Khaleesi: The Non-Name from a Non-Language

May 22nd 2013

Last year, 146 American girls were named Khaleesi. That's a 450% jump in the name's usage from 2011, and before that year it was completely unknown.

If you're not familiar with the name Khaleesi, you'd be excused for guessing that it's Arabic, like Khalilah, or perhaps from Western Africa, like Kwasi. In fact, the name comes from the Dothraki language. Except it's not a name in that language, but a common word meaning "queen." And Dothraki isn't a natural language, but a handful of words created by Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin for his imagined Dothraki people. (A language-creation specialist has since elaborated on Martin's vocabulary for the tv version of his fantasy epic.)

Plenty of authors dating back to Shakespeare have invented names that caught on with parents. You can even find names from imagined fantasy worlds that have been used on real-world babies. For instance, hundreds of American girls have been named Eowyn over the past decade after a Lord of the Rings character. [Read more about fantasy and science fiction names.] But a name taken from a word that's not a name, from an imagined language? I can't think of a precedent.

That's not to say we couldn't see this one coming. More than a year ago, I raised this question on Twitter:

"Game Of Thrones fans, help! A user added the title Khaleesi to our baby name db. Legit? Could you see it as a name?"

Among the responses, one Twitter denizen with the handle "pantalonesfuego" offered a key insight:

"To me the name Khaleesi feels a little different from Queen because it's also a form of address -- like 'Your Highness'"

This distinction means that Khaleesi, while not a name, was used on the tv series in a name-like way.

Another Twitterer, PanyaV, further pointed out that the tv series altered the pronunciation of Khaleesi in a way that might appeal to American parents. The Kh- was supposed to indicate a "voiceless velar fricative," the throaty sound that's common in many languages but hard to pronounce in English. What's more, the Dothraki word was supposed to be stressed on the first syllable. Instead, though, viewers hear the name-ready pronunciation "kah-LEE-see." Some parents even chose to simplify the name's spelling to make this pronunciation clear; the variant Kaleesi was given to 30 babies.

As all of these young Khaleesis and Kaleesis grow up, they will doubtless be asked about their names. They could launch into an awkward origin story ("Umm, well, my parents really liked this tv show..."), but I recommend a simpler approach:

"It's Dothraki for 'queen.'"

That's perfectly true, and a lot more straightforward than the origins of plenty of traditional names. If the person you're talking to doesn't recognize Dothraki as a language of another world, well, that's their loss.


May 22, 2013 2:27 PM

Other alternate spellings:

Khalessi (9 uses)

Calessi (6 uses)

There's also Khalise (7 uses), which seems to be either an alternate spelling of Khaleesi or a vulgar word in Hindi.

Also, 21 families honored the Khaleesi by naming their daughters Daenerys.

May 22, 2013 4:50 PM

The awkward thing about it is that the kids won't be able to see the program until they're at least 17, and they'll never be able to watch it with their parents without dying of embarrassment. I think it's a cool name for a cool character, but oh, my! I don't want my kids anywhere near the TV when it's on! (For those who haven't seen the show, it's really X-rated. Excellent, but racy in the extreme.) And the scenes with Daenerys are quite steamy.

May 22, 2013 7:08 PM

I saw an expectant mother post this as her planned name for her baby if it's a girl; she was spelling it Calissi. Had I not read this post before, I never would have known the reference! (Her proposed boy name was Ashert0n.)

May 22, 2013 8:50 PM

It is a pretty name and she is a very strong character.  I think it would bother me to use a name with no origin other than a fantasy novel.  The only other examples of names becoming popular from a novel I can think of are Wendy and Mina, but I think they were acceptable nicknames prior.  

May 22, 2013 10:26 PM

Re the attractiveness of the character...

It occurs to me that there's a major difference between naming a child after Daenerys/Khaleesi and past characters from novels: you don't yet know what's going to become of her. Characters evolve dramatically as the "Song of Ice and Fire" unfolds, and there are at least two more novels yet to come.

It reminds me a bit of this old post about the risks of naming after sports stars:

May 22, 2013 11:52 PM

I have been reading the books in A Song of Fire and Ice for years (George R R Martin is a genius!) and just recently got the first season of Game of Thrones on Blu-Ray.  It is a racy show, but I think the whole point of Daenerys as a character is that she overcomes much in her life- whether she falls in the end or not, she is a confident woman who wasn't afraid to chase her goals despite growing up with an abusive brother and no real memories of her parents.  I actually think it would be b.a. if Daenerys and Rob Stark ended up getting married and conquering the most irritating of all families in the series- the Lannisters (but keep Tyrion alive please!) But I am just dreaming there, thus George R R Martin's genius in that I have no idea where he is actually going with all of this. I digress.  I think that parents who want to instill a sense of perseverence in their daughters will be able to tell them that.  Just my two cents...

May 23, 2013 12:16 AM

Names derived from novels:

Rima from Green Mansions, a popular novel from the early twentieth century and a popular film starring Audrey Hepburn (I had a very unpleasant colleague named Rima.)

Also, besides Eowyn, I have run into Arwen in use, and I knew one man named Gandalf.  Of course, technically Lord of the Rings is not a novel.

May 23, 2013 12:22 AM

Gandalf really is a bit much to me.  

By Tana
May 23, 2013 8:11 AM

Wait, if Lord of the Rings isn't a novel, then what is it? I'd look it up, but I'm not sure how/where to do so.

May 23, 2013 10:02 AM

I know a little Arwen; she's about 8 months old now. I also know a cat named Gandalf... And I think what Miriam meant is that Lord of the Rings is multiple novels (three as published, six as the author thought of it), plus The Hobbit. (Speaking of Tolkien-derived names, I know a dog named Hobbit.) But Martin is well past that output, so if LoTR isn't a novel, neither is the source of Khaleesi. Technically.

May 23, 2013 8:30 PM

LOTR is a romance, not a novel, just as The Tempest is a romance, not a comedy.  Novel is not synonymous with long prose fiction.

May 24, 2013 12:25 AM

Freedictionary s.n. novel (noun):
> 1. an extended fictional work in prose; usually in the form of a story;
> 2. a printed and bound book that is an extended work of fiction

How is that "not synonymous with long prose fiction"?

May 24, 2013 2:04 AM

Apparently, this is a common debate, and it is acceptable to refer to the work as a romance or an epic novel.  The definition of a novel,  and the form of the modern novel,  has changed since Tolkien was writing.  Tolkien may or may not have considered his work a heroic romance but most modern readers would consider and refer to it as a novel (or as my husband refers to it as an epic novel). 

My friend recommended a book by Ian Watt titled Rise of the Novel, which addresses this very debate and the lose definitions.  He claims that there is also a debate among scholars as to whether or not Gulliver's Travels is a novel.  

Also, I believe LOTR was written as one work and separated for publication.



May 24, 2013 10:50 AM

Freedictionary is not a reliable source for definitions of literary terms.

May 24, 2013 10:57 AM

Gulliver's Travels is a satire.

Yes, LOTR was written as six books (half the epic number) intended to appear as one volume, but for production reasons it appeared in three volumes, causing people to refer to it thereafter as a trilogy, which it was never intended to be.

May 24, 2013 12:41 PM

I know of at least one young Khalisi born in late 2011 or early 2012. Her parents are really big fans of the show, but I have to wonder whether they changed the spelling on purpose or if they just guessed at the spelling without looking it up. Also, the book has been around since 1996, I find it interesting that it wasn't until it was a tv show that people picked it up as a name. I meant to submit Khaleesi as a "rising name" in 2012 but I forgot - now I need to find the post on how to calculate the "hotness formula" to see how I would've done.

Also, names from the word "queen" isn't unheard of - I've heard Reina, Reyna and Regina used as names, and they come from Spanish, Filipino and Italian words for queen.

May 25, 2013 3:31 PM

From what I understand, Khalis (m) and Khalisah (f) are names in Arabic with the root letters Kha (خ) + Lam (ل) and Saad (ص). Words with those root letters are generally related to purity and clarity.

Also, to say "my __" to a word in arabic, you would just add an "ee" to the end. So "my Khalis" would be "Khalisee." 

May 29, 2013 2:16 AM

i do not think that this wizerd will do the work. It might help us. But truly, i haven't found any good and religious name for my baby..

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May 29, 2013 3:43 AM

Thanks for the mention!

Ditto bete noir -- I didn't even think of the Arabic word/name when I was responding to the question, since Game of Thrones/Dothraki was foremost in my mind!

May 30, 2013 3:31 AM

We named our baby girl Kaleesi, we love the name, obviously! We took her to Fiji last year and found out that the name is actually Fijian. We met 3 women working at the hotel with the name, they spelt it Kalesi. They thought it was wonderful our baby had a Fijian name (not that we knew that!).

June 3, 2013 2:26 PM

I think this wizard works for me. I have named Reyna for my daughter last week. I got the reference from my friend about this name and me and my wife searched the meaning of this name. It is really amazing meaning of name what I found here on this website. [spam link removed]

July 9, 2013 5:23 PM

"I think it would bother me to use a name with no origin other than a fantasy novel."

Really? My name comes from The Bible, and it hasn't done me any harm.

July 11, 2013 10:22 PM

Khaleesi Is a beautiful, strong name. I rescued a little girl, and named her Khaleesi. She is amazing. Only 18 months, but so intuitive ... she will be a warrior. For me, Khaleesi means, Princess Warrior. That is more than I can say about my name. Jennifer was never questioned in the 80's ... why is Khaleesi? Make the meaning of your childs name, unique.

March 7, 2014 12:29 AM

Wow! The trend is really striking when shown that way. It also really sheds light on the rise and fall of the letter y.