The “True Name” Magic System And Why I Hate It

This isn’t like “why I don’t like female villains“. I seriously hate the “true name” system of magic.

The history of a name magic system, I believe, comes from old fairytales and styles of magic where if you knew something’s name, you had power over it. This idea has cropped up in a lot of modern works, too – I mean, it was in Dr. McNinja, Fruits Basket, Runescape (if you know a demon’s name…), World of Darkness Changelings…as a traditional style of magic, I’m okay with the idea that names have power, and that if you know something’s name you have power over it.

The “true name” system is a liiittle different because, see, there’s some sort of True Language – very often Elvish which that alone is enough to piss me off – and you have to use the [/waves hands mystically] Trooooo naaaaaaame in order to actually do magic. So basically, it’s exactly like the idea that names have power, except you now also have to learn a foreign language – but only the nouns of that language, not like, any other types of words, or grammar, or cool idioms, no – and also some sort of stupid big deal about the MC’s and other important character’s true names. Gag.

This tag is a bad idea in any name-magic systems.

Look, I get that making up a language is even harder than learning a real one (or a real fake one like Tolkien Elvish or Klingon) but you can’t half-try either of those. Well, actually you CAN half-try making up a language, but you’re going to need more than several handfuls of nouns as [/waves hands mystically] troooooo naaaaaames to show any respect for language.

Some of the problems I have with the true name magic system include:

Elvish. If your True Language is Elvish, I hate you for it. Not only does it grind on me to have elves be these super mystical pretty better than humans in every way awesome unicorn farts people – seriously? It’s so boring! Stop it! STOOOOP IIIIIT! I don’t CARE that it (arguably) worked for Tolkien! You’re not Tolkien! – not only do I hate the continuation of pristine elvish people but I hate the idea that the elven language is Best Language. One language is not better than another, okay? It’s not.


Oh, sure, you can argue English is a horrible language and I’ll agree with you! I’ll happily say that I like Japanese way better. All the sound units are basically always pronounced the same, there are very few irregular conjugations and stuff, I think it sounds really, really pretty…and yet I’m still typing in English, speak English, and a fairly grand portion of the world speaks, even if in addition to a different language primary or otherwise, English. And I definitely wouldn’t call Japanese the True Language and make it more mystical than English because that makes the Japanese automatically more mystical and that’s actually totally racist to do. Now apply to elves versus humans. Of course we don’t care about elvish racism but…that’s a root of why it feels so obnoxious to me. The biggest reason is still that whole mystical pretty better than us in every way bullcrap.

Also! If Elvish is the True Language, that should mean something along the lines of it being the FIRST language. Like Latin. Which means that unless there was isolation, most other languages should be branching off of it. Including the language of the humans. It should be like Itallian, French, and Spanish. Also please note that no one speaks Latin anymore. It’s a dead language. That might be indicative of where your Elvish should be.

Say the humans were cut off from the elves. The elves had Elvish and the humans had…er, Fantasylandian. But that means that Elvish and Fantasylandian are both base languages so why is Elvish the True Language? That’s just favoring the elves for no good reason. Knock it off.

Speaking of Latin – that’s another common possibility for the True Language. First of all, see above. Why are other languages – heck, like Albanian? – not the True Language? (Albanian is its own language that isn’t derived from any other.)

Second of all, that makes a weird collision with the tradition/fad of making latin/bastard latin magical.


Come on, you know what I mean when I say “bastard latin”.

Still has the same deally where it’s just the freaking name system but you have to learn [/half-hearted hand waving] true names first. You know that memorization is the lowest form of intelligence, right? In that case I’d rather see “Twas brilig, and all the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe” than “Latinus Fakicus!” (Yeah, I know I probably messed up Bandersnatch, sorry).

But okay, say I’m just being whiny and picky about languages.

What about the MC and other character’s true name?

HOW THE HECK does the MC or ANYONE get a true name? I know the idea is that everything has a true name but like, think how languages and names work. If I am born in America, I don’t have a Japanese name. You could argue that my Japanese name is with a dash after it – romanized Rii – but all that is really is the…er…Japanese-ification of my totally English name, the way they would pronounce it. It isn’t some mystical name that some magical language gave to me on my birth. It’s just my name all over again (and suddenly Rii the Wordsmith all makes sense, right?)

If this language itself is magical and assigns what would HAVE to be a totally unique name to every sentient being to be born ever – which is insane already, do you hear me? Insane! – how are you supposed to find out what it is, anyway? Is there some mystical guru who can find out for you? Why? How? Don’t answer those. It’s stupid. Can you meditate and find it? Don’t care. That’s stupid. And again, how did you get the name? Who picked it? How is it chosen? Is there a god somewhere giving everything a unique name? Do you have to talk to him to find out what your name is? If it’s so dangerous and precious, why would he tell you? More importantly, how would you ever find out anyone else’s true name?

Don’t go the opposite way and have a people who DON’T have names as that’s also ridiculous. It’s convenient and for clarity! I think there might have actually been people who didn’t bother much with names but unless you know a LOT about them, don’t try to pull it off. Especially if your target audience is, say, American or any other peoples that need names.

The original idea, as I understand it, is that knowledge is power, and that names are important.

If I know your name, I can call you and you know I am talking to you. I can refer to you when talking to someone else and they know who I mean much more easily than if I try to describe you, which might not work at all. All of your deeds are attached to your name. Your name, in a way, contains who you are. Of course that’s powerful! But some weird random other name that even I freaking didn’t know until I quested for it – how is that name supposed to have any power over me? No one knows me by that mysterious name. It’s just powerful because it’s magical? That…doesn’t make any sense.

I get that it adds a layer of protection because names ARE so convenient. We use names all the time! It’s a LOT easier for the creepy evil shade to learn your true name when it’s just your freaking name and then you’re just screwed. But adding this nonsensical mystical layer of protection is WEAK. It’s just an excuse, for you and the hero, to be more careless. Honestly, if your character lives in a world of Name Magic, he or she ought to know to be careful with their name in the first place, oughtn’t they? And their friends too, not just calling it out?

If you want to do the name system, that’s cool. It really is. Renovating tradition all the way! But please, please for the love of Satan’s second cousin, don’t do the True Name system. The name system was good enough all on its own.

About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
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4 Responses to The “True Name” Magic System And Why I Hate It

  1. Throwing a wrench in just because: I actually had a best friend in early high school who legitimately had a true name, full with the belief in power, yada, yada. She was Native American, her name was bestowed on her by her grandfather (I think) and we (white Americans) were not allowed to use it. She didn’t even tell us what it was for 5 or 6 years, and we’re still not allowed to call her by it.

    Also, Latin is fabulous, and was one of my favorite classes in high school. Doesn’t make it magical.


    • See but that makes sense and is in the name system – because even if we’re using the same words to say she has a name her parents gave her and a true name her grandfather gave her, it’s not like an Elvish or Latin or Whatever name that came out of nowhere for no reason. Or that some nobody gave her. That’s a true name I could get behind because it’s not stupid. It’s the opposite of stupid and I feel like most true name systems are a pale and even rude imitation.
      XD Latin IS a cool language.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Keziah Cannon says:

    You should read Marilon the Magician! (and it’s sequel, of course, both by Patricia C. Wrede). She has an interesting magic system and does address language and magic. And it’s a fabulous book.


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