Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Questing for a Name

By Karen Kincy
Karen Kincy

When I name characters, I embark upon a lengthy quest. The name must be fairly unique and pleasant to the eye and ear, and have a meaning suitable to the character. In the case of my current novel, the name must also be of Scandinavian, Germanic, or Slavic origin to fit the culture of my fictional country. Picky as I am, this can take weeks. Sometimes I just skim through a baby name book and get lucky. More often than not, I dig out my full arsenal of naming equipment. 

The first thing I reach for, my baby name book, is tattered from past naming quests. 20,001 Names For Baby: From A to Z -- The Best, Most Complete Baby Name Book has plenty of names, both popular and unusual. I often browse until a name catches my eye. 

A wealth of names can be found on the Internet. The Google search engine ( can be a great help if you type in something like "medieval German names" or "name meaning golden." The flood of results can be tiring to wade through, however, so I'll share my favorite naming websites with you. 

An excellent place to start would be Behind the Name ( Their large directory of names can be searched or browsed by meaning, by country of origin, or alphabetically. Their message boards have helpful people ready to comment on a name, provide suggestions, or clarify a name's pronunciation or meaning. 

For aficionados of unusual names, Name Nerds ( can't be beat. Their specialty is "unique, unusual and creative names." They have a nice collection of names and a helpful bulletin board. Check out the interactive features like favorite names, least favorite names, and name stereotypes. 

If these names aren't unique and unusual enough for you, there are plenty of name generators online. I think the Seventh Sanctum Page of Generators ( is the current champ. If you like to fiddle more precisely with a generator, try Samuel Stoddard's Fantasy Name Generator ( and read the advanced instructions. 

One problem with the Internet is that you can never be sure if information is accurate. This is fine for a fantasy writer's inspiration, but not for historical names. The websites I've listed seem reliable, but double-check your names with at least two or three sources. 

If you prefer print sources, names can be gleaned from the most unlikely places. Baby name books are obvious, as are phonebooks (the best source for surnames). But what about a dictionary of etymology? 

Some of my favorite names come from this source. I use the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. For those who don't like lugging around a 1284-page book, there are online counterparts. The Online Dictionary of Etymology ( matches my print dictionary fairly closely. A similar source is the Webster's Online Dictionary ( 

The etymological approach to naming characters can be as exciting as a treasure hunt. For example, if I were naming a character with fiery red hair, I would first check the origin of the word "fire." Nothing catches my fancy in that entry, so I check "red." Hmmm, still no luck. How about "burn"? Ah, I've found brenna, Old Icelandic for "to set on fire." Brenna is also Irish Gaelic for "raven-haired" (as discovered in my baby name book), so perhaps I'll keep looking.  

This is a creativity-stretching exercise, and you can learn fascinating facts about words. Did you know that peregrine is from the Latin peregrinus, "from foreign parts, foreigner"? I see that the Old French name for a peregrine falcon was faulcon pelerin. Pelerin would make a great name for a falcon-like character. 

If you prefer a botanical flavor, you can research the origins of plant names. I use Gardener's Latin: A Lexicon. Skimming just now I see chryseus, which means "golden yellow"; arvensis, "pertaining to cultivated fields"; and piperita, "resembling peppermint; sharply fragrant or flavored." 

Why not a golden-haired King Chryseus? Arvensia, a farm girl who works in fields? Piperita, a fairy with a fondness for peppermint? 

I also use Plants of the Pacific Northwest. (The publisher has guidebooks for other regions of western North America as well.) At the bottom of each entry, there's often information on the name of the plant, tree, lichen, etc.. Most are Latin or Greek, with a few words in other languages like the Old English alor, "reddish-yellow," an ancestor of alder

Looking in this guidebook now, I see tiarella ("little tiara" in Latin), the genus name of Foamflower. Wouldn't that make a pretty name for a lady? The book also informs me this kind of tiara "was a turban-like head-dress of ancient Persians, not the glittering diamond affair worn by Princess Diana." Well! Perhaps my Lady Tiarella needs a new name. 

Naming characters can be fun and fascinating. Enjoy your quest for the perfect name! 

Works Cited:

Carol McD. Wallace. 20,001 Names For Baby: From A to Z The Best, Most Complete Baby Name Book. Avon Books, 1992. ISBN 0-380-76227-7.

Robert K. Barnhart. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Chambers, 1999. ISBN 0-550-14230-4.

Bill Neal. Gardener's Latin: A Lexicon. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1992. ISBN 0-945575-94-7.

Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska. Lone Pine Publishing, 1994. ISBN 1-55105-040-4.