A few months ago, back in August 2022, the ARCs (advanced reader’s copies) of a YA fantasy novel, Lightlark, were released to selected readers and reviewers to generate some buzz. The author, Alex Aster, had generated plenty already. Already active on BookTok — the TikTok community centered around reading and authors — she’d been talking about her new novel for months, promising selective tropes, steamy love interests, Hunger-Games style action, and royal court intrigue.
One complaint of critics was that the fantasy naming system was laughably unoriginal. The protagonist’s name is Isla Crown, and — surprise! — she lives on an island, and is a princess and thus wears a crown. The other kingdoms in the book are named in a similar Captain Obvious way. For example, there’s an island of sky-oriented flying people who dress in blue, ruled by one Azul, which is Spanish for blue, and the name of these people are… Skylings! Get it?
In addition to the Skylings of Sky Isle, there are:
- Sunlings of Sun Isle, ruled by Oro, which is Spanish for gold. Gold as the sun.
- Starlings of Star Isle, ruled by Celestia. Not the birds of the same name obviously. Again the ruler’s name relates to the stars or heavens.
- Moonlings of Moon Isle, ruled by Cleo. Break in naming continuity.
- Wildlings (try to say that fast) of Wild Isle, ruled by our heroine, Isla Crown. Another break in naming continuity.
- Nightshades of Dark Isle, ruled by Grimshaw. A third break in continuity, but this time there’s a reason: Darklings would sound too much like the hero of another YA fantasy series.
As a writer myself, all I’ll say is, perhaps more imagination was called for. The author does not seem to have read much adult and classic fantasy. If she really was enamored of the names, however, she should have gone all-in on it. Cleo should be Luna! Isla Crown should be Salvaje, Gaia, or Amazonia! Nightshades should just be called Darklings, or even better, Nightlings or Shadelings. It’s like the author grew ashamed of her own naming system halfway through the writing but didn’t have the cojones to make it consistent and really OWN it.
But all that got me thinking: just what does the suffix -ling mean, anyway?
There are are actually two meanings. The first, as used by Lightlark’s author, means “of” “connected with” or “belonging to.” Thus, Sunlings belong to the sun, or Sun Isle. In modern English, comparative terms are Earthling (popularized by Marvin the Martian), hireling, and underling. This usage came out of 14th century Old English, adapted from the same term in proto-Germanic.
The second usage, which is likely more familiar to readers of fantasy, is as a diminutive, which was introduced by Old Norse (which also came out of proto-Germanic) for the young of certain animals. For example, gosling for the young of a goose. But as it transferred to Old English — likely by Norse invaders — it began to take on the insulting tone of being young, small, weak, or inferior. Thus, stripling and princeling, which will be familiar to anyone who reads Legolas-centric Lord of the Rings fanfic where he’s captured, enslaved, or otherwise talked down to and abused.
For me, Sunling and the other -lings sound more like happy little elves than human characters. I wouldn’t have named them that way.
But, if you are writing fantasy and want to throw in some different races or species, how about these?
Some -lings that sound cool