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May the odds be ever in your favour: the language of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a trilogy of books set in a post-apocalyptic country in which the Capitol holds hegemony over the rest of the nation. Within that world, the Hunger Games are an annually-televised bloodbath in which 24 children from outside the Capitol fight to the death in penance for the rebellion of their forebears against the Capitol’s regime.

Not exactly light reading is it? Yet this grisly and gripping trilogy has now overtaken Harry Potter to become the bestselling series on Amazon.com. The books have now also been turned into a very successful film franchise and to celebrate the release of the first film onto DVD this week, let’s take a look at the language that brings Collins’ world to life.

All roads lead to Rome

Despite what you might think there are many parallels between the world of The Hunger Games and our own. The nation of Panem is situated in what remains of North America, but the name ‘Panem’ is not an American English word but the Latin word for bread, which has a derivative today in modern languages such as French: pain.

Even more can be drawn from the choice of ‘Panem’, as it represents ‘panem et circenses’ which literally means ‘bread and circuses’. This is a reference to the satiric Roman poet Juvenal’s comment on the society of Ancient Rome: all the populace wants is bread from the corn dole and the excitement of the bloodthirsty games of the amphitheatre. Juvenal suggested that by pandering to these needs one could journey up the political ladder with ease.

But this is not simply a reflection of the similarity of attitudes between the people of the Capitol and the citizens of Ancient Rome. The country of Panem, with its districts all feeding and providing for the greedy and bourgeois inhabitants of the Capitol, is a clear allusion to the Roman Empire, and the rebellion and subsequent invasion of the Capitol by the districts echoes Rome’s fate.

The Hunger Games themselves are a rather clever blend of the games of the arena in Rome and modern-day reality TV with every moment strategically planned to keep the audience entertained at the expense of the stars of the show: the child fighters. The title of the games is clever in that hunger has multiple interpretations – literal hunger for food, the hunger of the Capitol citizens for entertainment, and the hunger of the participants to survive at any cost.

The children who are sent to the Games, such as protagonist Katniss Everdeen, are called ‘tributes’. The choice of name here evokes the tributes paid by the losing side after a war in the ancient world. These ancient tributes often involved hostages, and there is also an obvious link to sacrifice here. By using the word ‘tribute’ to describe people as payment, Collins hammers home the participants’ loss of identity and humanity.

The victors of the Games, however, enjoy a very privileged life and indeed their home districtis sent food parcels – another interpretation of ‘hunger games’. Victors, much like successful gladiators, are able to cross over from being subordinates to being quasi-citizens of the Capitol. This idea of citizenship again has echoes of Rome: to have or attain Roman citizenship put you in a higher class of society.

Another clever linguistic choice by Collins is her naming of the districts. Naming the districts simply with numbers (1 to 13) following their subjugation by the Capitol strips them of any national identity and thereby something to rally around and rebel for. However, without names the districts display their identity through what they produce, for example wood for District 7 or coal for District 12. Furthermore they are defined by their cultural and culinary traditions – from the pre-marriage toasting and dancing of District 12 to the bread in each district being distinctive – much like my native Lincolnshire is famed for sausages, or Cornwall for pasties!

A rose by any other name…would be interpreted differently

Collins also uses the names of her characters to differentiate status and cultural background. The names of the people from the districts are often rather pastoral. Primrose, Rue, and Katniss are all named after plants, and Thresh from District 11 (the farming and food-supplying district) is suggestive of the threshing of cereal grain at harvest.

Further character traits can be derived from these names: Katniss sounds strong and feline with ‘niss’ giving an impression of a sibilant hiss – very representative of her fierce and somewhat surly personality and that, like a cat, she is a hunter. By contrast her sister’s name, Primrose, immediately portrays a more delicate nature and ‘prim’ itself could perhaps imply that she favours her mother’s lineage from the more privileged sector of District 12.

In contrast to the districts’ names, the names in the Capitol are borrowed from antiquity. Take, for example, Katniss’s prep team Octavia and Flavius. They are essentially overly-emotional beauticians in character, but in name Octavia is the name of the sister of Caesar Augustus, first emperor of Rome, and the Flavian dynasty were responsible for building the Colosseum.

The fact that Plutarch (as head of the rebellion but a citizen of the Capitol) has a Greek name – that of a prolific ancient Greek author writing under Roman rule – is another parallel to the ancient world. President of Panem Cornelius Snow’s surname evokes perfectly his icily cool and intense demeanour while his forename is derived from the name of one of the most prestigious families of Rome, the Cornelii. It is hypothesized that the name ‘Cornelius’ stems from the cognomen Corneus, which means ‘horny’ ( … as in hard or callused … how many of you can honestly say that’s how you would have interpreted that translation? Me neither). But I digress. Castor and Pollux, the twin cameramen from the Capitol, are also a prime example of Collins utilising myths: twins bearing these names are present in both Roman and Greek mythology.

Characters from the Capitol are also defined by their speech. “May the odds be ever in your favour” (a catchphrase of District 12 escort Effie Trinket among others) is not only somewhat archaic in its phrasing but it is easily parodied. Katniss describes the accents of the people of the Capitol as comprising of “Odd vowels, clipped words, and always a hiss on the letter s…no wonder it’s impossible not to mimic them”. This is also apparent in another of Effie’s catchphrases: she describes every day as a “big, big, big day!” portraying her perfectly as an organised busybody. Indeed the name Effie Trinket in itself sounds superficial and gaudy.

An interesting cultural anomaly incorporated by Collins is the naming of tributes from District 2– Cato, Brutus, Enobaria, following the naming conventions of the Capitol. In the same way, important people in the Roman Empire would give their children Roman names to associate and ingratiate themselves with Rome. An apt parallel of this in today’s society is perhaps the naming of children after celebrities.

Who are you calling a muttonhead?

Like many fantasy writers, Collins has invented some new vocabulary of her own. An avox is akin to a slave – someone who has been punished for a ‘crime’ and thereby made a mute servant. Her reason for choosing this word is simple: the Greek prefix ‘a’ means ‘without’ and the Latin ‘vox’ means ‘voice’ so avox literally means ‘without voice’. The Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee also uses propos to mean propaganda spots: this could come from propos (meaning ‘remark or thesis’),  from French propos meaning ‘subject’. As a Gamemaker Plutarch would also be in charge of unleashing muttations (or mutts) into the Hunger Games arena. These range from terrifying mutant beasts to seemingly harmless eavesdroppers. Mutt, if from mutant, is derived from the Latin mutare (to change) but mutt itself stems from muttonhead meaning ‘a dull or stupid person’, colloquial in the US and first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1803.

The names of the mutts themselves are also quite inventive. A jabberjay is a genetically enhanced bird that can eavesdrop and recount entire enemy conversations in a mimic of the real voice. Jays are a common bird and using alliteration is, like rhyme, a nice naming format as it becomes more memorable. Jabber – of onomatopoeic origin and first cited as a noun in the OED in Gulliver’s Travels in 1735 – meaning to talk a lot, makes it clear what the purpose of this mutt is. Jabberjays are said to have mated with mockingbirds thereby creating a new subspecies – the mockingjay. Mockingjay becomes a nickname for Katniss as the face of the rebellion and the double sense of the word mocking makes it an apt choice for challenging the rule of the Capitol.

Hungry for more?

Hungry for more? Fear not. Three more films are on the way. Collins has created not only an epic saga and a gripping book and film trilogy but her allusions to the ancient world and mythology and her choice of names and word coinages allow the reader to gain a real insight not only into her creative process but also into her invented nation of Panem.

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