Apostrophes in Science Fiction and Fantasy Names

In honor of International Apostrophe Day, we're going to talk about the odd case of apostrophes in science fiction and fantasy character names (and why you sometimes see an apostrophe in "Hawai'i").

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #379

“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.]

Apostrophe McCaffreyGetting back to fantasy names, why does the picture that goes with this article have "Boing!" on it?


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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