Naming the beasts

Posted: 31st October 2009 by onyxhawke in Uncategorized
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I’m always curious how writers come up with the non-terrestrial names they do for animals, and other sentients they invent, or for their made up magical creatures. Sure there are tens of thousands of magical creatures already and enough variations on them from region to region that the need for something new isn’t great, but still exists. James Enge pointed out this amusing collection of proposed collective terms for a list of critters we’re all familiar with. Personally while I like the list, I think a few of them are a touch off. For instance I like Mr Enge’s a guile of dragons, and my feast of vampires a touch better.

Enjoy, and post your improvements or additions.

  • I'm delighted that the Jersey Devil made the list, though the older folklore all indicates that the Jersey Devil started a singular being, the result of a unique curse. There shouldn't be enough of them to form an assault of Jersey Devils. That said, one Jersey Devil would be quite enough for an assault.
    The guile of dragons was especially apt inThis Crooked Way.

    • Can't document it, but I'd thought it was a slew of dragons.

      • I think it was Enge taking a bit of worldbuilding liberty to say that the dragons formed a guile, so he could give us an efficient sense of what his dragons would be like. I've never seen them referred to collectively as a guile anywhere else.

  • Names, terrestrial and otherwise tend to come to me just as I need to write it.
    My aliens are unapologetically furries. For names of off-planet persons, places, things, and qualities; random letters filtered for onomatopoeia. Frex:
    Lumal-dogies
    Skragol-big, hairy, friendly, air-headed spiders
    Yorvil-Classical alien appearing in photos with celebrities.
    Exception-Ilv. Cat people, name stolen from "Elf"
    Magical plant-Chilven: fibers used for wands and ladies' underwear.

    • "…fibers used for wands and ladies' underwear." The mind boggles.

      • More than you Ever Wanted to Know About Chilven
        The fibers come from the brain tissue of the plant. (Yes, brain.) They use the lower species. The sentient species, legally recognized as people, are not used, except illegally for liturgical vestments by some nut-case religions.
        The fiber is stretchy, strong, and has other physical and magical properties. For underwear, it's one size fits all, adjusts its own temperature as needed to warm or cool the wearer, is so absorbent that one does not wear it swimming, and it glows in the dark.
        "Modern" wands are bundles of the brain fibers embedded in a plastic crystalline substance developed for its propensity for quantum entanglement, which is behind the magic. "Natural" wands are made from the stalks, stems, and branches of the plant. Forked natural wands are more powerful than modern wands, but are unstable and unpredictable.

        • Definitely more than I ever wanted to know about Chilven
          Stretchy. One size fits all. Glow in the dark. Absorbent and temperature adjusting. And let's not forget made out of the same miraculous fiber as unstable and unpredictable wands–this sounds like it's far more suitable for men's undergarments.
          As for naming beasties, I prefer ancient slang terms or names derived from non-classical mythology.

          • Re: Definitely more than I ever wanted to know about Chilven
            Generally a good idea for fantasy set in this or some quasi-this world.
            For SF, I find problems with aliens whose vocalizations are not like the human larynx. What we would call them would be only an approximation.

            • Re: Definitely more than I ever wanted to know about Chilven
              There are human languages/dialects that non-native speakers find very difficult if not impossible to vocalize, one of the best known being the ǃXũ or !Kung language, with its tongue-twisting clicking consonants. Then there are the languages/dialects of the northwest Tlingit and related linguistic groups, along with a host of indigenous languages from central and south America, not to mention central Asia and Australia, many of which are full of glottal stops, bilabial trills and all manner of lilts and rolls and pitches all overlain with the complex nuances of prosody that mark a native speaker vs a non-native speaker.
              So much diversity within our own species suggests that alien vocalizations would be even more…um, alien? That being said, I personally find it annoying when authors get too fixated and far too creative with their alien names/speech. If its a ripping good yarn and the aliens themselves are well crafted I could care less what they call themselves–or what we call them. Just make is a simple name I can get fixed in my head and I'm good to go.

              • Re: Definitely more than I ever wanted to know about Chilven
                Right. However unpronounceable, you refer to the alien as your human characters would pronounce his name The alien character will just have to deal with it, which is how humans do it across cultures.

  • Not supernatural, but the best collective name I ever heard was "a scowl of teenagers."
    Still makes me chuckle.

  • Tattlen, a beast out of one of my early novels, my fingers typed it but I have no idea where the name came from.
    1992/93, Los Angeles CA. I was in a dream state, partly awake and partly not. A portal opened in my apartment from the closet, an alien stepped forward and introduced himself as "Tridor" said a few other things, stepped backward into the dark portal and was gone.
    Jermack, a made-up name. When writing the screenplay, (now a novel) I saw him clearly in my mind and somehow knew his name. Cannot explain it.
    Tattlen, Jermack and Tridor all come from the same story. I know you asked of beasts, yet made up names be alien or human seem to fall into a similar vein of where do they come from.
    If present day fiction, seems different. My SF is another tale. First names of aliens, their races and so on – I see them and know their names, their race by name, homeworld name and… It's just there, I know. If they have a family, friends and so-on.

  • I tend toward mental associations. One group of bad guys got names derived from noxious chemicals. Maleth (Malethion) Dydit (DDT) Orgaphos (organophosphates) and so on. It helps me remember them.