Building your world: naming cities

Sorry for the lack of blog posts: I am too busy with my own projects at the moment. Very selfish, I know. I am working a blog series about landscapes for writers though, I hope I can finish the first one soon! This post actually fits it quite well - toponyms. Placenames have a lot to do with landscapes, after all.

So you are creating the most epic, fantastic world we have ever seen. You have wonderful landscapes, magnificent oceans, great cities... And there things go wrong. Cities need names, but you struggle with them. Don't be afraid to think you are not creative enough: many people aren't. Actually, not being creative makes much more sense! The people who named the cities and towns in your area probably weren't imaginative geniuses either...

People name places often after the things in the landscape. This isn't always the case of course. You have cities with copied names from older towns - think about cities whose names start with 'new': it means there has to be an old one too. Cities can end up being named after people as well. Still, most of them will be named after landscape features.

Mexican Hat. That's actually a town, in Utah. When my boyfriend and I stopped there for gas during our holiday over there a few years ago, we wondered about the name. It is quite an odd one, after all. When we drove out of town, the reason for this name became immediately clear.

Such a cute little rock formation. Mother Nature must have sculptor aspirations.

So this is a very odd, funny example, but many names work like that. The difference is that we often don't see the meaning of the name any more.

I'm afraid I'll have to stick to Dutch examples from now on, since I only know Dutch toponyms well. So, for the Dutchies here: what do you think 'Moordrecht' means? 'Moord' means murder, and 'recht' means right, so it sounds like this town has a licence to kill. The truth is less thrilling: 'moor' or 'moer' was used to describe peat areas, while 'drecht' or 'trecht' is a place where you can cross something (like a river). So this place was just an easy way through a swamp.

Some of these words sound exaggerated. 'Berg' means mountain. I don't know what you know of the Netherlands, but mountains are not a thing my country is famous for. Here, it can indicate a small mound only a few meters higher than the surrounding land. For a country prone to flooding though, those few meters make all the difference.

Don't forget that languages change in time. A long time ago, Romans ruled the southern part of the Netherlands and those guys spoke a different language than those dreadful 'barbarians' who lived there. They made their fortresses along the river Rhine, often at placed they could cross it. 'Traiectum' is how they called those places. You can still see that in current city names: Utrecht, Maastricht, Moordrecht... 'Trecht' is actually our oldest Latin loanword!

So to summarise: if you need a name for a town, look at the surroundings. Is the place low and wet, high and dry, close to a forest, a river or a 'Mexican hat'? It will probably be reflected in the name, even though it might be such an old word that many of your inhabitants have forgotten the meaning of it.

Here is the wikipedia page concerning toponyms. It's a nice place to start your search, especially if you are just as lazy as I am and use an existing language to shape your world:

#language #toponym #placename #worldbuilding #cities #towns #names #mexicanhat

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