Naming and Geography

Naming characters is easy. Naming places is harder, or at least can seem pretty daunting. The best way to work around this is to let art imitate life—just look at all the ways people name places as it stands!

The easiest approach is the explorer-name route—[Person’s] [Population Center Term/Landmark]. It’s concise, it’s straightforward, and there’s room for variation in both words. But after a while, it gets blasted boring, particularly when there aren’t that many explorer’s out there.

But being the founder isn’t the only way to get a name on a place. Some are named after royalty or historical figures—take states like Georgia or Washington. You don’t even need to use names if an association is strong enough; take the state of Virginia, named for Queen Elizabeth I of England. There’s conquering it; just look at all the Alexandrias scattered around the Eastern Hemisphere. Some explorers get sick of using their own names and start using other people’s instead. A location that springs up around the site of a famous battle—or a landmark that is quite literally the result of a famous battle—might be named after one of the commanders, or whoever is at fault for the landmark’s creation. And then there’s names of religious figures, particularly when the first people to hit an area are missionaries—take Southern California and its run of “San X” and “Santa Y” up and down the coast.

But let’s get off of people’s names for a while. Many other places are named for what they look like, landscape features and cities alike. Sometimes they’re direct descriptions of a location: Half Dome, for instance, or the city of Arroyo Grande (named for the ephemeral river crevice that runs through it). Others are a bit more allusive: El Cajon, or “the box” is named because it’s in a box canyon, and have you ever looked up the etymology for the Grand Tetons?

Then there’s native language influence, for places being colonized and their inhabitants. It might be some sort of misunderstanding, with someone interpreting a counter-question as an answer when asking “What do you call yourself?” or “What is this place?” Or it could be someone else editorializing; for instance, the reason why the Inuit object to being called Eskimos is that it translates to “raw meat eater”. Sometimes, a landmark will be renamed, and something else will inherit the name—the city of Tacoma, for instance, is a linguistic slip off of Tahoma, the original name for what we now call Mt. Ranier.

Other places might be named for their wildlife, the resource they were built around, or the economic activity done there. Some even manage to fit multiples at once—Palm Springs, anyone? Still others are named for holidays (explorers with religion and calendars, what can we say?). Yet others are named for the cities or countries they replaced, either literally or in the hearts of their settlers; if you can’t find one of these on your own, I’d be very surprised. And some come from what their settlers see them as, like anything with “Haven” in the name.

And some names defy immediate explanation. Sit down with a British road atlas; somewhere between Bishop’s Itchington and Chaddleworth, you’ll figure out what I mean. Where do they come up with these things?

That’s in-world. If you want to go metaworld, there’s always the fallback of using a pretty-sounding word that might be obscure enough to slip past most of your audience—Exalted players, you ever wonder why Chiaroscuro doesn’t make your spellchecker squawk?

So go out and name your cities! You’ll be amazed at how much this can help with further world-building: places lead to history, history leads to images, places lead to images and back again and the whole thing ties further into the history, and the world becomes more colorful.

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