What’s in a name?

Here’s a little something I posted on Facebook this morning after seeing Star Wars 7:

Ok, Star Wars 7 was awesome. I want to go live in that world again, and that’s quite an accomplishment after the failures of the prequels. But let us just acknowledge that “Snoke” is kind of a lame name given what the character is. It’s not puerile like “Dooku”, nor does it try too hard like “Sidious”, but it feels lackluster, wanting both mystique and menace.

The Bard, of course, asked the title question, and argued that the name doesn’t change the nature of the thing. But in the Star Wars universe, names are often onomatopoetic, giving a strong indication of how viewers are meant to take characters—or at least matching in sound what they are in personality and role. Chewbacca, for instance, may sound a bit like a loyal canine companion (or maybe that’s my retrospective interpretation). Ewok is appropriately cute with maybe a hint of bite. Han Solo, of course, is an independent, buck-authority, make-your-own-rules type. Yoda is appropriately bizarre and perhaps guru-like.

And others. Darth Vader echoes “invader” and thus threat. Darth Maul’s name mirrors how he is used. And for the most part, this seems to work well—Lucas and other writers have to balance this wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve aesthetic with appropriate restraint and taste so as not to go overboard and end up with something that undermines the audience’s ability to take the character seriously. Jar Jar Binks may be one example of such failure, or you might argue that his name fits almost perfectly his role in the story. (But don’t go bringing up that “Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord” bullshit. That’s fan retconning at its worst, an attempt to transmute flaws and gaffes into something more subtle and refined, a deliberate, secret crafting.)

Dooku is probably the strongest slip-up—rather than sounding sinister, the name resonates with “poopy”, “caca”, and “doodoo”, so that rather than some evil Force master, I think of a pile of crap (like those prequels) and imagine small children snickering and whispering “He said ‘dooku’!” Sidious isn’t as bad in that sense, but it and Snoke both lack imagination. He’s Sidious because he’s an insidious threat? Really? Why not just leave him as “Palpatine”, a name that sounds snakelike and sinister without directly pointing to a particular quality? And though Snoke echoes smoke, what does that give us? Smoke doesn’t carry any real danger in itself. And swapping “n” for “m” sounds faintly ridiculous, a character bearing a slightly silly pompousness, something out of Dickens or Rowling or maybe Susannah Clarke. Not what the towering alien figure onscreen evokes at all.

There is precedent for onomatopoetic and thematic naming all throughout literature, so that ain’t a problem at all. Shakespeare gives us Dogberry, Snug the Joiner, Bottom (the Ass), Touchstone, and more. Dickens does it, too, and so do many others, to great effect. It’s just that you have to hit that fine, sweet spot. Lucas messed up a number of times in the prequels, which added to their ridiculousness. Abrams and Kasdan, in 7, generally do an excellent job with interesting names that at the least fit well in the Star Wars universe (Rey, Maz Kanata), and at best resonate with interesting meaning (Poe). They just missed with this one character, who, unfortunately, needed to sound more significant and imposing that it ends up doing.