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? Enobarbia? Finnick? 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, listed alphabetically by first name. Note: there are spoilers ahead for those who have not read the first two books.
Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer): The name of Beetee, a tribute at the 75th Hunger Games, sounds out the first two letters of BTU, a unit used to measure energy. Sound like a stretch? Well, Beetee teams up with Wiress to make up “nuts and volts” (volts being a measurement of electricity). And, indeed, the two are the nuts and bolts of the tributes’ escape plan at the end of Catching Fire. Wiress’ name, of course, contains the word wire; both Beetee and Wiress are from District 3, the technology district.
Brutus (Bruno Gunn): See Enobaria.
Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci): The host of the Hunger Games is one of the more flamboyant Capitol dwellers. Historically, Julius Caesar has come to represent the power of ancient Rome; for Katniss, Caesar comes to represent the power of Panem—he has hosted the games for as long as she’s been alive. He’s the face of the Capitol and the clearest representation of its tyranny. His last name, Flickerman, evokes both the bright (but flickering?) lights of the big city and the filming of the games (a movie, of course, is also a flick). In the books he wears a suit decorated with lightbulbs.
Cinna (Lenny Kravitz): Katniss’ 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’ stylist. Sorry, Lenny Kravitz fans.
Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones): 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 (Donald Sutherland): 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.
Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks): 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 and/or cheap ornament, something Elizabeth Banks’ costume designer has down to a T.
Enobaria (Meta Golding) and Brutus (Bruno Gunn): The female tribute from District 2 for the 75th Hunger Games bears the feminine form of the name Enobarbus, descended from the Latin Ahenobarbus, which means “bronze beard.” The name Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was shared by several Roman generals and politicians. Without going into too much ancient history, the Ahenobarbus who lived during Julius Caesar’s life was captured in 49 B.C. before being pardoned by Caesar. While there’s disagreement about his involvement in Caesar’s assassination, he was later held accountable as one of the co-conspirators and eventually followed Brutus to Macedonia. Enobaria, conveniently, has her own Brutus—whose name doubles as a reference to his brutality and brute strength—and she frequently changes her allegiances.
Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin): One of the most anticipated arrivals in Catching Fire is this District 4 victor known for his dashing good looks. Finnick can, of course, be finicky about his appearance, and Odair may be a variation on the Scottish name Adair, which means “spear.” Finnick received a trident as a gift, and it helped him win the 65th Hunger Games. Fin, short for Finnick, may also allude to his district’s specialty: fish.*
Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth): Katniss’ best friend 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, and yet his presence can have dramatic effects.
Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson): 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’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a nod to Asimov? Let me know your own thoughts in the comments.
Johanna Mason (Jena Malone): Johanna sounds much more familiar than most Hunger Games names; it’s of Hebrew and Latin origins and translates to something like grace of God. Without spoiling Mockingjay, I’ll say that the phrase seems appropriate. Her last name, like most of the tributes, has to do with her craft and district: She is described as “tossing around axes since she could toddle” (though District 7 is known for lumber, not stone). She competes in the 75th Hunger Games.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence): 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.
Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson): 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.)
Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Taking the place of the executed Seneca Crane, Plutarch is the head gamemaker in Catching Fire. While he feigns loyalty to the Capitol, he’s more than a bit like his namesake, Mestrius Plutarchus, an essayist and historian who wrote about the virtues and vices of Coriolanus (also the name of Panem’s president, as noted above) and Caesar (the name of Panem’s master of ceremonies). “Heavensbee” may hint that Plutarch’s true nature is more virtuous than he initially appears—and it’s a fitting descriptor for the gamemaker, as he’s the heavenly character looking over everything and orchestrating behind the scenes.
Rue (Amandla Stenberg): The most beloved of the non-District 12 tributes at the 74th Hunger Games 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 surely feel when Katniss comes after them.
Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley): In addition to possessing the world’s best facial hair, Seneca Crane has the distinguished title of head gamemaker for the 74th Hunger Games. 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.
Wiress: See Beetee.
Correction, Nov. 21, 2013: This post originally misstated that Finnick Odair won the 75th Hunger Games. He won the 65th Hunger Games and competed in the 75th. It also misstated that Wiress carried a big spool of wires. It was Beetee who carried the wires, which just goes to show how well they worked together.