Thank You to my Patrons!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

What deserves a name?

During our last hangout about Naming, the question came up: how do we decide what deserves a name? So we began by asking what kinds of things we put names on. People get them; places get them. Animals can get them. Sometimes, things get them. Quite a number of people name their cars; I knew a fellow once who named his dishwasher "The General" because it was so loud.

Paul suggested that the human tendency to anthropomorphize, or to attribute human characteristics like personality to animals and things.

Kat pointed out that she grew up with an animistic culture in which everything has personality, but she doesn't name things (that's not a necessary extension of a worldview that attributes personality to things). She lived on a boat, and boats have names, but other things did not.

We speculated that boats have names because when you call the Coast Guard or a bridge, you need to have a way of identifying yourself, so you identify the boat.

Paul pointed out that some addresses in England consist of the person's name, the name of the house, the name of the town, and what it's adjacent to. Names can be given to castles, mansions, and rich people's homes.

Swords can be given names, but they aren't always. Kat said that in Japan, certain swords of note were given names.

Would you name your kitchen knives? Which one or ones? Would you name only your sharp knives or your butter knives as well?

Inns will sometimes name the individual rooms they contain, but this is usually something that happens in places with very few rooms, or with themed rooms.

Do you name the rooms in your home? What do you call them? Does everyone who lives there agree what they are called?

It's natural to name pets, but what about computers? You may be asked to name your hard drive. You may need to track the name of the server that you visit when you play video games. You might want to give a computer a name that helps you track its function in a larger system.

Do we name food animals? Why or why not?

Hurricanes get named when they surpass a particular size and strength.

Some companies even name their marketing programs.

In a hospital, it might be helpful to think of names that would help patients understand a place's role in the larger system; another kind of name might confuse them.

We often label things when we feel they must be distinguished from one another.

Roman names, the nomen and the cognomen, would indicate who you were in the family structure. Many famous Romans went by their nicknames, like Cicero, whose nickname means chickpea.

Consider how you might name things in your secondary world to help people keep track of where they belong in relation to one another.

Names very often indicate social affiliation. Sometimes they are immutable, as a name that stands for a unique individual throughout their lifetime. Sometimes they change over the course of one's life, or they change over time.

People in our world enjoy acronyms that are pronounceable as names.

Stadium names used to be idiosyncratic, and now they have become corporate. That suggests a lot about the nature of our society.

Dormitories are often named so they can be distinguished. They might be named for famous people.

When you look at the phenomenon of places or monuments being named for people who have done great things, and then you compare that with the phenomenon of corporate name buying, it suggests something about how fame can or cannot be bought.

A complex naming strategy would require some investment in teaching readers, but it could be very helpful.

High elevation points might get a name. If a place is generally quite flat, a low hill might be named; but in a mountain range, only a really high or uniquely-shaped mountain would get a name.

What size does a community have to be before it gets a name? Does the community have to live in a permanent location, or can it be mobile? Do neighborhoods get names? What about unincorporated areas?

Sometimes the way you use names can reveal a lot about social structure, and also history.

Naming cars appears to be a relatively new phenomenon, but boats have had names since thousands of years ago.

I asked how the question of naming might reflect on the issue of capitalizing things, like The City, the South Bay, the East Bay, etc. When we capitalize, it gives a name-like quality to the thing being described. Che suggested that magical librarians might need to be called something different if they were part of a magical librarian's guild rather than simply a magical librarian.

There are rules for the use of mother vs. Mother; mother is a noun while Mother is a name. Sometimes it's less clear whether to use capitals on something like Lady.

Legislative bills for the government often get names or acronyms. Military operations get names; we were trying to think whether Desert Storm was the first one or one of the first ones named, but we couldn't be sure because we don't have military experience. It may simply be that those names existed but weren't widely known.

When you want people to talk about something, it helps to give it a name. Similarly, if you don't want people to talk about something, don't give it a name.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. I really enjoyed it! Dive into Worldbuilding meets again on Tuesday, July 2, 2019 at 4pm Pacific. I hope to see you there!


Monday, June 17, 2019


This is not the first time we've talked about naming on the show, but there's always more to explore on a topic this rich! We started out by talking about the Atlas of True Names, which gives translated versions of all sorts of place names from around the world. Over time, a place which has been given a literally descriptive name tends to keep the form of its name as the language changes around it, and the end result is that it turns into a string of syllables that have lost their literal meaning.

Brian remarked that a lot of rivers are named "water." The Celtic word for water is uisge, which is the origin of the word "whiskey," but also appears in various forms in many river names. These forms may include Usk, Esk, Ax, Ex, Aven, and Avon. This means that a lot of river names have built-in redundancy, and mean "the river Water." We parsed out the meaning of Stratford on Avon, which breaks down to:

Strat - street
ford - place to cross water
Avon - water

Newcastle upon Tyne is another place name that began as literally descriptive (a new castle had been built there).

I remarked that it's possible to think of someone's personal name as an unparsed unit, as when in High School I used to think of my teacher's appelation, "Mr. Sturch," as a single unit. When I graduated, and the social context of usage changed, he asked me to call him Nicholas, and I found it very difficult!

Context of usage is absolutely critical when it comes to names. Context includes who is saying the name, who hears the name, and when and where it is said.

A great many surnames come from the names of jobs, but have lost their literal significance over time. With names like Carpenter, the original word is still in active use and we can tell that it has a literal significance, but with jobs that have become obsolete, like Fletcher, Cartwright, Carter, or even Smith, the name quickly becomes dissociated from its past meaning.

The pool of possible first names in the medieval period was very small.
Many virtues have been used as first names (Faith, Hope, Charity, etc.) - not just in English, but in other languages as well. Imani is a name that means "faith."

Names can be changed. One place where many names were changed was Ellis Island. On Ellis Island, the people checking immigrants into the United States often misheard names and wrote them down wrong, thereby changing them. There were also cases where people thought they were supposed to give their profession, and their profession was written down as their surname. Many people had heard rumors that goldsmiths and silversmiths were wanted in the US, so they told the Ellis Island officers those were their professions... and ended up with them as surnames.

When you're working in a secondary world, I encourage you not to simply make names up. Have some fun. Retcon some historical Easter Eggs.

I would love to see a speculative Ellis Island where names are being changed. The cultural issues surrounding those changes could be difficult but also fascinating. Racism definitely had a hand in those name changes. Conversion from Cyrillic or other alphabets into Latin may also have had an influence.

People who were enslaved in the US often had their names forcibly changed. Sometimes they ended up having to use the surnames of the slave owners, and this has sometimes led to people changing their names away from those names later.

People sometimes change their names, or take on new names, when they undergo religious conversions.

People can change their name if they are affirming a new gender identity.

People can assume a stage name.

Names are very often associated with social affiliations. Thus, if your social affiliations are changing, or the terms on which you engage socially are changing, a change of name becomes likely.

Cliff mentioned titles. We touched on this only briefly, but he mentioned that a Southern man who is respected may be called Colonel even if he is not in the military. He also mentioned that in his sitar school, there are special titles for a maestro who is Muslim (ustad), and other special ways for members of the gurana to indicate each other.

Paul mentioned that George, Duke of Clarence, is likely to be called Clarence rather than George.

Not everyone uses a family name as a surname. Sometimes there are clan names. In my Varin world, there are caste names. These group-affiliation names may come before or after the personal name. In fact, just recently, Japan asked American journalists to change their naming conventions so as to list the surname first and personal name second rather than doing it in the American order.

The Peasprout Chen books use naming very carefully, with a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and different naming conventions. Peasprout's name suggests her humble origins.

Morgan mentioned that there is a different between a name when it is spoken and when it is written. Do we need to spell a name? How important is that? (People make lots of different spellings for names that have similar sounds.)

A computer system codifies quite a number of assumptions about what form names are supposed to take. Is it all flexible to naming differences? It may be, or may not be. How flexible is the government when it comes to recording names?

Arkady Martine's books use names that consist of a number followed by a noun, like 17 Waterfall or 3 Seagrass. The characters in the book consider the meanings of these names as they encounter them.

Racial or ethnic affiliation can also often be guessed on the basis of name.

We also talked about signatures. Do we ever get advised on our signatures and what they should look like? We do get advised on penmanship. Cliff told us that he decided at one point that his signature was too legible, and obfuscated it on purpose. People don't necessarily sign their names with pens, but can use signet rings or stamps (like Japanese hanko).

We are expected to provide our signatures for banks, for school permissions, and for many other daily purposes. We may have to do book signings if we are authors! The signature becomes a visual object. We can make choices about how and why to write our name differently. Do we have to be able to sign quickly? Do we need to have it be hard to replicate? Are we executives, or doctors? Alethea Kontis makes beautiful, artistically decorated signatures.

In the United States for many years it was the tradition for a husband's name to take over the wife's name completely. Thus Ms. Marie Estelle marrying Mr. Tom Clintock would become Mrs. Tom Clintock. This custom has changed, however, and more women are either appearing as themselves with a new last name (Mrs. Marie Clintock) or not changing their names at all. The custom of giving children the father's last name creates pressure on the wife to take the husband's last name so the family will have a unified identifier. Many people are heiphenating names, also, to combine the two surnames. Some couples create a new name using letters from the old name. At this point, there are various approaches to naming when a couple becomes legally official.

What is the point of a family name? Is it to identify members of the same family? Is it to sustain a lineage of ancestors? Answer this question and you may get new ideas about how to handle surnames in a secondary world.

Spanish names tend to take the surnames of both parents, allowing linkage back along the lineage. These names do get very long sometimes!

Brian says that in his experience managing payroll across multiple countries, he's seen lots of naming styles, but the one he hasn't yet figured out is the one in Indonesia.

Names often have a signifier for the individual, and a signifier for a larger group of some kind. What is the nature of that group?

Don't forget to consider nicknames.

Sometimes people use patronymics, in which the surname is "child of X" where X is the father. Iceland still uses these names. It would also be possible to use matronymics.

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to this enjoyable discussion! This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Tuesday, June 18th at 4pm to discuss What Deserves a Name? I hope you can join us! Join the Dive into Worldbuilding group on Facebook for the latest updates, links, and topics!


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Jaymee Goh

It was a pleasure to have Jaymee Goh on the show after seeing her at SF in SF last month! If you'd like to learn about SF in SF (Science Fiction in San Francisco), go here. At that event, Jaymee read a horror story called "When the Bough Breaks," so we started out by talking about that story.

Jaymee explained that she arrived at that story via a process of several years. It started out with a dream of fear and anxiety associated with a strong sensation Jaymee had of pins and needles in her back, which her brain interpreted as a ghost. She gets quite a bit of inspiration from dreams. She took the idea of spirits hanging around us all the time, and added to it an image of a little boy lying dead in a puddle - he was electrocuted, but everyone knows that he was killed by spirits.

The story treats with the theme of kids not being taken seriously by adults.

In 1992 or 1993 there was a luxury condominium building that collapsed because it had been built on the side of a hill, and there was a landslide. The building hadn't been able to handle the runoff, and had been undermined. Jaymee put it together with her other ideas and asked, "What if this disaster had been caused by ghosts?"

"When the Bough Breaks" is set in Malaysia, and has a condominium building that is similar to the one in the real world collapse. There are many buildings designed with a courtyard in the middle so kids can play. In her story, the courtyard is between the condos and the face of the hill, and it's called "The Cradle."

I was really fascinated by the way Jaymee used language in her story. She explained to us that this is exactly how Malaysians talk. She described it as the country having several major languages, and people having a basolect - one main language - to which they would add grammar and vocabulary from others. Maybe the base would be Malay, with Chinese and English added. Maybe if the person was middle class it might be English with Malay and Chinese added. In the story, it's very clear that this is not an exclusively English-speaking community. When she was hanging with friends there would be various groups with different accents.

I asked Jaymee if she found it at all hard to balance the authenticity of the speech with the need for the audience to understand it. She said it's not too hard to balance because there's high compatibility, with a lot of vocabulary and grammar coming from English.

"This is literally how my family talks," she explains. There are degrees of difference from family to family. She compares her work to the short fiction of Zen Cho, who uses more Hokkien in the text.

We then talked about Jaymee's Steampunk work. She has an ongoing series looking at colonization of maritime Southeast Asia, including Kalimantan, Borneo, and the Straits of Malacca. The Portuguese were in Malacca and Singapore, and the Dutch, English, and Portuguese fought over the area.

In her work, steampunk technology is used to oppose colonization. The current racial dynamics in Asia are a direct result of colonization, so she is looking at what happens to the concept of Malaysian identity using a multiracial cast of characters with different cultural backgrounds. There are many turns of phrase she uses which are specific to the local geography.

Jaymee wrote the first story in this series almost ten years ago. She's had three stories published in this setting. She says it's hard for it to stand alone. Finding pre-colonial research resources from the region is hard, and sometimes it's hard to know how to start.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to tell a story if the technology involved is very cool but very visual.

Jaymee keeps files on stories she wants to tell. One story of this kind is based on another historical event of the 1960's. She saw a documentary about Chinese dock workers between the 1930s and 1960s, where the workers organized themselves by clan name or family name, and one of the clans was "mixed." She really liked the idea of all the clans, and the odd-one-out people banding together with each other. These clans competed for work by trying to make their teams the cheapest, fastest, and most available, but this led to tragedy. A shipment came in, and all the groups were trying to do the job right now. It was raining. They were supposed to throw a chicken in and see if it was safe to go in, and if the chicken died, they had to air the hold out first. This time they didn't use a chicken. Rotting onions in the hold had filled the air with poisonous gas, and this made the workers sick, and many fell into the sea as they came off the ship. Jaymee told us the story idea is that the only survivor of such an accident has survivor guilt and one day will tell the story of the actual accident.

Jaymee assured us, though, that she doesn't always focus on disasters or horrors. She is writing a story about a girl and an airship, and romance and matchmaking with nonbinary gender. The girl's family owns a crocodile farm. One of the messages in the story is "you can be as nonbinary as you want but people will still try to marry you off."

I asked Jaymee about her work in progress. She has been working on a fantasy romance for the last year. There are old stories about immortals performing miracles, but then one of the immortals refuses to perform miracles and disappears. Many religious philosophies ask you to distance yourself from worldliness, to be selfless, or to give up your desire for power. If you define yourself by the things you own, or by your authority, you go down a garden path of suffering. You end up losing the thing that defines you. But this is not how government or politics work. If immortals start disappearing, how do you deal with it? What happens if the influence of ancestral spirits were empirically indentifiable?

This is a love story, but lots of other things happen in it. The hero is an immortal who wanted to divest from the world, but falls in love instead. What happens when he comes to be invested? Does he gain mortality? Jaymee told us she had a whole argument with herself about this. The heroine is a woman who can speak to spirits.

There are interesting things about using immortals. Theoretically, an immortal would have long term knowledge about how things used to be. We become used to a lot of terrible things today, but who can remember useful systems that are now obsolete? The immortal who disappears goes away for a long time, but comes back looking for a bowl of noodles.

I really want to find out more about this story when it's finished!

I opened up the discussion to questions at this point. Kate expressed her appreciation of the story about the chicken in the hold, and compared it to the canary in the coal mine. Kat suggested it would be very interesting to compile a lateral wiki of global myths that showed their similarities. We also wanted to see an anthology of bird stories!

We also talked about a chicken marriage custom where the best man has to throw a rooster over the marriage bed. "Throwing the cock over the bed" is supposed to be a method of getting aboy child first. There is a similar custom where you have a rooster and hen in a cage, and open the cage and see which one comes out first in an attempt to divine the sex of your next child. There are a great many chicken-related traditions.

Jaymee, thank you so much for coming on the show! It was lovely to have you, and you are welcome back again any time. Thank you also to everyone who attended the discussion.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Thursday, June 13th at 4pm Pacific to discuss What Deserves a Name? I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

How We Start the Day

How we start the day is about the question of routines. That which is routine is often not thought about consciously, but even the most basic routines vary a lot across the world, and can give us interesting ideas for worldbuilding.

Breakfast in the United States was our entry point, and over time, breakfast in the US has come to be very sugar-based. Donuts, pancakes, and cereal can all be super sweet. Eggs and bacon, while traditional and not particularly sweet, are not what people typically eat on a daily basis. I told the group about an experience I had eating fish with pecans for breakfast in New Orleans, and how surprising this was for me. I've had quite a number of breakfasts in Japan that involved rice, raw egg, and seaweed (yum!).

Do you eat breakfast? Do your characters eat breakfast? If you have "reasons" to make it part of your routine, external pressures like kids going to school, or work outside the home, it may be something you do without thinking about it much. Or, like Morgan, you may have to make a conscious decision to have it. The amount of preparation involved in the food may be a barrier - quick cereal or toaster waffles might be a solution for not having a lot of time to cook or think. American culture has a lot of narratives about how important breakfast is, but if you are a person with chronic illness/fatigue, breakfast might be very difficult to fit into your day. And what if you weren't in a modern American home, but instead in the wilderness where you had to catch your breakfast? How would you do that? How would you prepare?

In Japanese, the morning greeting Ohayo gozaimasu (おはようございます)literally means "it's early."

 Paul says he grabs something quick for breakfast on a weekday, but cooks something savory for himself on a weekend day.

Kat brought up that not every individual can easily conform to expectations like those for eating breakfast. She's not a morning person, and her "stomach is not awake." If she's forced to eat cold cereal in the morning, she gets stomach pain. This was a problem when her high school had a breakfast check before school and she was unable to eat.

Many of our cultural narratives, like "breakfast is the most important meal of the day!" don't apply gracefully to all members of the society.

What other kinds of morning routines do we have? Do we pray in the morning? Do you shower in the morning?

Does your cat wake you up? Does another companion animal wake you? Can you imagine a character in a story being awakened by a companion animal staring, knocking objects off surfaces, or chewing hair, etc.?

Do you wake to the sound of your coffee being finished?

Does the family assemble for prayers at a family altar?

In Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, people cast omens for the day as part of the morning routine.

Do you have a social media routine in the morning? What does that do for you? Does it give you the sense that you are rebooting into yourself? That you are reconnecting with a local or global community?

Do you do "morning pages"? Perhaps you write to start your day, or draw.

Do you use stimulants? These have different effects depending on the person. Paul uses them to wake up, while Morgan uses them to level out. Kat has wildly varying responses to caffeine depending on the day. For me, it makes me jittery and then makes me feel ugh two hours later. A lot of societies use stimulants of different kinds. Would you simply give your world coffee by another name? Or could you construct new cultural habits around a different kind of stimulant?

Morgan says she often engages with a to-do list she sets up the night before.

In the morning, you may have to disengage from devices like a CPAP machine, or remove dental devices. You may have to engage devices like a boot for your injured foot. You may have to undo braids you put in your hair. You should probably get out of pajamas and into day clothes.

Do you wake others? Do you provide breakfast? Or are you the one being woken and provided with breakfast?

What does it mean to be "presentable" for the start of your day? How important is it? Can you leave your home in your bed clothes? Under what conditions? Can you drop off kids at school in your pajamas, or is there a parent dropoff dress code? Do you have to have your hair done? Toleration of a lack of preparation may be associated with racial privilege. Do you discuss the importance of looking presentable, and what that means, with your children? There is ableism involved in any hard-and-fast rule about presentability.

Is chronism something we should consider? Are morning people better treated, better catered to, than evening people?

Some people can change their sleep time habits. Other people find it harder or impossible. What is your natural rhythm? 24 hours? 27 hours?

Kat mentioned that in restaurants, people on the later shifts may say "ohayo" (it's early/good morning) as they first encounter their co-workers regardless of the hour of the day.

On space ships or stations, days are not connected to planetary rotations. Shifts are also needed for different times of day.

Is fetching water a key part of your morning? How does that work in different climates or different biomes? In an icy place, you might never let the fire go out. Water retaining vessels become very important in certain climates. What time is it safe to go fetch water?

In Edwardian times, if you were lower status, you would have to go to sleep late and wake early because it was your job to heat the ovens, bring water to people, and empty chamber pots. Before mechanization, people had to do these things behind the scenes.

Do you have to start your day with medication? Is this something that happens a lot in SFF? Maybe in cyberpunk, but not often in fantasy. Breakfast can be tied to medication, either because you have to take it with food, or an hour after eating.

Do you have to make school lunches? How many? What do you include? (This is very cultural). Do you have to participate directly in getting others ready?

What are your makeup and hair routines, if any? How long do they take? Do you have the option of choosing an easy presentation?

In Varin, unless you are a noble, you are required to put your cate mark on before you leave your home for the day.

What time can you enter someone's house? Paul remarked that in Rome, you were supposed to show up early at your patron's house.

What is the earliest time you can call or text?

What happens to morning routines if you are sharing space with others?

At what time can you stop being quiet?

How do you wake someone else? what do you say/not say? Do you use alarm clocks? What are they like? Do they speak to you? Do they run away from you? Do you pour water on someone?

This was a fun discussion. Thank you to everyone who participated. Our next meeting will be Thursday, June 6th at 4pm Pacific, and we'll talk about Naming. I hope you can join us!