Although slightly silly and inconsequential, the issue in this post points to a more important (philosophical even!) question about the human mind and its relation to speech and language: why do people speak (and write) the way they do? Are we rational agents who, as if homunculi living inside our own skulls, have an idea, and then have to rationally choose the best way to express it? Or are we more like Skinnerian rats who use the words and expressions we use because these have been socioally reinforced and happen to be more effective to achieve a goal we might not even be completely aware of? My experience doing posts about writing and language, as well as observing how people write in what are heavily Skinnerian domains (social media,) makes me think truth points towards the latter. After all, who has never noticed a new expression that everybody seems to be using all of a sudden?
What does this have to do with whatever this post is going to be about? Well, why do so many people have to give the same titles to their book/game/whatever, or to their characters, monsters, or places? Why are there 12 (or more, I stopped counting after that) books titled Soulbound?
And if it’s not -bound, it’s -born, or -fall, or -forged. Here, look at these videogames:
IronBorn, unBorn, Battleborn, Timberborn, Etherborn, Monster Hunter World: Iceborn, starborn, Hellbound, Windbound, Blightbound, Bookbound Brigade, SOULBOUND, RetroBound, Starbound, Heartbound, PlayBound, Planetbound, Boom Bound, Park Bound, HopBound, NoseBound, StormBound, GreedFall, Godfall, CryoFall, Iris.Fall, TowerFall Ascension, Dark Fall: Ghost Vigil, Light Fall, CrownFall, GroundFall, Heroes Rise: Herofall
As almost all of these are quite new, it’s safe to say this is a recent trend or fad. To be fair, this might have a somewhat rational justification behind it, but not an artistic one. I have no proof, but I can see why, since people now discover most new products online, it might be advantageous to have single-name titles that are easier to search, index, tag, and so on. In other words, Flamebound rather than Bound by Flame. This doesn’t excuse, however, the absolute lack of creativity displayed here, not to mention that most of these titles suck and mean nothing (the games might be great for all I know, though.) Still, whatever justification it once might have, it’s clear to me this now has become a kind of subconcious creative process, an almost memetic contagion.
Imagine if classic movies, games, or books, had been named like that. Junglebound: The Hunt, rather than just Predator. Or EldritchFall, instead of Quake. Wait, what about DemonBound: Regenesys, the Return of the Bloodborn (instead of Doom II)? Or what about Ringbound instead of The Lord of the Rings?
Seriously, how are any of those names (well, NoseBound sounds quite intriguing) even memorable? If there were just a couple of works named like that, sure, but not when there are hundreds. Like any fad and meme, it pays to be the first adopter, to capitalize before the whole thing becomes nauseous due to overuse, but this has been going on for years.
I’m no marketing expert, as the number of books I have sold lately clearly shows (keep in mind, zero is a number,) but how is coming up with names that all sound the same going to help you sell you stuff. Or is this a subtle marketing trick, that if you can’t tell the difference between Warbound, Warborn, Warforged, Wartorn, and Warfragged, you might just as well buy any of them, like those Coca-Cola lookalikes designed to trick old people?
It’s not just titles, though. What about naming conventions in fantasy, whether for people, places, or monsters? Swordbright, Hammerhand, Voidwalker, Etherborn, the Mistborn, the Whateverborn; or the Chronicles of the Voidbound, the Wartorn, the Blightborn, and the Turnipgobbler. Or maybe a dark, ominous place named Darkfall, Shadowdark, Felldark, or Darkdark? What about dwarves named Something-hammer, Something-axe, or the suspiciously elfish/magical character who happens to be named Galewalker, Windwalker, or Mistwalker?
When this is brought up, which is rare, there is nonetheless the usual barrage of “achsually…” excuses trying to deny the obvious hackneyed nature of what I just showed:
“Actually,” the first excuse goes, “compound names are common in Anglo-Saxon-Nordic-whatever languages…”,
“Actually, Tolkien did this, so it’s OK *snorts pretentiously*”,
“Actually, that’s very common in everyday speech, like cities called something-burg or -ington, or breakfast being literally to break a fast. Heh, what about that, uh?”
Well, first of all… no. Like, no. Just don’t justify crap. Besides, none of those things have much to do with what I’m talking about anyway. And yes, you can name your stuff whatever way you want, but I’m here to warn you… everybody else is doing the same. You are not being unique. Whether being unique or not helps you as an artist in these strange times, is a different question I won’t get into right now.
I’ll start with the last complaint because it’s the easiest to trash. It also highlights a serious problem with this new type of compound constructions.
True, many languages, including those that rarely allow compound lexical formation (like Spanish), nonetheless still use complex nouns in certain, specific situations (or when imported from other languages.) For example, in Spanish, although it is impossible to translate almost any of those bizarre fantasy names (Games Workshop hasn’t even bothered translating most of their new fancy character names*,) you still find, like in English with the ending -son, a suffix that denotes patronymic descent, -ez, as in Martínez—which is simpler than saying “son of…”.
*Try translating Aventis Firestrike of Hammerfall into a romance language like Spanish. Either it’s not possible, or it sounds awful or like a joke name.
Naturally, there are also many names whose origin are either compound formations or abbreviations of some kind, like Domingo, from dies dominicus (day of the Lord,) originally dies Solis (day of the Sun, later Christianized, although in English the original name still exists as Sunday.) Many languages have constructions for everyday terms (like everyday,) like breakfast, literally to break a fast, or the French déjeuner, with more or less a similar meaning. But that’s the point: they are compound or shortened words that arise due to common, repeated usage and a real need. You are going to make references to people’s parents and surnames a lot (or to a new gizmo for which there is no name,) as well as breakfast or the name of your town or place where you live (in England, many are compound nouns,) so it makes sense to come up with such constructions.
However, I can’t imagine the kind of society that would need something like Etherbound or Brightwalker. These are not natural lexical constructions like needing a word for the act of “breaking a fast” or living in Bedlingtonshire (The Shire of the Place/Town of ¿Bede?) in Northumberland (Land North [of the river] Humber.) So, yeah, English does that a lot, and so does German. But just because economy of words or the linguistic peculiarities of a given language encourage the construction of such compound words, it doesn’t mean *any* is allowed or that all are fine so yeah just name every character something like Ajantis Firewalker of Stormhall, Bladeguard of the Order of the Goundbound. Please don’t do that. It hurts.
The first two objections are both related to a peculiarity shared by many Germanic languages, like Norse, Old English or Old Icelandic (the languages in which a lot of the inspiration for later fantasy, like Lord of the Rings, was written.) Indeed those languages have constructions that we translate as compound words… in poetry and within a text.
We know of such things because we see them in Norse poetry, like in Beowulf. It was something poets did to create epithets, new synonyms, or circumlocutory ways of saying the same thing, but with their own personal twist. The famous example is that, rather than just saying “sea,” they could say what we would translate as “whale-road” or something like “bane of swords” for shield. I’m certainly not an expert and my knowledge of this issue extend to what I can lazily google up and what is discussed in the preface of some books I have here (like Beowulf,) but I doubt, however, that if some random viking went to buy a new shield, he would say “hey, Radulf, give me your best bane-of-swords,” but maybe I’m wrong. I will assume such constructions were mostly poetic.
In any event, and most importantly, those fancy kennings, as they are called, existed to find new forms for adjectives or nouns that already existed. They did not create new concepts, just fancier ways of saying common words in a poetic way. That is not the equivalent of a modern writer wanting to come up with a “unique” name for a monster he has made up for a book, game, or whatever, so he smashes a few random words together until he gets something like Fireborn Vulcanspear. That is not equivalent to ancient Norse poetry.
English, both old and new, can (and it is perfectly fine) create adjectives (and I must stress, *adjectives*) like, say… warforged. There is nothing inherently wrong with that as long as it makes sense and it’s not a gratuitous creation. There is, after all, such a perfectly fine adjective as “wartorn.” But here’s the point, it’s an adjective, so it needs a noun, something to modify. It’s war-torn/warforged… what exactly? You (as in, the writer, a narrator) can say, “the war-torn nation had suffered many calamities…”which is just a way of saying “torn by war” as a single adjective. But what does [Book Title::Wartorn] mean? Is it so difficult to come up with new titles that now we are just ransacking the dictionary to find words that fit, somewhat, thematically?
In Beowulf* (well, the English translators, trying to get as close as possible to the original) such compound constructions occur many times:
“Rage-inflamed, wreckage-bent, he ripped open the jaws of the hall.”
*My Penguin Classics Edition of Beowful, translated by Michael Alexander
Which could also have been written as “Inflamed with rage [or “enraged”], bent on wreckage, he…” That means these compound adjectives can be broken down into their basic elements. That’s not what modern fantasy writers (or the marketing team that comes up with names for modern videogames) are doing. There is no context in Blightbound or Iceborn, only vague associations with blight, a word that has become quite popular lately, and ice/coldness, as well as a sense of “epicness.”
Blightbound… you are bound (the past participle of bind) by (to?) blight? What does that even mean? Who or what is being bound here? Is that a name (and for who?,) a title, an epithet, a state of being? I’ll readily admit that it can sound cool and all, and it’s a highly contagious way of coming up with titles (I have done it myself,) but it becomes slightly uncool with each new person that pulls off the same linguistic trick.
These words, if used judiciously and with an ear for poetry, might be useful *within the text*, as a new descriptive tool, but I believe they are awful titles and abysmal names for people. For what is worth, some general tips here:
- For titles… yeah, I wouldn’t even use them. I might have defended them a year ago, but right now, they are so overused that unless they become rare once more, in my opinion no compound name (standing in isolation) should be used as a title.
- In fact, you can test them by inserting them into a sentence or with the noun they modify. Does “The Blightbound X” sound right to your ears? Well, then maybe you can use the entire phrase as the title rather than just “Blightbound.”
- Can the compound word be disassembled and still make sense or is it gibberish? And if it makes sense, does it sound better that way? What is better, Flameborn or Born in Flames?
- Generally speaking, as a title, non-compound phrases sound better to my ear than their compound-word version. And since this is my blog, my feelings are the objective law.
- Names… Just give your character a normal (by fantasy standards anyway) name. Keep in mind that if someone is called Dredd Bonebound, it implies there’s a family of Bonebounds out there, perhaps including Bob Bonebound and his uncle-dad Jimbo-Bob Bonebound, half-brother of Cletus Bonebound.
- As an epithet, such words *might* work, but remember that those things are written with a “the…” as in Dredd the Bonebound (real name Dredd Smith) or Charles the Fat.
- And if you are thinking about giving such surnames to a character to imply a character trait or profession (or, “class,” for the nerds out there who think everything through D&D,) don’t do that. I don’t care that someone is a “fire mage” or “shadow dancer,” the odds that his surname happens to be “Firewalker” or “Shadebound” are quite low. You can get around that by using or mangling the equivalent word from another language (“fuego” for example,) but don’t overdo it.
- Keep in mind, that like all fads, this naming convention will eventually become cringe. That might be sooner than you think.
- Finally, if you have to use such words, either as titles, names, or appellations of any kind, look them up first to see if they haven’t been used a dozen times already.