“Unpronounceable” and Other Names

Every so often, I get a reader comment about my “unpronounceable” names, and I don’t know whether to be amazed, irked, or just disappointed, because every name in every one of my books is perfectly pronounceable. The spellings may differ from “standard” usage, and many of them are derived from names or words in other languages. I’ll admit freely that I don’t use “Bob” or “George” or “Sam” or other simple “meat and potatoes” names, but there’s reason behind the names, one way or another.

“Quaeryt” – the name of the protagonist in Scholar and four subsequent Imager Portfolio books – is derived from the Latin verb “quaero,” which means to seek or to question, and, incidentally, is also the root for “question.” And Quaeryt is definitely a seeker and a questioner. The woman he loves is Vaelora, a name derived from the Latin verb meaning “to be strong,” which she certainly is.

In Quantum Shadows, Corvyn is the protagonist, and is known as the Raven or the Shadow of the Raven, and that makes sense because his name comes from the Latin “corvus,” meaning “raven,” and “Corvus” is also the species name for ravens and crows. The vast majority of names in Quantum Shadows come from or are derived from the names of deities from other cultures, which is essentially required, given that Corvyn is searching through future religious hegemonies to seek out a power that could destroy the world of Heaven.

Sometimes, I play with names. Blaine Donne is the protagonist of The Elysium Commission, and he has the last name of the poet John Donne. I sprinkled short allusions to and quotes from Donne’s poems throughout the book. Part of that was just to have fun with my editor, David Hartwell, who, in addition to being an editor and a scholar of F&SF, also had a Ph.D. in comparative medieval literature. Johan Eschbach is the protagonist of the “Ghost” books; it’s also the name of one of my ancestors. Gerswin, the main character of The Forever Hero, has a special musical talent, and guess where his name, modified slightly, came from?

In the Recluce Saga, variations on names sometimes get passed down through the generations, just as in our world, but even there, I occasionally steal. The co-protagonist of The Towers of the Sunset is Megaera. I stole her name from Greek mythology, where Megaera is one of the Furies, known as the jealous one… and “my” Megaera is definitely furious and jealous of her sister.

I don’t know how other authors come up with names, but there’s almost always a reason for those I choose, beyond the fact that a name sounds good… and the names are all pronounceable, even if they don’t appear in American/English lists of names.

6 thoughts on ““Unpronounceable” and Other Names”

  1. Matt M says:

    I find a lot of it depends on the culture the reader comes from. I’m Canadian, and I grew up in an area where we have street names and other institution names derived from English, French, various Aboriginal names as well as various Asian or other European cultures.

    I find that makes it a lot easier to pronounce names, just because of the exposure to so many different ways to spell and pronounce things… but a lot of the US doesn’t have that cross of culture.

  2. Chris says:

    I don’t mind the “unpronounceable” names, and generally feel it lends to the feeling of a different world. If I were to wish for a change, it would just be a pronunciation guide / dictionary appendix. I very frequently find myself tripping over a name or word, wondering if I’ve imagining it the way you indended.

    Also, thank you for Quantum Shadows. While learning and getting into a new world slows down my reading, I really do enjoy it because of the details you provide.

  3. Bill says:

    I think it’s just the fascination with the letter ‘Y’. I attribute this to an obvious rabid Lynyrd Skynyrd fanship.

  4. Andy Finkel says:

    I like the way you play with the spellings of common names. I remember realizing I was mentally mispronouncing pronunciation “Cerryl” until he attended a banquet where they had place cards with the phonetic
    spellings of the guests’s names. (they spelled it out something like “Karl”)

  5. Franklyn Hamsher says:

    Part of the problem may be because what is taught as part of the general education has narrowed over the years. Those of us from earlier generations had a passing glance at least into classic mythology with its exposure to Greek and, Latin. French, Spanish, German all were part of a basic understanding of why spelling English (or American English) was such a chore. Then along came phonics – a foul curse word to those old style teachers who had to make the shift. (For goodness sake don’t mention passive voice.) Spell & grammar checkers – yeech! (Spellcheck rejects that but it stays.)

    Unfortunately, having just missed taking Latin or Greek as required subjects in American High School, my ability to parse your “unpronounceable names” is a challenge, but keep them coming anyway.

    I haven’t yet sorted out how your names for the days of a week, but I suspect they have to do with a 10 day week, as your use of time periods seem to be marked by divisions of 1/10 per period like the lawyers 6 minute charging blocks.

  6. Gabriel says:

    Speaking of unpronounceable names, I’ll simply mention H.P. Lovecraft. Despite his flaws, personal and otherwise, I rather enjoy many of his stories. My stepfather, a university physiology instructor, indirectly introduced me to the author when he told that H.P.L. was a favorite of his when he was young. I purchased all the stories for him as a Christmas gift when I was a teenager and, naturally, had to read them. Poe was a favorite of both myself and my stepfather. I later went on to other precursors of H.P.L. and the stories of many of his so-called “Circle”, but I digress.

    To get back on the topic, I too appreciate the explanation of your name choices Mr. Modesitt, though I don’t know that some of my pronunciatons are quite correct. I simply go with what flows in some cases.

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