There are many shocking elements in The Hunger Games, the dystopic young adult series by Suzanne Collins—it is, after all, about kids killing each other. Once you let that sink in, though, you can absorb the craziest part of the trilogy: the characters’ names. Katniss? Haymitch? Cinna? Collins has never explained how she came up with these names, leaving the books’ many fans to hatch their own theories. (One fansite even created an algorithm to figure out your Hunger Games name; mine is Rebmet G. Skiptulip, only slightly more ridiculous-sounding than any of the ones in the book.)
The names can be roughly divided into two groups: Characters from the poor, depleted districts are named after plants or other earthy items; those from the regal capital have a Roman influence. While the names may seem as random as the reaping, I think there’s order in them: The Roman-themed names play on Collins’ critique of imperialism—the nation of Panem gets its name from panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses”—while the plant names highlight the natural goodness of the books’ heroes.*
Below is my attempt to explain the names of some of the more important characters from the series. Note: there are spoilers ahead for those who have not read the books.
Katniss Everdeen: The heroine of the trilogy has what seems, at first, like a not-so-heroic moniker. (Her best friend, Gale, calls her Catnip.) But her name is one of the few that gets an explanation: In a flashback, her father—who is already dead when the book begins—tells her that “as long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” The katniss plant has nourishing roots, and is also known as “arrowhead.” It belongs to the genus Sagittaria, and the constellation of the same name, Sagittarius, is also known as the archer—a fitting ode to her impressive bow-and-arrow skills.
Gale Hawthorne: Katniss’ best friend’s shares his name with a strong wind—but some fansites suggest that it’s actually derived from the Old English word gaile, meaning jovial. This seems unlikely; Gale isn’t really the jovial type. Like a strong wind, however, the mostly absent, brooding Gale is barely visible, though his presence can have dramatic effects.
Peeta Mellark: I haven’t seen any convincing interpretations for Katniss’ fellow District 12 tribute. Given that he comes from a family of bread bakers, however, Peeta may simply be an alternate—dystopic, if you will—spelling of pita. (The humble Peeta also stands in contrast to the grandiose Panem, which, as noted above, is Latin for bread.)
Haymitch Abernathy: Ralph Abernathy was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, and is a fitting namesake for the revolutionary Haymitch. But what about that crazy first name? I have no idea.
Effie Trinket: The escort for the District 12 tributes has one of the few names currently circulating (if minimally) in the baby-name pool. Effie is short for the Greek name Euphemia, meaning well-spoken, which fits well enough—though the Greek for well-dressed might suit her better. Her last name does nod to her attire: It describes a small/cheap ornament, something Elizabeth Banks’ costume designer has down to a T.
Rue: The most beloved of the non-District 12 tributes also has a plant-based name: The rue is known as the herb-of-grace and is often used for its medicinal properties. But you probably know it better as meaning pity or regret (as in “you will rue the day”), something the people who kill her will surely feel, once Katniss is done with them.
Seneca Crane: In addition to possessing the world’s best facial hair, Seneca Crane has the distinguished title of Head Game Master. While he shares his name with a Native American tribe now living in New York and Ontario, Collins was likely referring to the Roman philosopher, who was forced to commit suicide when accused of conspiracy. The philosopher’s fate hints at Crane’s own.
Cinna: Katniss’s stylist doesn’t have a last name, but he shares his first name with a fellow artist: the poet in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—who was mistaken for another Cinna, a politician who helped kill Caesar. The poet Cinna was subsequently killed by a mob, which foreshadows what happens to Katniss’s stylist. Sorry, Lenny Kravitz fans.
Claudius Templesmith: The games announcer shares his name with the Roman emperor Claudius, whose own name comes from the Latin claudus, meaning lame. In the Roman’s case, it’s a reference to his physical deformity, but the modern, colloquial meaning of “lame” seems more fitting for Mr. Templesmith.
Coriolanus Snow: The evil president is named for another Roman, one who was immortalized in the Shakespeare play with the same name. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus supported the power of aristocrats over the common people. Sounds familiar.
Have your own theories for these or other names? Let us know in the comments.
* This post originally referred to Panem as a city; it is, rather, a fictional nation.