A Linguist Explains the Grammar of Shipping -The Toast

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Our resident linguist’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Let’s talk about shipping. No, not the transportation of goods over the water, but that feeling when you want a couple fictional characters to smush their faces against each other and never let go.


The word ship itself has an interesting enough grammar, not to mention its variants like OTP and broT3, but my favourite topic in the linguistics of shipping is one that has an actual academic paper written about it: The Fandom Pairing Name: Blends and the Phonology/Orthography Interface is a paper about ship names. You know, like Johnlock and Brittana and Dramione.* It was published in the Journal of Onomastics by Cara DiGirolamo, a linguist and also a friend. (To be honest, I’m pretty sure I decided we needed to become friends about 30 seconds after she mentioned she’d written this paper—and Toasties already owe her a debt of gratitude for helping me brainstorm the Bandycoot Cabbagepatch article.)


What ling-friend Cara DiGirolamo says is that a good ship name comes down to several factors:  

1. Overlap

The most important factor, the one that overrides any other, is whether the names have any overlap in sound or spelling. If so, they’ll almost inevitably blend at the point of overlap: thus Brittana blends at the “an” common to both Brittany and Santana, Grindeldore (or Dumblewald) blends at the medial “l” common to Grindelwald and Dumbledore, Olicity blends at the “li” in both Oliver and Felicity, Cartinelli at the “art” in both Peggy Carter and Angie Martinelli, Cecilos at the “l” in both Cecil and Carlos, Bechloe at the “c” in Beca and Chloe, Sherlolly at the “lo” in both Sherlock and Molly, Korrasami at the “a” in both Korra and Asami, and so on.

Sometimes the overlap is more spelling than sound (the “ab” in Ichabod isn’t pronounced like the “ab” in Abbie, and yet we have Ichabbie), and sometimes the overlap is more sound than spelling (Percy/Bianca becomes Percianca because of a common “ee” sound), whatever works for the names in question. Even a near overlap can sometimes help, such as Rumbelle (the bl- from Belle evokes the pl- in Rumplestiltskin), or Rizzles (the isl- in Isles evokes the iz-l in Rizzoli).

The only time when overlap doesn’t work is if we have two names that begin or end with exactly the same sound, because, well, no one would notice if you just swapped out the same thing in the exact same position. Thus Kurt/Karofsky becomes Kurtofsky, and Riley/Buffy becomes Ruffy or Briley (a rare case of two viable ship names). Elsanna (Elsa/Anna, also known as Frozencest) manages to remain viable despite both ending in -a because Anna also starts with a-.

What about when you don’t have any overlap at all? Don’t worry, DiGirolamo has still got us covered. This is where things get really interesting.

2. Stress Match

The first thing we need to look at is where the stressed syllable is in each name by itself. We want to make any syllables we use in the ship name keep their original stress, so that the link between the original name and the ship name is as obvious as possible.

For example, Laura Hollis/Carmilla Karnstein becomes Hollstein — their first names both end in -a and “Laura” has an idiosyncratic spelling that’s hard to pronounce if you change even a single letter, so we use their last names, both of which have initial stress. Hollstein preserves the stressed syllable from Hollis and the unstressed syllable from Karnstein, while maintaining the rhythm of both names.


John Watson/Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, becomes Johnlock. John is monosyllabic, so it’s automatically stressed, and we can substitute it out for the whole stressed syllable of Sherlock. (This is the same reason we get Kimye from Kim/Kanye.)

Cosima/Delphine, both stressed on “i”, become Cophine — the unstressed “co” from Cosima is preserved along with the stressed “phine” from Delphine.

Here’s DiGirolamo’s diagram of what it looks like when you merge stress patterns: the more X’s, the more strongly you pronounce a particular syllable:

Stress peaks

Similarly, Merther (Merlin/Arthur) and Emison (Emily/Alison) retain the same initial stress as each name separately, Pedrazar (Pedro/Balthazar) and Delena (Damon/Elena) merges the first name’s strong-weak into the second name’s strong-weak-strong, and Tibette (Tina/Bette) puts primary stress on Bette’s stressed “be” and secondary stress on Tina’s stressed “ti”.

3. Onset Conservation

But how do we decide which name comes first? The most important factor is which name starts with the most consonants. The consonants before the vowel at the beginning of a syllable are called the onset, and Onset Conservation is DiGirolamo’s term for the fact that whichever name has the most consonants at the beginning tends to have that part stick around.

That might sound complicated, but it’s very clear in execution: the /sn-/ in Snape has two consonants, so it trumps any name beginning with a vowel or a single consonant. Thus we get the Snape family (snamily?) of ship names, such as Snarry (with Harry), Snamione (with Hermione), Snumbledore (with Dumbledore), Snack (with Sirius Black), Snupin (with Lupin), and so on.

Onset conservation is also why we get Drarry (Draco/Harry), Dramione (Draco/Hermione), Klaroline (Klause/Caroline), Sterek (Stiles/Derek), Stydia (Stiles/Lydia), Clex (Clark Kent/Lex Luthor), Chlex (Chloe/Lex), Phrack (Phryne/Jack), Cherik (Charles/Erik), CroWen (Cristina/Owen), Bedward (Bella/Edward), Brucas (Brooke/Lucas), Brangelina (Brad/Angelina), and so on.  



Sometimes onset conservation even squishes together onsets from both names, such as Spred for Spike/Fred.

4. Orthographic Transparency

The next principle that the brilliant Cara DiGirolamo has identified for us is Orthographic Transparency, because English spelling is wtf. This wouldn’t be such an issue in languages with more consistent spelling systems, but in English, so much about how one letter is pronounced is indicated by what other letters it’s next to, so when you split a word up, you can’t necessarily guarantee that its pronunciation will come along for the ride.

Often, Orthographic Transparency simply forces a choice between two viable ship names. For example, Harry/Ginny both have the same number of consonants at the beginning, so Onset Conservation can’t tell us whether to pick Hinny or Garry. But Hinny wins because we’d automatically pronounce Garry with a hard g despite the fact that Ginny has a soft g. With a different Harry, Harry Styles/Louis Tomlinson, we face a choice between Larry and Houis for the same reason, but this time it’s Houis that’s weird to pronounce, so Larry wins. (Larry Stylinson is a rare example of a double-barrelled ship name, where both first and last names combine well with each other so fans opt to use them both together.)

tumblr_newr3o0QXX1s975uao4_250But sometimes, Orthographic Transparency has more drastic effects. For example, it explains why Dean/Castiel becomes Destiel rather than Deastiel. If you keep the “dea” of Dean, the pronunciation becomes ambiguous: a reader can’t tell whether the “a” is supposed to be pronounced like the “a” in Dean or like the “a” in Castiel (Dea-stiel or De-astiel?).

5. Lexical Neighbourhood Evaluation

The last major factor is Lexical Neighbourhood Evaluation: what other words sound like the potential blend?

Sometimes, soundalikes are a good thing: Shirbert (Anne Shirley/Gilbert Blythe) is close to sherbet, Pepperony (Pepper/Tony) sounds like pepperoni, Calzona (Callie/Arizona) sounds like calzone, and Zimbits (Jack Zimmerman/Eric “Bitty” Bittle) is helped by its closeness to the Canadian delicacy timbits, especially given that one of its members is Canadian. Hannigram (Hannibal/Graham) is probably influenced by words like telegram and anagram (and perhaps by the fact that some people pronounce “Graham” as a single syllable). And a sufficiently pun-tastic lexical neighbour can even make people accept a ship name that isn’t a perfect blend, as in Harmony (Harry/Hermione) or Adoribull (Dorian/Iron Bull).

But sometimes soundalikes are misleading: a case study from DiGirolamo’s paper is the ship name for Quinn Fabray/Rachel Berry. Their original ship name was Quichel, but fans weren’t completely satisfied — it looks a lot like quiche, but it’s not supposed to be pronounced quiche-l. So one of the biggest Quinn/Rachel shipping communities decided to hold a survey for a better ship name. The results were as follows:

Faberry motifs

We can see that Faberry led the poll and subsequently became the dominant ship name for this pairing — and it’s also the only one that manages to overlap, with the “b” common to Fabray and Berry.  

(Also, I really don’t know why so many of these soundalikes are food-related. That’s a question for a sociologist.)

Lexical Neighbourhood Evaluation also explains why Kurt/Blaine are Klaine and not Blurt — onset conservation alone would predict that we’d get Blurt, but that’s a real word without a particularly positive connotation, so fans opted for Klaine. Similarly, Darcy/Lizzie should be equally likely to be Larcy or Dizzie, but Larcy sounds like Larceny whereas Dizzie lets you play this Beatles song for them, Jane/Bing could be Bane or Jing, but Jing sounds more cheerful, and James/Lily could be Jily or Lames, but I mean, seriously.

And, well, you should probably be able to figure out why Pinn (Puck/Finn) and Spirk (Spock/Kirk) are the preferred orders for those names. Phallic connotations aren’t always bad, though—Beadick (Beatrice/Benedick) is an accurate reflection of this combative Much Ado pairing.


(To be clear, early ships like Kirk/Spock, Mulder/Scully, and Buffy characters pre-date the blend name trend, so you may not find any of their versions particularly euphonious. Some people trace the rise in blend names to the increasing fandom importance of tumblr, whose tagging system doesn’t support slash marks.)

The crvr restriction

There’s just a few minor loose ends to tidy up. First of all, there’s a weird restriction on English words that you’ve probably never noticed before: English doesn’t like syllables like “plil” or “kror” which contain a consonant + a sonorant + a vowel + the same sonorant. A word like “ply” or “pill” is fine, but something about two /l/s or two /r/s on either side of the vowel just doesn’t sound right to our ears.  

So you won’t find English words with this pattern, and you won’t find English ship names like this either. Thus Glinda/Elphaba (Elphie) is Gelphie, not Glelphie, Carly/Freddie is Creddie, not Frarly, and Allison/Lydia is Allydia, not Lallison.

When the given names just don’t work

And occasionally, despite your best efforts, two names just won’t smoosh well. If they’re short enough, you may be able solve that by just putting them next to each other, especially if there’s a handy lexical neighbour to make it seem less weird, such as SwanQueen (Emma Swan/Evil Queen Regina Mills, with influence from Swan Lake) or Joan of March (Joan Brooke/Meg March, with influence from Joan of Arc).

But sometimes, you need to get even more creative, or you find a wordplay that you just can’t resist, like Trickyfish (Chris Kirkpatrick/Lance Bass, with a pun), Soccer Cop (Alison/Beth, related to their professions, “soccer mom” and cop), Enjolras/Grantaire (E/R, because of a pun by Victor Hugo), Star-Spangled Banner (Tony/Steve/Bruce), and so on. There’s also a subset of ships that use the -cest libfix attached to the last name of two related characters: Wincest (Dean Winchester/Sam Winchester), Holmescest (Sherlock/Mycroft), and Durincest (Fili/Kili).  



(Katniss/Peeta are, I believe, known as Star Crossed, because, well… I’ll just let you think about their options for a second…)

Why this is useful for linguistics as a whole

So this is pretty cool, but how did ling-friend Cara DiGirolamo actually get a study of ship names published in a linguistics journal?

Well, ship names are part of a broader phenomenon of blends in English, from Lewis Carroll’s slithy (slimy and lithe) to why we have brunch and smog rather than leckfast and foke. But people don’t actually go around creating blends all that often — one delightful study of English blends looked at 63 of them, from the well-formed guesstimate, mansplaining, and sexpert to the baffling fozzle (fog+drizzle), brinkles (bed+wrinkles), and wonut (waffle+donut). But while 63 is quite a large corpus when it comes to real-life blends, it’s nothing when it comes to fandom: there’s more than that in ship names from the cast of Glee alone.

The fannish culture that ship names are embedded in helps too. DiGirolamo points out that another way blends get created is for advertising campaigns, where they may become popular through sheer paid-for exposure even if they aren’t that great linguistically (see phablet). The fandom process is decentralized and democratic: a ship name lives or dies on its own merits. And while ad execs and literary punsters have a lot of flexibility in terms of whether they choose to use a blend or not, show creators don’t name their characters based on which combinations will make shippable blends, so ship names are also a unique opportunity to see how people cope with words that are seriously difficult to combine.

And that, my friends, is why we need fan-guistics.

*Note that I’ll give the input names for ship names so you can follow it even if you aren’t familiar with all the sources, but I’m omitting the name of the show/movie/etc. in the interest of clutter. If any are unfamiliar to you, they will reveal themselves upon googling.  

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