“Ride the Camel Cock”

This post’s title is a quote from Tony Perrottet’s excellent Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. (Interestingly, my copy is titled Route 66 A.D.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. The title was changed in later printings; I presume this is because “Route 66” is a meaningless referent outside of the United States.)

Embarrassing English-speaking customers since 1926.

Embarrassing English-speaking customers since 1926.

“You like to ride the Camel Cock?”

“Excuse me?” Les almost choked on her rose-hip tea.

The agent pointed to a ticket. Kamel Koç, his preferred bus company.

Names are tricky in role-playing games. A silly-sounding name can break immersion, leading to bad jokes and an ongoing inability to take events surrounding the named subject seriously.

Real-world foreign languages are the best sources of verisimilitudinous names, but they also contain all sorts of words that sound silly to your players’ ears. My most memorable experience in this regard was in a Dungeons & Dragons game I ran several years ago. One of the deities I included in the campaign setting was the Roman war goddess Bellona. Unfortunately, it turns out that her name sounds just like “bologna,” which led to players repeatedly singing the “Oscar Mayer Weiner” jingle. Not coincidentally, the campaign lasted only one session.

Names from one’s own language are safer, but even they can result in embarrassment if they’re not thought through. For instance, my friend D— came up with what he thought was a marvelously Victorian name for his Vampire: The Masquerade character, only to be surprised when everyone he told it to started laughing. It didn’t occur to him at the time that “Lazarus Graves” wasn’t simply an obscure Biblical given name added to a primly British surname. Similarly, my friend A— spent years playing a bard named “Aria” without realizing that the name was a musical reference. She had picked the name purely because she thought it sounded nice.

Still, even that’s less disruptive than deliberately inserting jokes or pop-culture references. An unwelcome example is the goddess Somairot, found in Manual of Exalted Power: Alchemicals. It turns out that this is simply “Tori Amos” spelled backwards. Knowing this makes it significantly more difficult to take the character seriously.

Even when you’ve come up with a good name, it’s important to double-check that you aren’t inadvertently reusing a pre-existing name. I fell into this trap when working on Compass of Terrestrial Directions—The North. I’d named an ancestor-worshiping reaver kingdom Charn, with the intent that it’d play off the associations of “Char” and “Charnel” to give a fire-and-sword vibe. But a quick Google search revealed the name had been used for a dead city in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. The book’s developer, Dean Shomshak, changed the name to Karn. This turned out to be the name of a golem planeswalker from Magic: The Gathering—arguably a more distracting association.

I’d love to see some more egregious examples of ill-chosen names in published RPG material. Please post your most entertaining examples in the comments below!

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2 comments

  1. One of my favourite ways of coming up with names for people and places is using Google Translate. Pick a language that has a similar historical tone to your setting, and then just start plugging in English words that describe person or place that you are trying to name. It wont always get you a word that works perfectly as a name, but add a couple letters or drop a syllable and more often than not you have a name that sounds authentic.

  2. Kind of inevitable when your fanbase is all over the world, but sometimes a writer picks a perfectly good-sounding name, only for it to sound weird or silly for speakers of other languages.

    There are cases in which the name is actually made of foreign (to the writer) words and speakers of that language might find it strange. I recall some raised eyebrows at EX3’s Night Caste signature character Novia Claro, for instance.

    Then there are cases like Star Wars’ Count Dooku, which here in Brazil was turned into Dookan, because the original sounded like Portuguese for “from the ass*” or “of the ass*”. Not even Christopher Lee could make the lord of Ass County a respectable villain, so the name was changed.

    * Not even ass in the sense of “butt”, instead a more crude term, indicating a certain hole in that region.

    Occasionally that sort of thing has positive results, though. Take the new EX3 region of Medo, with the long rainy winters, gloomy towers, shadowy mountains and ghost warriors. So appropriate, then, that in Portuguese “medo” means fear.

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