Placenames (toponyms) can give your world history & drastically impact its’ tone. Rivers, cities, ruins, planets, asteroids and other places, regions, and terrain features may all have names – choosing the right one can be one of the most important tasks a worldbuilder can do. But what needs to be named, and how best to go about it?
WHAT PLACES SHOULD BE NAMED?
Impressive or unique geological features, towns and cities, lone buildings, planets and nebulas, anything of particular interest can be named. While individual trees may not warrant a unique name unless they are particularly special, the forest they grow in might be called the Fogwood, Amoretta Forest, or the Forest of the Trolls. The following lists may be helpful to you as you think of elements that may exist in your world and what may be worthy of a unique name.
ATMOSPHERE & TONE
Thought should be given to whether place names match the mood or feel of your world or the region they inhabit. The Town of Wither conveys a different message than Big Yonder Log. With game-oriented worlds this can be used to provide players hints that they are moving into more dangerous territories. The same is true for narrative-driven worlds – compare the Shire with Mt. Doom in Tolkien’s works. On the other hand, intentionally hiding danger within an unassuming name is a technique often used in worldbuilding – see for example, Sleepy Hollow.
THE NAME ITSELF
Oftentimes places are named for either their own appearance, or for surrounding geological features. A town in a forest, for instance, may simply be called Northwoods or Broadleaf, while a town in the badlands may be called Grand Mesa or Crook’s Canyon.
Places are occasionally named after the creatures or people that inhabit them or once inhabited them. Raven’s Glen, Thieves’ Port, and Banker’s Lane are all examples of this.
HISTORICAL FIGURES & EVENTS
If the location was the site of a particularly important historical event or person, it may take its’ name from that. King’s Crowning, Fort Buckley, and Asland’s Pass are examples. Naming places after historical events and figures offers the additional impetus to add history, both major and minor, to your world.
Sometimes locations are simply named for the person who currently owns them, The King’s Woods, Stettler’s Mill, Old Johnson’s Farm, for example.
MYTH & LEGEND
Naming places after world myths and legends (including local legends that may exist only in that single specific region) is a great way to add depth to your world. Lake of Lost Kings, Three Skip Pond, Fiora’s Mistake, act both as place names and hints of a rich world hidden behind the name.
Geological features are often named after something that they visually resemble – Dagger Peaks, Sleeping Giant Hill, the River Delta of Serpent’s Tongue.
If a reoccurring event or action takes place at a location, that place may be named for that. Shipwreck Cove, Stampede Valley, and Lumbertown are examples.
RELATIVE LOCATION OR SIZE
Sometimes places are given names that reflect their position or size relative to something else. For instance, the Northern Outlands, the Greater Lilac Fields, and the Far Woods.
In highly organized societies, numbers and other ordering methods can be found within place names. Outpost Echo, Nest Five, and District 601, are examples of this.
Some towns or locations are named after concepts. This is particularly present in Western world types, though this convention can be found in other genres as well.
What place names in your world stem from local folklore?
Does your world have legendary locations, like Atlantis, that may or may not exist?
Does your world have places named after historical figures and events? What are they?
Over longer time periods, the names of locations may be shortened or simplified. Woodstown may become Wooston. Perriock River may become Perry River. So while your world may have had at one time an important figure named Perriock, the river that was named after him no longer carries that name. Consider the impact that time has on the names of places in your world.
Languages used in a region are subject to change. This could be because the language itself has changed, or the people living there have changed through war or migration. This can cause a number of things. First, the region may be a mix of old and new names. In addition, while the first settlers may have named a mountain De Rel (translated to Mount Rel), the next, knowing the mountain is called De Rel, may call it De Rel Mountain (Mount Rel Mountain), not aware of the redundancy.
ENDONYMS & EXONYMS
Places can be called different things by different people. This is particularly true in contested territories. The inhabitants of a place may have one name for it (its’ endonym) while a group of outsiders may call it something else entirely (its’ exonym).
What are examples of endonyms and exonyms in your world? How did a single place come to be called many names?