I love names. However I’m aware that I’m not very good at them. The names of my stories are a bit hit and miss, and it’s a part of world-building where I feel I have a lot of room for improvement.
In fiction the names of things are an excellent place for environmental storytelling and stealth lore dumping. In the real world names can carry all sorts of meaning. A place name can seem offensive until you research the origin, and find out that the name comes from some completely wholesome, long obsolete word. Or it can seem bland, but have some epic or terrible tale tied to it.
You can walk down a street every day for years, and only be dimly aware that the street name sounds like a surname. You just assume that it’s named after some local worthy, or the landowner who commissioned the first buildings, or some business that was once a local landmark. Then one day you find out that it’s named after a slave trader, or a war criminal, or a man posthumously revealed to be a rapist, and it doesn’t feel like the same street anymore.
And then there’s how they sound, and how that sound changes over time. In Scotland we have a lot of place names that are accidental shibboleths. Cults, Maryculter and Alford are all places in Aberdeenshire. Guess which ones have a silent L. If you have trouble with the CH in loch and the R in Aberdeen you’re going to struggle with Garioch. Particularly since it’s pronounced ‘Geerie’. You have to be pretty Scottish to pronounce Aberchirder correctly. You have to be really local to know everyone actually calls it Foggyloan or Foggy.
So let’s talk about why there’s a mountain called Lochnagar when everyone knows that loch means lake. When I was growing up my Uncle John told me that it wasn’t the real name. He said that the real name was so rude that someone invented that name out of embarrassment when Queen Victoria asked what the mountain was called and they didn’t want to explain the real name.
When I was ten that seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation and I barely thought about it for years. Until I mentioned it to my spouse and realised that I’d never heard that from anyone other than my Uncle John. So I looked it up and, well, there’s no mention of Queen Victoria but…
The English language name is listed as Lochnagar and the Gaelic as Beinn Chìochan. My first thought on reading that was that Chiochan would be a bugger for any non gaelic speaker to pronounce so maybe that’s why the change.
Then I read, “Technically, the English name is a misunderstanding, being named after Lochan na Gaire, the ‘little loch of the noisy sound’, a loch to be found in the mountain’s northeast corrie.” So that made sense, someone misheard Lochan na Gaire as Lochnagar and they just went with it because the real Gaelic name is so hard to say. That made far more sense than that the real name was too rude for the Victorians.
Reading on I found this gem, “The summit itself may be referred to as Cac Càrn Beag”. Which means ‘small cairn of feces’, or in colloquial English, ‘little pile of shit’.
Oh. Well maybe they did find the name a bit rude. I wonder what Beinn Chìochan means?
It means ‘mountain of breasts’.
You know what? If I were a 19th Century Ghillie and Queen Victoria pointed to what I knew to be Little Pile of Shit peak on Boob Mountain and asked what it was called I’d probably pretend she was pointing to the sun glinting off the small body of water near the peak and say “Lochan na Gaire, your Majesty. It means ‘little loch of the noisy sound’,” and then find something else to do before she could ask me why the mountain is named after a lake.