real figures of those names.
Goodkind may have assumed that most of his audience wouldn’t recognize the word “strega” and he might be right, but I still think it was a poor choice. It’s not such an awesome sounding word that it demands using and the witch in question was just a witch—it wasn’t as if she had some special power set that needed a special word (or that he couldn’t have coined his own “foreign” term, as he did for the Mord-Sith warrior women). Given some of his readers would probably catch it, why use it?
Feist’s choice of buccaneeer wouldn’t have bothered me (it’s a common English word, after all) but giving the origin of the word? I suspect it’s the same kind of “let me share all my historical research” impulse that led to me giving up the later series after Rise of a Merchant Prince (which reads like he’d have been happier writing a historical novel about 17th century traders).
If names don’t sound right—though we may disagree about when they do—the story isn’t going to sound right.

1 Comment

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One response to “What’s in a name?

  1. Pingback: Worlds and Names: second Imaginary Worlds post (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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