How to Name Locations During Worldbuilding

Hilarious Miscommunications

There’s, like, half a dozen rivers named Avon in the UK, and do you know why? Avon means river in Ancient Celtic. These Roman pieces of shit wandered in and were taking stock of the shit they now owned and they’d see a river and they’d go up to a local and they’d be like, ‘Hey, mate, what do you call that river over there?’ in their broken-ass Ancient Celtic or – far more likely – very slow and very loud Latin, and the Celts they asked would look at each other and shrug their shoulders and then say, “That’s a fucking river, moron.” And the Romans would look at each other be all, ‘Damn, that’s the eighth one named Avon this week, why don’t these people name their rivers right.’ But they weren’t paid enough to investigate further.

There’s also been rumors that both ‘kangaroo’ and ‘Yucatan’ actually roughly translate to ‘I don’t know,’ as in:

White settler: Hey, what do you guys call that thing? (pointing)

Indigenous native: I’ve told you before, I have no idea what you’re saying.

White settler: ‘Pima.’ Got it, thanks.

Indigenous native: Who the fuck is this guy?

While these stories are most likely fake, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use this situation in your own writing, especially if you have multiple societies interacting with each other and you’re one of these buckwild people who craft individual languages.

Bonus points if you never, ever specifically point out that that some town name in Society A actually means What the fuck are you talking about? in Society B’s language, and instead just like that little tidbit simmer. Until twenty years later when someone figures it out on their own and tweets about it and suddenly your novel is getting fresh interest and sales because some nerd cracked your secret code.

Nearby Natural Features

I know, I know. We all want our fiction town and city names to mean something. To be interpreted. To add an extra layer to the world building and signal something to the reader. And sometimes – a lot of the time, probably – this is the route you want to take, especially if the location is integral to the plot.

On the other hand, the capitol of Utah is Salt Lake City. Because there’s a big fucking salt lake nearby.

Guess what you can find in Big Lake, Minnesota?

Or what sort of trees grow in Aspen, Colorado?

I think naming a few of your locations like this adds a certain taste of reality to your story. Unless the world you’re creating has, like, a team of writers and creators whose sole purpose is to give every single location a meaningful and layered name, sometimes you’re going to need to toss in a Cliffside or a Seabreeze or a Big Oaks because once upon a time a bunch of exhausted travelers gave up the ghost and decided to make town next to a bunch of shady trees.

What Used To Be There

You know what’s even better than a town called Big Oaks surrounded by a bunch of oak trees? A town called Big Oaks that doesn’t have a single oak tree in sight.

Where did the trees go? Were they torn down? Did they die? Did the people who name this place want to plant oak trees but it they sucked at planting trees and none of them took? Is the town actually surrounded by maple trees and the people who named the town had no fucking idea?

The possibilities are endless!

Name Everything After Some Invading POS That is Super Dead and Maybe Never Even Went There

For a country that fought a pretty bitter war so that its people didn’t have to give a shit about royal weddings or funerals or whatever, there sure are a lot of places in the United States named after English royalty. French royalty, too, now that I think about it. And then there’s a bunch of counties that actually have ‘King’ or ‘Prince’ in the actual name. There’s a whole ass county in Virginia (named after Queen Elizabeth I) called King and Queen County. Did any of these people ever come to the US?

If your world contains a colonizing situation and you’re stuck trying to figure out what to name your eighth town today, name it anything and claim it’s the name of some stuffy, dead royal who never even saw the lands he (or she! #girlboss) stole.

Pure Vibes

This one is by far the most important.

You’ve got the primary location for your story, and you’ve picked a name. On almost all levels, it is perfect. Not only does it reference a super important battle that happened in one of your protagonist’s backstory, it also cleverly means sad song in Russian which is a running theme of your story and also your grandmother spoke Russian. This town name has everything.

And you hate it.

It doesn’t stick in your mind. Or, it does stick in your mind but primarily because of how angry you get every time you think of it. It’s perfect, it should work! Why doesn’t it work?

It’s the vibes. The vibes are all wrong. It’s got a beat you can’t dance to. The city is in the south, it’s hot there all the time, but this name you’ve picked makes you feel cold and dark. Or you’re primarily dealing with the city at night, following the creatures lurking in the shadows, and this otherwise perfect name is simply too happy and bright.

Just because you can’t pin down exactly why you don’t like a name you have chosen doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. My best piece of advice, though, is to sit with for a couple of weeks. Use it, get used to typing it and seeing it in print. Sometimes, after repeated use, it becomes the exact right name through association.

But after two weeks if it still doesn’t sit right dump it in the trash. This is your world you’re creating and you’re not at the point yet where you have to think about attracting agents and publishers and readers. You’re writing for you, so if you don’t like it, fuck it.

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