Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears

“Ich bin ein Berliner,” John F. Kennedy announced to West Berlin in 1963. No doubt, Kennedy’s handlers, hearing the roars from the assembled throng, thought the young president had charmed the Germans. Had they listened closely, they might have heard guffaws escaping the crowd. After all, they had just heard the leader of the Free World proclaim that he was a jelly donut.

Fast forward to 2010. An up-and-coming fantasy author has written the customary trilogy and his world-building has been hailed as “meticulous, yet fresh”. A caste in his books names its male members after precious stones. One of the two main heroes is called Nephron.

Nephron means Kidney.

I gamely pointed this out in an online magazine that featured a worshipful review of the trilogy. In response, the author descended upon the forum and spake thus:

1. He was perfectly aware that nephron means kidney but those who possess deep learning and intellectual subtlety would be aware that nephrite is the Greek name for jade.
2. Despite point 1, surely he cannot be expected to consider every possible silly nuance. After all – and here I quote him verbatim – Lord of Wind might be construed to refer to farts.
3. And despite point 2, he researched everything in his trilogy within an inch of its life and he doth challenge me to prove otherwise. I’m surprised he didn’t say he would grade me.

The fact that I’m a native Hellenic speaker does not automatically make me an authority on etymology or connotations. However, I went to one of those bloody elite schools where they forced us to learn all the flavors of our language, from Homeric to demotic. I also became fluent or competent in a few more languages through the years and I love exploring patterns, links and shifts. So I know that in most Indo-European tongues the word for jade means “kidney(-like) or flank stone” because it was thought to help kidney colic: nephritis lithos (Hellenic), lapis nephriticus (Latin), Beilstein (German), piedra de ijada (Spanish). Nephrite is one of the two distinct silicates bundled into the term jade, nephritis is medicalese for kidney inflammation, nephritic means of the kidney.

Bottom line: Nephron, unmodified and standalone, still means Kidney and no amount of sophistry or posturing can change that.

To give you a parallel example from the same work, the other main hero is called Carnelian – derived from the Latin carnis, flesh or meat, because of that gemstone’s most common color. Nevertheless, the author did not name him Carne. The sensibility of the author’s own Romance natal language led him to avoid such a lethal blow to his work’s intended Wagnerian gravitas.

While the author was holding forth, I headed over to his site and read his synopses of the first two volumes of the trilogy. His naming system is a mishmash: for example, name endings aren’t linguistically congruent even within each stratum of each culture. So I suspect that his vaunted research into the suitability of Nephron probably went like this:

Author to the corner Greek or Cypriot grocer: Hey Spiro, does Nephron sound heroic to you?

Grocer (snickering discreetly, like the Berlin residents at Kennedy):
Sounds fantabulous, mate!

Author (putting check mark next to the name): One more item deeply researched.

Tin ears and leaden tongues are not exclusive to Anglophone SF/F authors or directors with Hindenburg-sized egos. Most Japanese manga and animé blithely serve Name Mangle Royale. This actually goes down very well in satire, parody or light-hearted pastiches (think Xena or Samurai Champloo). However, it’s as enticing as thrice-thawed carne in wannabe epics that take themselves deadly seriously (Star Wars, Bleach, the Tolkien clones). In a secondary universe, character names invariably peg the creator’s ability to bring that world into life and make readers yearn to inhabit it.

Invented names and terms need to reflect the fictional culture they represent at several levels, because they serve as extra conduits into the created universe. This means they must have a fundamental integrity, and be more than half-digested scraps from shallow meta-sources. Their inventors have to be aware of the languages they base them on – their structure, rhythm, tonality, inflections. Being multilingual helps and so does research, but a good ear is even more crucial. Too little foundation, and you have cardboard; too little integration, and you have soupy cement. Poul Anderson knew this. So did Tolkien, though he got slightly carried away. So do Ursula Le Guin and Jacqueline Carey, adept at creating layered secondary worlds with names/terms that make you sigh happily and say “that’s it exactly – I couldn’t imagine this being called anything else.”

Which brings us back to Kidney and his world. As its names go, so does the rest of it. I was sorely tempted to take up the author’s challenge and write a detailed review of his doorstops. I read as much of the three novels as I could find on the Internet and found the excerpts predictable and pedestrian (and no, I don’t need to read the entire Twilight series to form an opinion of it). Besides its toe-fracturing heft, the trilogy also sounds like a fantasy version of the TV series 24: even its devotees mention that torture is graphic and constant, the action unfolds …in …real …time and the author is so enamored of world-building that the edifice creaks like Hollywood plywood town fronts. In other words, this is Robert Jordan or Storm Constantine for the kidneyed… er, jaded.

Even if I had the time and stamina to slog through such an opus, I cannot read violence porn for jollies or to prove my edgy sophistication. Torture shadowed my people till the mid-seventies and was used on my immediate family. It’s also worth reflecting that an equivalent amount of sex in the book (even the vanilla kind, let alone BDSM) would have consigned it to a very different category and we would not be having this sardonyx… excuse me, sardonic conversation.

Images: Kuzco in his llama incarnation, from The Emperor’s New Groove; cartoon, Baloocartoonblog, 2009; Ekaterina Shemyak, Therem ir Stokven – a beautifully named character in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness whose equally haunting tale can be read here.

Related posts:

On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks
Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

30 Responses to “Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears”

  1. andy says:

    Well I guess this author didn’t bother to put the name into a search engine, a technique that takes all of about two seconds… at least on the popular and well-known search engine I tried, I got a nice load of results about kidneys.

  2. Athena says:

    Exactly! I mean, reputedly deep research and all, but never heard of Google?

  3. Nephron? Coffee, meet keyboard.

    One of my critting buddies once named one of her characters Teridona–not entirely sure about the exact spelling after all this time, but you get the meaning. When I told her what it mean in Greek, she just went “oops” and said she’d change it.

    People goof all the time. It happens, not only with names but with other details as well. Owning up to them? Whole different story.

  4. Athena says:

    Precisely. It was the “owning up” part that prompted this article. He could have said he didn’t know, he didn’t care, he liked the sound. And we could have laughed or smiled together. But trying to bury me under condescending BS about my own language is another matter.

  5. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [T]he other main hero is called Carnelian – derived
    > from the Latin carnis, flesh or meat, because of that
    > gemstone’s most common color. Nevertheless, the author
    > did not name him Carne. The sensibility of the author’s
    > own Romance natal language led him to avoid such a
    > lethal blow to his work’s intended Wagnerian gravitas.

    Hm. . . What’s the lethal association here?
    Carney (as in carnival barker) or Judy Carne
    (the sock-it-to-me girl from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In)?

    One of those “coincidences” in Tolkien’s Elvish
    languages is that “carne” is Quenya for “red”.

    O Orofarnë, Lassemista, Carnimírië!

  6. Athena says:

    More along the lines of the former. I didn’t know that carne was red in Quenya. That factoid is interesting, because the language was based primarily on Finnish, which is not an Indoeuropean language, though Romance roots crept in as well.

  7. Oh, *dear*. That’s actually even more tin-eared than the character he called ‘Molochite’. (Not to mention that *all* of them risk sounding like Terry Pratchett trolls…)

  8. Athena says:

    You said it. Molochite is a mishmash of several cultural and linguistic inputs. Nephron is straight up ludicrous. But he still insists that he thought all this through carefully. Which makes you wonder.

  9. Caliban says:

    Even the more linguistically competent can come up with unfortunate names.

    Even Tolkien.

    Who had consistent consonant shifts from Quenya to Sindarin:
    t -> c
    p -> b

    and so on.

    But this means that Lady Galadriel’s husband, called Celeborn in Sindarin…

    was known as Teleporno in Quenya.

    I am not making this up.

    No wonder he left Middle-Earth. If the hobbits had caught this, he’d never heard the end of it.

  10. Athena says:

    Ilúvatar forbid! Don’t tell the Tolkien fans, they’ll have coronaries! *still laughing*

  11. Brian M says:

    Love the article, Athena. However, the “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” story is…not really so true after all, as much as we like to chortle about it.

  12. Athena says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Brian!

    The story is true: Kennedy did say “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Berliner” was slang for jelly donut. However, the phrase can also mean “I’m a citizen of Berlin.” The interpretation depends on the mood and politics of each listener. So some were inspired and flattered by Kennedy’s declaration; others were amused.

    Nephron, on the other hand, is unambiguous.

  13. Eloise says:

    About research in manga adaptations…

    The series Saint Seiya borrows heavily from Hellenic mythology to create a world of its own. It even goes as far as having its own Götterdammerung, with a confrontation between the heroes and the warriors of Odin. The names of the characters, though, stay consistent and follow an internal logic.

    The Sailor Moon series is also an adaptation of some Hellenic materials (with some confusion as to the powers of Sailor Pluto and Sailor Saturn, but with an overall respect of the original legends). However, the important matter, in relation to the main subject of the blog post, is that in the first season, the main opposing forces generally have stone names. The Queen is Beryl, and the four reincarnated (and subverted) Earth Generals are named Malachite, Nephrite, Jadeite and Zoisite. It might not have been “researched” in the sense that it did not pretend to boast original phonetics, but at the very least it was consistent and linguistically structured.

    As for Tolkien…

    I also did a double-take when I read Celeborn’s original Quenya name. But, past the first confusion and furious blushes, I could not help but admire the Professor’s sneakiness (linguist that he was, he most definitely had to know what he was writing). And, to be entirely impish about it, it came to me that, for Artanis to accept the name of Galadriel as bestowed by her lover and wear it so proudly, he had to be quite the Elf indeed, both outside and inside the bedroom… To be the mate of such an unfathomable lady is certainly not for the faint of heart.


    Eloise 🙂

  14. Athena says:

    I know only a little about Sailor Moon, Eloise — though I was aware of the names of the Generals (it’s actually interesting that two of them are essentially called Jade… but at least they bear the “official” mineral names).

    I would agree about Galadriel and Celeborn. In fact, one of my complaints about LotR is that we see too little of him and that neither of them are really involved in the struggle, whereas they’re both fierce in the Silmarillion. Given how much they lost to gain Middle Earth and how much they still care (including the fate of their grand-daughter), I would say this is not in character. But that’s the subject of another discussion!

  15. intrigued_scribe says:

    Terrific article, Athena. 🙂 In agreement with the above comments, I couldn’t help but think what a difference a good search engine (and less ego) would have made.

    And I also found Celeborn’s name in Quenya priceless.

  16. Athena says:

    Happy you liked it, Heather! Imaginative work has not devolved entirely to pretentious, murky stuff though: Last week, I saw something extraordinary, The Secret of Kells. Think of a Celtic Princess Mononoke, though slightly shorter and perhaps a tad less complex. I will be writing about it soon — in the meantime, I cannot recommend it highly enough, if you can find it (it has limited release, although it was nominated for the animated film Oscar).

  17. Eloise says:

    About Celeborn’s name…

    It struck me completely out of the blue last night that both Galadriel (as a Noldor on a par with her uncle Feanor) and Celeborn (as her Sindar cousin) would have been very powerful Elves. Seeing that Galadriel boasts impressive telepathic powers in LOTR, it follows naturally that Celeborn would have had at least a modicum of them as well (blood will out, after all). Therefore, I do tend to think that Celeborn could very well have lived up to his Quenya name as we poor Indo-Europeans understand it. Ah, the possibilities…


    Eloise 🙂

    PS: And thanks for the heads-up about The Secret of Kells.

  18. Sue Lange says:

    Personally, I like the name Kidney and if you don’t mind I’ll be giving it to my next renal, I mean regal, character.

  19. Athena says:

    As the Greek/Cypriot grocer said, fantabulous! And don’t forget to give your other character the equally heroic moniker Hepar (Liver).

  20. […] Astrogator’s Logs » Blog Archive » Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears (Writing, Name, Names,… […]

  21. Michael says:

    Catching this rather late. I appreciate the whole post.

    On the humorous side, you remind me of an unwritten novel my former British partner Nikki and I were making up for each other while on the road decades ago. It was a spoof of the Victorian penny dreadfuls, and its two heroines, orphaned sisters with a legally encumbered inheritance, were named Eustacia and Fallopia.

    It got worse from there…on purpose….

  22. Athena says:

    Hehe! Glad you enjoyed it, Michael. Being bad on purpose, I can understand! I love malapropisms, myself. One of the best such practitioners, besides Sheridan’s original, is Nicholas van Rijn, Anderson’s half-Dutch half-Javanese rogue merchant. See if you can find his story collection The Earth Book of Stormgate. A real gem — in other ways, as well (imaginatively thought-out aliens, interesting plots).

  23. Teleporno!! Ha ha ha – this is a wealth of dreadful names. I got on a kick once and looked all of these up. They are all real and nearly all are from recent SF/F books – with just a few older “classics” thrown in. Terry Brooks, etc.

  24. Athena says:

    Yes, SF/F is chock-full of cringeworthy names and terms. I no longer demand that these people read anything (to such depths have we fallen) — but don’t they even read their own work aloud? Don’t they have, like, editors?

  25. Athena – I just realized, there is a “Wind” in a series of books by a really awful author, and I’ve also read the same author use “wind” in sentences in ways that he meant as “swift,” but which sound of course like “flatulence.” Tad Williams has a series of characters named after rocks – they aren’t precious stones, so I’m figuring that other book wasn’t one of his. They are a little odd (Granite, etc.) but nothing like Kidney.

  26. Tess Eract says:

    Could’ve made it “Nefrion” or something.
    How much you want to bet that no matter what you come up with, it’s going to mean something you don’t intend, in some language somewhere?

  27. Athena says:

    Possibly — but that’s not the main point. As I said earlier in the thread, the author could have said he didn’t know or didn’t care. On the contrary, he insisted he had done “deep research” and actually tried to bury me under piles of condescending BS. So here we don’t have an unintentional effect, but something akin to the Emperor’s new clothes. Or plain unadulterated chuzpah.

  28. Cora says:

    Kennedy may not have declared himself to be a type of doughnut (and most Germans at the time admired Kennedy and took the line as meaning “I am a citizen of Berlin”), but Bill Clinton entirely unambiguously declared himself to be a specific kind of beer during a G8 summit in Cologne in the 1990s.

    Clinton, apparently wanting to do Kennedy one better, probably wanted to say “I am a citizen of Cologne” (either that or he was trying to order a beer), which would be “Ich bin ein Kölner.” Instead he said, “Ich bin ein Kölsch”, which is a kind of beer.

    As for Nephron, I was curious what books you were talking about, googled Nephron and got dozens of links about kidneys. So there is really no excuse for that blunder.

  29. Athena says:

    Love the Clinton anecdote, Cora! Also, you’re right: Kennedy was much admired in Europe. He was considered a great hope and they mourned his assassination as much as the Americans did.

    And yes, Nephron still (always) means Kidney…

  30. […] Then we have the interesting transpositions, like Jack McDevitt’s A Talent for War. If you don’t know he’s loosely retelling the wars of the Hellenic city-states against the Persians, you enjoy the story just fine. But if you do know, the underdrone adds emotional resonance. By knowing Hellenic history past the surface, McDevitt got something else right almost inadvertently: Christopher Sim is a parallel-universe portrait of Áris Velouchiótis, the most famous WWII resistance leader in Hellás. On the other hand, Ian Sales turned Eurypides’ careful psychological setup into wet cement in Thicker than Water, his SF retelling of Ifighénia in Tavrís (to say nothing of the name changes, with Orris and Pyle for Oréstis and Pyládhis winning the tin ear award). […]