Shipping Names and Linguistics
I’ve always found enormous entertainment in how pairing names are formed. As a linguist who has apparently lived too long in academics, I’ve wanted to study shipping in depth. I vaguely remember seeing formal scholarship on the linguistics of shipping names, but today I just decided to study pairing names myself and try to determine if there’s a linguistic system to how they’re adopted. It can’t just be random how we come up with these names, can it?
After screwing around for about a day reading over three hundred shipping names from a few fandom communities (not all of which I’m a part), I think I’ve come to the hypothesis we subconsciously create shipping names according to a list of optimal rules. These rules put constraints on what the pairing can be named. The best shipping name, and the one that typically becomes adopted, is one that tries to break the fewest amounts of constraints.
Now these constraints are ordered in terms of importance. It’s worse to break constraints at the top of the list. Constraints at the bottom of the list are more likely to be broken. And if constraints are broken, it will usually be because a higher-ranked constraint overrides the other conflicting constraint (don’t worry I’ll give examples so that this hopefully makes more sense).
These are the constraints I think apply to shipping name paradigms (and yes, I just made those names up):
1. Distinctiveness Principle. The most recognizable part of each characters’ names are used in the combined shipping name. Both names should be taken into account so that both names are as distinctly noticeable as possible. This allows fanse to quickly tell who the two people in the pairing are. For example, the pairing between Snotlout and Ruffnut in How to Train Your Dragon cannot be called “Snotnut” because there’s another character - Tuffnut - whose last name ends in “nut.” “Snotnut” is not distinct and clear. “Ruff” is the clearest part of Ruffnut’s name, so the ship name is “Rufflout.”
2. Two Letter Rule. Each person in the pairing should have at least two unaltered letters (not always sounds) from their name. One letter is not distinct enough to tell who the character is being shipped.
3. First and Second Parts. The first name in the pairing will use the start of the person’s name. The second name in the pairing will use the end of the person’s name. For instance, in “Clintasha,” the pairing between Clinton Barton and Natasha Romanoff, the first name is Clinton. So the first half of his name is used - Clint. But we use the end of Natasha’s name because she’s the second half of the ship. You would violate this rule if you named the ship “Clintnat.” (Of course there are some violations of this rule, like “Edwin” for Ed+Winry, etc).
4. Most Common Names. If the characters are known by their first names, then their first names will be used to make the shipping name. If the characters are always called by their surnames, or their first names are not distinctive enough (hence violating principle #2), surnames may be used. Whenever Rapunzel is shipped, her first name (usually with the suffix “-unzel”) is used. Her last name Corona never enters the picture because people don’t widely know or think about her last name. Lastly, if one name is a first name in the ship name, the other will very likely be a first name; if one name is a last name, so will the other be, too.
5. Name Combination Paradigms. Names are combined in different ways in a pairing. The ones from most optimal to least optimal are:
- Syllable Fusion. Two syllables are overlapped. If characters have some common vowels and consonants in their names, that is where the pairing name “split” happens. For instance, in “Elsanna,” the name Elsa ends with an “a” and Anna begins with an “a.” Since both names share this vowel, it becomes a natural joint to combine their two names. “Mericup,” the ship for Merida and Hiccup, is another example. Like-vowel combinations seem very preferred, though like-consonants occur, too.
- Consonant Similarities. Sometimes consonants aren’t exactly the same, but they’re very similar and become used as the joint. For instance, in the ship between Dagur and Hiccup, the “g” and “c” (actually “k”) sounds are very similar. The only difference between the pronunciation of these two sounds is that you use your vocal chords on the “g.” So it becomes a nice place to join the two names. Other alternated sounds include “b” and “p, “t” and “d,” and “z” and “s.” Suffice it to say that these sounds are produced in very similar ways in the mouth and have similar acoustic features.
- Syllable Split. In this type of a ship name formation, each characters’ names are chunked by syllables. They don’t have any sound overlaps, but the two syllables bump up next to each other. The ship between Thor and Natasha, “Thortasha,” is an example of this. There is no overlap between “Thor” and “Tasha,” but each chunk starts with a syllable from the original names.
- Complex Syllable Avoidance. This isn’t a big rule, but sometimes the syllable isn’t so neatly split. Sometimes you’d have to throw a lot of consonants all together. A syllable may not be split completely correctly to make for smoother pronunciation. For instance, “Dashellope” is the ship between Dash Parr and Vanellope. Technically the start of the second syllable in Vanellope’s name is “nel.” Bu “Dashnellope” isn’t as smooth to say. In a similar way, diphthongs (complex vowels which combine multiple vowel sounds) are sometimes avoided.
6. “Hierarchy” Listing Principle. This one shocked me and I wasn’t expecting it. I would really, really need to study this in depth to make sure this is a Real, True Thing, especially since it could have some cumbersome sociolinguistic consequences. But from my limited data set and casual observations, it seems like there tends to be an order of who’s listed first in the shipping.
- Male, then Female. Men are usually listed before women in a heterosexual ship. I’m only saying this because I have concrete data for this observation. This is just an observation and nothing else. In the 143 heterosexual ships I looked at, 92 had the men listed first, 51 for the women. That’s a stark 2:1 ratio. I tried to guess why sometimes women go first, and it seems that women are very likely to be put first when there’s a break in another rule, such as trying to maximize distinctiveness, or to create a really awesome syllable fusion like “Meridashi” (Tadashi and Merida).
- Bigger Person. The older individual, taller, well-known, or more authoritative character is somewhat frequently listed first in the relationship, especially for homosexual pairings. Again, this is observation I am stating about ship names and an observation alone. Qualified sociolinguists and sociologists could have some things to say about this, but I’m not qualified to study why this occurs.
Note I’m putting the word “hierarchy” in quotations because it’s not truly a measure of character dominance or power. I don’t want to imply that. I’m just saying there’s a hierarchy of certain traits that somehow seem to implicitly decide what name is going first. The character with the most of these traits is likely to be listed first. If I had a better word in my head for what to call this, I’d totally change it.
7. Elegance. A shipping name should sound smooth on the tongue. It’s optimally short - usually two or three syllables - and it does not have any hint of vulgarity implied in the pairing name (hence why Hiccup and Astrid’s pairing is called “Hiccstrid” rather than “Ascup”). This is the least important shipping name and it’s largely up for interpretation of what is “elegant.”
And those are the rules I’ve figured out, in order from most important to least important (maybe… I haven’t run tests or anything to validate they’re in the right order). To list them off more succinctly, they are:
1. Distinctiveness Principle.
2. Two Letter Rule.
3. First and Second Parts.
4. Most Common Names.
5. Name Combination Paradigms (Syllable Fusion, Consonant Similarities, Syllable Split, Complex Syllable Avoidance).
6. “Hierarchy” Listing Principle (gender, age, leadership role, height, etc.).
Remember me saying that the most important principles typically override the less important principles? Let’s say, for example, that there would be a direct conflict between principles #6 and #1. Then rule #6 would be broken to favor #1. I’m going to use the example of the ship between Ruffnut and Fishlegs. We can either put Ruffnut’s name first and call the ship “Rufflegs,” thus breaking rule #6 about men being listed first, or we can put Fishlegs’ name first and have the pairing be “Fishnut.” But then we’d be breaking rule #1 since Ruffnut has a brother named Tuffnut, and we’re not being very distinct. Because #1 is more important, the ship is ultimately “Rufflegs” rather than “Fishnut.”
In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that the first rule is *Essential* in a shipping name. If the first rule is broken, then it doesn’t matter how many other rules the ship name is possible. It’s out. All other rules have a little more leeway, and you might see some lower principles being favored over higher ones on occasion.
I mean, what on earth would “Shon” be? Can you guys figure out who I’m talking about? It’s a lot more understandable if I say “Johnlock.” The “Jo” - if not all of “John” - has to be in there to understand the ship name to be distinct.
Similarly, “Casean” isn’t quite as distinct as “Destiel” since “-tiel” is a highly unusual part of a name. And the “sean” sort of looks like “Sean,” which is pronounced very differently than what speakers would want to convey. So “Destiel” is better.
Here’s some more names in action: Destiel (Dean and Castiel, Supernatural), Hiccstrid (Hiccup and Astrid, How to Train Your Dragon), Johnlock (John and Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock), Stucky (Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, Marvel), Bagginshield (Thorin Oakenshield and Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit), Thorsif (Thor and Sif, Marvel), and Jackunzel (Jack Frost and Rapunzel Corona, ROTBTD).
- “Destiel” is basically a golden case scenario where everything is fulfilled.
- “Hiccstrid” is, too. It can’t be “Ascup” because that’s vulgar and that’d infringe upon the idea of Elegance. The “ccstr” is a lot of consonants all clumped together, but “-strid” is what makes Astrid’s last name distinct.
- “Johnlock” has one minor infringement. Sherlock is sort of the leader in the duo as far as mystery solving is going. He’s arguably the lead character in the show. So why is Sherlock listed second? Because you really can’t have the name “John” split in two going last. What would you say instead? “Shock?” “Sherson?” “Sherwatson?” All of those are much more problematic than “Johnlock,” so “Johnlock” it is.
- “Stucky” is sliiiiiiightly distinct and slightly follows the first principle. But it’s an interesting example because it’s not perfect at all, and there would be other alternatives that are more distinct. “St” at the start of a name isn’t the biggest clue in the world, after all.
- “Bagginshield” violates the principle of common names in a way. Usually we call the characters “Bilbo” and “Thorin.” But Thorin’s first name is downright problematic. The first syllable “Thor” is obnoxiously obscure. Are you talking about Thor the Norse god? Who? So his last name is used. And because his last name is used, it gets paired up with Bilbo’s last name. “Oaken” and “shield” are probably equally distinct, so the deciding factor is the fact that “s” and “sh” are very similar sounds and make a far, far better joint together than “Bagginsoaken” or “Bagginsoak” would be. There’s also the matter of Elegance to be considered here. “Bagginsoaken” is an unwieldy four syllable beast.
- “Thorsif” is interesting because “Sifthor” would literally be just as distinct and fulfill all the rules. Except it’s the slight tendency for us to mention a man’s name first in pairing names.
- “Jackunzel” is another example where we don’t have the syllables split perfectly. Technically that would be “Jackpunzel.”
Now there are some other cool things that I’ve observed from looking at shipping names.
- Fandoms essentially code and create their own prefixes and suffixes over time. Whenever that affix occurs, they know that character is in the ship. Examples of that include “-ler” for Once-ler, “-unzel” for Rapunzel, “-strid” for Astrid, “-vis” for Mavis, “Mega-” for Megamind, and “Meri-” for “Merida. People are essentially systematizing information over time by picking up on what other people have done and linguistically conforming as a group. It’s so cool.
- Some fandoms have started this crazy process of metaphor and creating ship titles not from names, but from these metaphorical associations. I have seen this in the Marvel fandom, ROTBTD, and Inside Out fandom. The ship between Pitch Black and Toothiana from Rise of the Guardians has been called Cavity because black items in a tooth make a cavity. That is CRAZY language manipulation! And that’s only the tip of the iceberg!
- There’s even puns in this whole mess of metaphors and relations. The ship for Steve Rogers and Tony Stark has been called “STARK AND STRIPES,” and I’ve seen “CLAIREDEVIL” refer to Claire Temple and Matt Murdock (Daredevil). Captain America is about American patriotism - so we get the association of “Stars and Stripes” - and then we insert in a pun with Tony’s name. The same thing happens with Matt Murdock, who is Daredevil, when he’s shipped with Claire.
So shipping names, and how they’re developed, is downright cool. There’s a lot of crazy language work going out there and I think I could rattle on even more. Maybe someday I’ll formally study this and write an academic paper on the topic.
Which brings me to this very important point…
Last but not least:
THIS IS NOT AN ACTUAL RESEARCH PAPER AND THIS DATA IS NOT CONFIRMED WHATSOEVER. I REPEAT: THIS IS NOT RESEARCH AND SHOULD NOT BE TREATED AS FACT.
These are literally just my casual, informal observations after playing around a day. So don’t quote me on this! It may be true. It might not. In fact, I already know there are exceptions to my ideas (”Jelsa” is problematic, just to give one example). This isn’t robust research, it’s got its holes, it’s got its guesses, and I’d know how to dismantle my own argument as it currently stands. It’s not rock solid right now. But I just thought I’d have fun, share some of my thoughts, and hope you have some fun with this, too. :)