Aug 27 2013 9:00am

Apostrophes in Science Fiction and Fantasy Names

J'onn J'onzz Martian Manhunter Apostrophes

In honor of International Apostrophe Day, August 16, we’re going to talk about apostrophes in science fiction and fantasy names. Why do authors think apostrophes make characters seem exotic? Who started it? And why do some people find it annoying?

Who Started Using Apostrophes in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Names?

Apostrophes in science fiction and fantasy names are often attributed to Anne McCaffrey, whose popular Dragonriders of Pern series included character names such as F’lar. Dragonflight, the first book in the series was published in 1968, but appeared in short story form in Analog science fiction magazine in late 1967. Although McCaffrey may have been extraordinarily influential in popularizing this use of the apostrophe, I did find a few earlier examples:

  • 1955—J’onn J’onzz (Martian Manhunter), character introduced in Detective Comics #225
  • 1959—Hawaii becomes a state (including the islands of Hawai‘i, Maui, O‘ahy, Kaho‘olawe, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i, Kaua‘i, and Ni‘ihau)
  • 1965—Muad’Dib, creature and constellation in Frank Herbert’s Dune
  • 1967—T’Pau and T’Pring, characters in Star Trek episode “Amok Time” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • 1968—F’lar, character in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (published in short story form in October and December 1967)
  • 1969—Pei’ans, an alien race in Roger Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead
  • 1969—D’donori, place in Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness

Only a month before McCaffrey’s first short story came out, Star Trek aired an episode with Vulcan women named T’Pau and T’Pring. Dune, which was published two years earlier, in 1965, included the name Muad’Dib, which applies to both a creature and a constellation; and in 1955, Detective Comics had a character whose first and last name had an apostrophe: J’onn J’onnz, who was also known as Martian Manhunter and was a member of the fictional Justice League of America.

Even though McCaffrey wasn’t the first author to use apostrophes to give her characters an exotic feel, the popularity of her books did seem to boost the idea. A few years later, in 1969, Roger Zelazny (another popular author who probably helped solidify the trend) wrote about a race of people called the Pei’ans and a place called D’donori.

Note: Commenters have pointed out and I have confirmed that H.P. Lovecraft used apostrophes in names much earlier. The earliest character name I found with an apostrophe was Pth’thya-l’ya in his 1936 novella The Shadow over Innsmouth. The earliest general name I found with an apostrophe was the city R’yleh in his short story “The Call of Cthullhu.” If you know of an earlier example of a fictional science fiction or fantasy name with an apostrophe (not a “real”name such as O’Brien or d’Artangnan), please let me know.

What does this have to do with O’Briens and D’Angelos?

“Regular” Names Have Apostrophes Too

Although authors seem to use apostrophes in characters’ names to give them an exotic feel, we should also remember that “regular” European names have apostrophes too. The Irish have their O’Briens (grandson of Brien) and the Italians have their D’Angelos, for example. The apostrophe in Irish names, however, is an Anglicization of what was originally an O with an acute accent over it: Ó. When Arabic words are written in English, they also often include apostrophes to mark a glottal stop—a type of sound—or a diacritic mark we don’t have in English,1 and I’ve read that Dune draws on the Arabic language in multiple ways,2 so it seems likely that Arabic is the inspiration for the apostrophe in Dune’s Muad’Dib.

In fact, although my search wasn’t exhaustive, the earliest example I could find of a character in science fiction or fantasy whose name had an apostrophe was the Frenchman Paul D’Arnot in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book Tarzan of the Apes, which was first published in a magazine in 1912.3

Maybe American authors such as McCaffrey and Zelazny thought European or Arabic names were a little more exotic and drew on that for their characters’ names, and it’s also worth noting that McCaffrey was of Irish descent and had such strong ties that she actually moved to Ireland later in life, so perhaps she was influenced by all those O’Sullivans and O’Connors.

Hawaii Versus Hawai`i

Further, I have a theory—just a theory—about one other thing that may have influenced American sci-fi and fantasy writers to use apostrophes in the 1960s: Hawaii. Hawaii became a state in 1959—a little bit earlier than apostrophes seemed to start showing up in literature, but close enough that our new exotic state could have been in people’s minds. The apostrophe in “Hawaii” was a somewhat controversial issue too. In the Hawaiian language, “Hawai`i” has an apostrophe between the two i’s, but the official name of the US state became “Hawaii” without the apostrophe when it joined the Union.4 Even if Hawaii wasn’t a direct influence on McCaffrey and the Star Trek writers, I like to think it was floating around in the back of their minds.

Note: As multiple commenters have pointed out, the “apostrophe” in “Hawai`i” is actually called an `okina, which looks like an opening single quotation mark. It represents a glottal stop.

Are Apostrophes Annoying?

Finally, some people find apostrophes in sci-fi and fantasy names annoying.5, 6, 7 McCaffrey’s apostrophes have a reasoning and a meaning behind them: at the time of Impression, when a man becomes a dragonrider, his name is shortened, perhaps to make it easier to call out while they’re in the sky,8 so F’lar was originally Fallarnon.9 It seems to annoy people more when there is no reason for the apostrophe—when it’s just included to make a name sound exotic.


If you find an apostrophe (or two!) in character names annoying, you may appreciate this little joke: I first heard about it on the Writing Excuses podcast (audio link) in an April Fool’s episode, but it originated on a Live Journal post in Issendai’s Superhero Training Journal in which the Evil Overlady proclaims that apostrophes are to be pronounced “boing.” Therefore, it’s not pronounced F’lar, but rather “F-boing-lar.” So next time you see an annoying apostrophized name, just insert a “boing” for your own amusement.

Happy International Apostrophe Day!



1. Wikipedia Contributors. “Apostrophes: Use in Transliteration.” Wikipedia. (accessed August 15, 2013).
2. Wikipedia Contributors. “Dune: Arab and Islamic References.” Wikipedia. (accessed August 15, 2013).
3. Wikipedia Contributors. “Tarzan of the Apes.” Wikipedia. (accessed August 15, 2013).
4. Wikipedia Contributors. “Hawaii.” Wikipedia. (accessed August 15, 2013).
5. Williams, I.R. “What’s in a Name? A Lot, When it Comes to Fantasy.” The Guardian. (accessed August 15, 2013).
6. Allen, M. “What’s in a Name?Writing-World.com. (accessed August 15, 2013).
7. Username: PoeticExplosion. “RE: The Apostrophe in Names—Is it Just Me?Science Fiction and Fantasy Community Chronicles. (accessed August 15, 2013).
8. “Major Characters from the Dragonriders of Pern Novels.” Angelfire.com. (accessed August 15, 2013).
9. Wikipedia Contributors. “Characters in Dragonriders of Pern.” Wikipedia. (accessed August 15, 2013).

This article was originally published by Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing on August 15th

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of the New York Times best-seller Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

1. Resuna
Cordwainer Smith's "underpeople" all have an apostrophe in their name, but it's for good reason. C'Mell is a cat. D'Joan is a dog.?

The Ballad of Lost C'Mell was published in '62, so it fits in the post-Hawaii clump, but I'm not sure quite when he started writing about the Instrumentality of Mankind... and I don't think Hawaii was his inspiration.
Jacob Silvia
2. aethercowboy
I'm reminded of the Apostropocalypse in Neal Stephenson's Reamde.
3. RobL
REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson, has an amusing discussion of the use of apostrophes in proper nouns, in which a well-researched author questions the use of apostrophes by a super prolific author. The super prolific author's reasoning boils down to...umm, it looks cool, which I suspect is the reasoning of most authors, excepting McCaffrey.
4. a1ay
it seems likely that Arabic is the inspiration for the apostrophe in Dune’s Muad’Dib.

I suspect that "muad'dib" is actually an Arabic word. It's translated in the book as "one who points the way".

I don't actually speak Arabic - someone correct me here - but AFAIK the "mu-" prefix is what you add on to a word to mean "someone who does".
So you have "azan", the call to prayer, and the bloke who does that is the "muezin". Or, a common example, you have "jihad", meaning holy struggle, and the bloke who does that is the "mujahid". So a "muad'dib" might be someone who does "addab", which is a word meaning loosely "correct behaviour" - a teacher, say.
Anyone speak Arabic and be able to correct me here?
Joe Vondracek
5. joev
Hmm. Okay, how about M'ling, the bear hybrid from H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896?
David Levinson
6. DemetriosX
I don't have any concrete examples, but I think you'll find apostrophes fairly often in pulp fiction of the 30s or even earlier. Lovecraft, as noted above, certainly, but many others as well both from his circle and outside it. Now the reasoning for it was probably mostly because it looked cool or alien. A glottal stop could also have had some influence, coming not just from Arabic but probably more frequently from Cockney dialect being written out in stories.
7. angrygreycatreads
At work, in a Kindergarten thru 8th school, I had to enter all the student's names into a database for a program I was administering and from about 3rd grade and under there were lots of apostrophe names, at least 4 in each class or about 12 in each grade.
Merchanter Pride
8. MerchanterPride
Just for completeness I want to mention the section on apostrophes in place names in the introduction to Diana Wynne Jones' absolutely marvelous The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which takes the conceit that all fantasy novels actually happen in a real world which posseses all the cliches and tropes of fantasy writing, including the omnipresence of stew and so forth. Anyway she mentions apostrophes briefly and raises most of the issues you identify here in a very hilarious way.
A.J. Bobo
9. Daedylus
I have to admit that I'm guilty of using apostrophes because they look cool. I once wrote a story about some orcs. In their culture, they were given short names with only one or two sylables when they were born. As they grow up, though, new sylables could be added to their names based on accomplishment or status in society. In fact, their main god was an orc that had progressed and advanced until his name became Ma'fasa'lita'them'a'loc.
Del C
10. del
I'm only asking, but Hawai`ians don't breathe methane, by any chance?
11. TheMadLibrarian
Only if we get too close to a volcano. Nor do we speak in six part harmonies.
David Levinson
12. DemetriosX
@8 MerchanterPride's mention of the Tough Guide reminded me of Jack Chalker's Dancing Gods series. I think he missed apostrophes, but somebody correct me if I'm wrong.
Rosemary Smith
13. RoseRedFern
Terry Pratchett had fun playing with apo'strophe's. Some of hi's character's u'se them with great exhuberance and a total lack of correctne's's.
David Levinson
14. DemetriosX
@13 RoseRedFern
What Pratchett was doing there was a little different. The character with that particular speech impediment was a greengrocer, because the use of an apostrophe in a plural is commonly known as a greengrocer's apostrophe.
Sanne Jense
15. Cassanne
Steven Erikson uses names with apostrophes in his Malazan series. Mostly functional, in his case they indicate a kind of past tense. The apostrophe is added when the person (or thing) becomes undead or is fundamentally changed in soem other way. Example: Onos Toolan becomes the undead Onos T'oolan. The Imass people become the T'lan Imass after a terrible ritual.

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