This is RPG-ology #54: Names, for May 2022.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Names, and is reproduced here with minor edits [bracketed].
A related subject was addressed previously in this series in RPG-ology #6: Name Ideas Unlimited three years ago, but this article tackles a different set of ideas.
What’s in a name? Seth Ben-Ezra asked this question a few months back when he was Dreaming Out Loud [a series on the design of Legends of Alyria that existed at Gaming Outpost at the time], but I’d already drafted these thoughts, and maybe this is a different take on the question.
We have another cat (besides the one mentioned a few weeks ago). She is called Targ. She is surprisingly vicious–seemingly content at being petted, she will suddenly strike like a snake, her sharp teeth digging into the kind hand. She has been declawed, front and rear, because she would scratch. I would like to tell you that she is named after that wild creature Klingons keep as pets–but it isn’t true. She was rescued from the animal shelter (already declawed), where no one but my wife would take her due to her nasty habits, and came with the name Target.
Maybe the name explains her nasty disposition. That’s more than I know. But I was intrigued by the fact that her nickname fit her so well, despite having no connection whatsoever with that other word.
I’m about to do something pastors are always warned against: I’m going to use my children as examples. Well, I’m not a pastor. I hope they’ll forgive me anyway.
My eldest son, Ryan, picked up the nickname Torro. I’ve never known quite why–but I do know that the name stuck. Parents of his friends used it, to distinguish him from another Ryan among his peers.
Since moving to this new school district, Kyler has taken to trying to convince all of his teachers that there is an umlaut over the y, Kÿler (I hope that shows up in your browser). He explains that it has that u/e sound found in German and French but not English, and that it should be pronounced killer. Apparently some people have accepted this.
These two eldest of my sons call the third brother “B. J.” Call me dense, but it took a while before I realized that Tristan Cory John Young does not have the initial “B.” anywhere in it. I had to get an explanation for this; I’m told it stands for “Baby Jeesahn”. O.K., so the third child probably gets harassed a bit–the first words he ever spoke were not Mama or Dada or Wawa, but, “Stop it, stop it, stop it!”
These nicknames all have explanations. I don’t know all of them, but those I know are not at all intuitive–that is, without the explanation you might imagine they came from something else. I never called any of my sons by the nicknames by which they are known.
In the early nineteen-fifties Mark was not so common a name; you heard it once in a while, but rarely. Then there was a soap opera star (and I don’t even know if it was the actor or the character) given that name, and by the time I got to school there were half a dozen of that name in my class. People use to ask my mother whether I was named for that character; I was not–my mother never watched soap operas. It seems when she was carrying me, her boss had her searching high and low through a storage closet for some supplies, and it was too much for her. An elderly co-worker informed the boss that she could not safely do that in her condition, and arranged for her to be taken home for the rest of the day. His name was Mark Kelly, and I was named for him, although he never knew it. Whether he was transferred or forced into retirement, he was gone before I was born.
And that got me thinking about character names, and about character nicknames.
Ever hear the fable about the tailor who “killed seven with one blow”? It was a remarkable feat, and all the giants feared him when they read that embroidered on his jacket. They didn’t know he meant seven flies. Names can be deceptive.
Place names can be like this, too; they can be derived from the most surprising things.
One of the major back roads around here is called Burnt Mill Road. Think about that for a moment. Probably at one time before it was considered necessary for country roads to have street names everyone use to give directions by saying, “Take the road out past where the old mill burned down,” and eventually they called the road that. Maybe one person in a thousand traveling that long road has any clue where the mill was, or when it burned down, but they know the road–the history has left the name there.
The local hospital I mentioned recently is at an intersection known as Pointers Corner. For quite a few years after I moved here I wondered who Pointer was; after all, it seemed obvious that Slapes Corner four miles up the road from there was named for the nearest farmer, so there seemed to be a pattern. But before it was called Pointers Corner it was just called The Pointers; and if you saw it on an old map, you might notice that at that point three roads merged into one in such fashion that it appeared as an arrow pointing toward the county seat two miles beyond. In about 1983 the road department came through and rerouted everything (into a nightmare of confusion to which I referred in my radio days as The Mannington Triangle) so it doesn’t look like that anymore; but the name stuck.
Today Riverview Beach is mostly a wide expanse of grass. There’s a softball field, a pond, swings and assorted kid toys, picnic areas, a gazebo-type bandstand, and a fountain. But I’m told that less than a century ago there was an amusement park on that site, and not a small one. People in Philadelphia and Camden (back when cities were still the place to live) would catch a ferry down the river to dock at the park, and take another ferryboat ride back at the end of the day. I’ve only very recently seen pictures, and never really heard what was there, but apparently it was quite an amusement park.
Just upstream, at a bend in the river, there’s a quiet little town known as Carney’s Point. I’d always figured it was named for some guy, maybe a relative of Art Carney or something; but oddly there are no streets bearing that name. This is particularly odd, because this sparsely populated county tends to name lots of roads after people. I think every town has a Willis Avenue (Bruce had a lot of family around there; one of his cousins learned D&D in my dining room, and another use to come to my concerts years ago). It wasn’t until after I moved away almost two decades after arriving that it occurred to me: Carney’s Point might have been the spot on the river from which you could first actually see the lights of the carnival when you rode the ferry.
Sometimes names have meanings, or significant origins; sometimes they only appear so. And sometimes the meaning isn’t so apparent, but present nonetheless.