Friday 10 November 2023

The Obliqueness of Real World Place Names

RPG setting designers tend to adopt one of three approaches to place names. The first is just to come up with made-up assortments of syllables arranged to make a pleasing and evocative sound: Allansia; Al Qadim; New Crobuzon.

The second, I think generally more effective, approach is to use place names that actually mean something: The Misty Mountains, Cloud City, King's Landing. 

The third, I think least effective, one is to deploy names that break the fourth wall by imagining the inhabitants of a place to have deliberately given it a 'cool' name: Bloodhand Gap, Moon's Spawn, Fang.

When you think about real world place names, though, what is most noticeable about them (certainly in Britain) is their strange obliqueness. It is not as though they are a bundle of made-up sounds; but nor very often do they quite make sense when imagined as standalone English phrases. They are like something Tolkien would have made up, but squinted at through a pane of translucent glass, so that they become misshapen and strange. Here, for example, are some names of places from the countryside not far from where I live:

Howly Winter

The Dimples

Kitten Tom

Benty Band


Candlesleve Sikes

Cockshot Wood

Featherstone Rowfoot

Pyke Dyke

Far Town

Wool House


Spout Bog

Plunder Heath

Humble Dodd

Pudgment Hill

Piper's Drone

Tudhump Holm

Drowning Holes

Pedler's Grave

Limestone Gears

Howlerhirst Crags

Deer Play


Yes, you can imagine why 'Wool House' would end up being a place name, and perhaps also 'Pyke Dyke' and 'Drowning Holes' (something dark is hinted at there). But most of the rest of the list inhabits a kind of limbo - almost making sense but not quite.

This is I think partly likely a result of an Anglicization of pre-existing Celtic names; hearing the locals refer to such-and-such a place with a Celtic word, the Anglo-Saxons would have heard something which to their ear sounded different, and over time would have developed a pronunciation which sounded familar to them. Hence we get the almost-English quality of 'Kitten Tom' or 'Sillywrea'.

But it is also simply the case that the real world has an impossibly rich history, and place names are produced by a continual layering of events, dialectal changes, population shifts and deliberate choices, one of top of the other, over the ages. A human author or game designer doesn't have a hope in hell of emulating this - there is not a DM in the world who would think to call a village 'Howly Winter' - and as a result there is generally something deeply dissatisfying about the names we tend to come up with. The best way to get around this is obviously just to grab a map (DEFRA's magic map is a good place to start) and start plundering.


  1. Two road names from where I grew up in rural Colorado:
    Graysmerrygreenwood (all ran together like that)

    1. Reminds me of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.

    2. We have Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg in Massachusetts. It supposedly means “You fish on your side, I’ll fish on my side, and nobody fishes in the middle.”

  2. The linguistic phenomenon you're describing (Anglicization of Celtic names) is called "assimilation", my favourite example being one that you may also appreciate, namely the story of how the Nahuatl "ahuacatl" ("testicle") fruit was originally transliterated to Spanish as "aguacate" but, upon contact with the Spanish public, was assimilated to the existing (now archaic) Spanish word "avocado" ("advocate", i.e., a lawyer). Today Spanish lawyers are "abogados", but the path by which the testicle fruit became a lawyer is instructive.

    I'm trying to think of an example of assimilation in fantasy fiction or RPGs: I'm sure I've run across one or two examples of words in non-human languages being assimilated to English slang in fiction, but in RPGs that sort of thing tends to crop up in those "slang dictionaries" you'll sometimes encounter at the end of a rulebook from the 90s. "Hoi chummer your warez are wiz" and so on.

    1. Ha! Nice. Yeah, I knew there would be a word for it.

  3. So true. A small part of my job involves UK local placename-related data, including lists I've been looking at for years; I still spot new, weird names that my brain insists I've never seen before.

    Contrasting placenames in UK and North America is a fascinating exercise, because a great many names across the continent were only "named" (by colonisers etc) in the 18th or 19th Century. Some of those do "break the fourth wall", wearing their authorial intent on their sleeve.

    Others are obviously anglicisations of indigenous names or words, but you don't get many whose meaning is truly lost or obscure in the same way English names can be.

    There's something here to consider when naming places in a setting that has been conquered, or recently discovered and mapped by explorers, or where an indigenous culture has been displaced.

    Mount Erebus sounds like a "cool" name, but it turns out it was named after the 2nd HMS Erebus, one of the vessels used in Ross' Antarctic expedition. The Erebus was originally a mortar vessel, and may have been named after a previous HMS Erebus, a rocket vessel (of "And the rockets' red glare" fame). The 1st Erebus was probably named thus because it was cool, though, and Royal Navy admins were probably the wargamer nerds of the late 18th Century.

    1. Yeah, it's worth remembering also that a lot of New World place names derive from monarchs and whatnot.

    2. Supposedly a lot of Massachusetts named that are the same as English towns and cities are due to Charles I bring given a map with native names and then he went and crossed them out and gave them the names of his friends and cities.

  4. There's a village somewhere in Darkest England called Olleny Edge (sp?) because once upon a time, the stage stopped there, next to the Hole in the Hedge. That's always tickled me.

  5. Americas got place names like Death Valley, Apocalypse Peaks (Alaska), Rattlesnake Mountain(I think theres a few). Theres also got to be an exapmle of someone just making up something meaningless that sounds cool for a place name, but I cant find examples.

    1. Good point. Sometimes people actually do do that.

    2. Truth and Consequences New Mexico

  6. I'd say that in Spain we are used to the "made-up assortments of syllables" the overlap of pre-Roman names (often non indo-european), with Latin, then Arabic, then Spanish and other Iberian languages creates names that don't seem to mean anything and their etymlogy remains obscure trivia for specialists if known at all, the place I live in now may come from a word for "valley" or from the name of the god Baal, but the word itself is meaningless. But there is also some obliqueness when by sheer chance the result of the mishmash has the same form than a that wouldn't usually be a place name such as Ronda ("assault"), Monda ("peel"), or Marbella ("beautiful sea", yes it is a coincidence). We even have records of cities not letting their names evolve, like Cordova, that would've become Cuerva (crow) or Merida, that would have turned into Mierda (shit). But then again we also have villages and towns with names (translated into English) like Ironbridge, Stinky Water, Upper Fights and Lower Fights. But in the end what I mean is that I am so used to place names not meaning anything at first glance that I'm more or less comfortable with option one, although we can always do better.

    1. A comparative study across different European countries would be very interesting.

  7. Here in the states, besides a lot of anglicizations of Native American words, we have a ridiculous amount of places named for people -- explorers, town founders, local bigwigs, and what-have-you. I suppose that probably happens everywhere, but it seems especially prevalent in North America (or perhaps the Americas collectively, or maybe anywhere with a colonial history). In any case, it seems a lot less colorful than those cryptic UK place-names.

    1. Same in Australia, where almost everywhere seems to be called Stewart or Stuart or Sturt...

  8. I think for my games that I run I'm always going to use earth places from now on. Not necessarily the cultures but the names and the landscapes. I might as well use my games to learn actual geography. There are so many places and names and all the work making history that provides naming cohesion is already done for me.

  9. The Meaning of Liff is a good resource for finding/making up place names.

  10. This immediately made me think of the star system/planet names in classic Traveller. It was as if after a while Humaniti (Traveller canon spelling) either ran out of names or thought they were being clever.

    In addition to typical Science-Fiction names, from the modern approach Beta Regilis to the outlandish Naxx-Iygo, the Corridor Sector has Antiquity (a world of Ancients ruins), Six Lights (multiple star system with brightly lit gas giants), and Darkmoon (a world dark moon). : )

  11. I’ve always been fond of rural English placenames – they have a kind of incantatory poetry to them. A few from the area around me –

    • Teigngrace
    • Nadderwater
    • Ogwell
    • Maidencombe
    • Highweek
    • Woodhuish
    • Burlestone
    • Batworthy
    • Holy City (a village of about thirty houses)
    • Hookway
    • Seven Crosses
    • Little Silver

    All, I think, would work perfectly well as fantasy village names!

    1. I particularly like collecting the rude ones personally. There are a surprising number of places that are named something phallic for a start!

      Sfw favourites are Wittering and Bucklebury which both sound tolkienesque to me.

  12. I mean of course, given the examples to build a vibe off of, we can come up with "Howly Winter" type names

    - Frowshire
    - Prax-upon-Slough
    - Drayfor
    - Crowspocket
    - Grosmarket
    - Tendedd
    - Falxire
    - Beaughon
    - Ossfide
    - Tentickit
    - Walfside
    - Hundseight
    - Devhook
    - Egg Knact
    - Rocken Plow
    - Sunmind
    - Holarbor
    - Falls Down
    - Chalk-to-Clowd
    - Benchmill
    - Wocksitte
    - Fuwlan
    - Toothy Heath
    - Dogs Biscuit
    - Knownt
    - Tea-and-Wander
    - Lode Sill
    - Nakkerwood
    - Tore-Down
    - Barnhouse
    - Snailersannan
    - Averewoter
    - Wereightshide
    - Rox-in
    - Doggsfurow
    - Mulch
    - Graygrows
    - Heightpoll
    - Headpike
    - Cloverchide
    - Autumn As
    - Flerchilde
    - Killer
    - Sowsfoot
    - Foolship
    - Dyesoon
    - Hat-for-Lord
    - Twos Beckon
    - Cheesely
    - Icecrik
    - Drumpsly
    - Redwin Tick
    - Nonnsberg

  13. I read a book once about Wayfinding which described how certain cultures skilled in it are losing their cultural knowledge of how to wayfind, one of these was a detailed knowledge of landmarks. Oftentimes the names given were simply descriptive, humourous (Boob island, Penis hill, deer dropping cliff etc) or described an event or activity there (Old Bobs Winter Camping clearing, the rock with the nice view, the salmon trap). I like to think of names which could be used, because why name anything otherwise?

  14. Well that's rural England. Rural Maine place names are generally some of the most boring shit imaginable. Hey look! Another Long Pond!

  15. In Québec, there's usually about only a few naming schemes for things: name it after a Saint, name it something related to French or British culture/places, name it after a historical figure or use some word in one of the native languages. The Saint-Something naming scheme is especially common, with a common joke that the longer the name of a place, the more remote it is.

    So St-Thérese (Saint Theresa) is a fairly large urban agglomeration close to one of the province two urban centers, but if I was to name a place Saint-Michel-du-Nord-du-Mont-des-Vents-Sur-Le-Lac, it would be so remote it would have 200 inhabitants with inbreeding in the middle of the wilderness. Anything more remote would start being written in Inuit, with too many 'q' and 'u' and 'k'.

  16. Many places in the UK are like Breedon-on-the-hill, which is Hillhill-on-the-hill in the various languages of these islands. Each new group of conquerors came along and noted the hill.

    I quite like when DMs opt for a mix of both these approaches - "ah this is Karandak, which means The Bleeding Mountain in the tongue of the Orcs, for the red tinge of its waters..."

  17. In your given examples, not sure about the origin of Allansia, but Fang (which is the city of Deathtrap Dungeon in the same Fighting Fantasy world) is a real provincial town in Thailand and was borrowed, along with the names Chiang Mai, Sukumvit, and (Bang)Kok after Sir Ian Livingstone, author of Deathtrap Dungeon, went backpacking there in the early 80s I guess on the profits from the early success of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series. Steve Jackson (UK) did something similar, and went to Nepal, which is why his four volume Sorcery! sequence (also FF) features loads of vaguely Nepalese name.