Maleficent, Voldemort, and Gordon Gekko: The Secret to a Good Villain Name

In reimagining the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, Disney had a great tool in their arsenal: the classic villain name "Maleficent," now elevated to title character. And while Angelina Jolie’s portrayal in the reboot calls into question just how villainous she really is, there is no question that the creators of the original film chose wisely when naming this "mistress of all evil."

Before Disney got hold of the word, "maleficent" was a highfalutin adjective meaning "causing harm," the opposite of "beneficent." Even if you were not quite sure what it meant, you would know from the "mal-" prefix that it was up to no good, in the same wicked family as "malignant," "malevolent," and "malicious."

"Maleficent" resonates with all of those "mal-" words, but it also echoes "magnificent," befitting a grand character who is not to be trifled with. And it also sounds like a plausible woman’s name, not too far off from "Millicent."

If you think about the memorable names of villains in movies, you’ll notice many plays of association like this, drawing on words from the shady corners of the lexicon. As a linguist, I’m always impressed by how writers devise truly evocative evil names by building on connotations with pre-existing words.

In the pantheon of Disney villains, the closest point of comparison to Maleficent is Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. Dodie Smith, author of the 1956 novel on which the film was based, came up with the name by transforming "cruel devil" into something appropriately feminine and aristocratic-sounding.

Sometimes the connotations are in your face: When Oliver Stone presented us with Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, audiences knew from the get-go that this was one slimy, reptilian character. (Coming full circle, herpetologists have named an Indonesian gecko in his honor: Cyrtodactylus gordongekkoi.) Animalistic overtones can be more subtle, though, as in Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, whose last name is pronounced "shi-GUR" but brings to mind the pestilent "chigger."

"Darth Vader" also works subtly, the first name evoking "dark" and "death," and the second name suggesting "invader." George Lucas would later claim that the origin was simple: "'Darth' is a variation of 'dark.' And 'Vader' is a variation of 'father.' So it’s basically 'Dark Father.'" But Star Wars fans see that as a clever bit of "retroactive continuity," since the name evidently came before Lucas had worked out the "Luke, I am your father" storyline.

A single homonym or near-homonym may be enough to trigger a foreboding feeling, as in the wretched Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Hannibal from The Silence of the Lambs, whose name is just a consonant away from "cannibal."

Other times the associations are buried more deeply in the names. Bram Stoker adapted "Dracula" from an epithet for the Romanian prince Vlad II, known as "Vlad Dracul" or "Vlad the Dragon," and his son, the bloody Vlad the Impaler. Those same draconian roots can be heard in such names as Ivan Drago of Rocky IV and Draco Malfoy of the Harry Potter series.

The main Harry Potter villain, of course, has a name so potent that wizards called him He Who Must Not Be Named: Lord Voldemort. In the books and movies, the name seems to be an accidental creation: as a teenager, Tom Marvolo Riddle rearranges the letters of his name to form "I am Lord Voldemort." But the resulting epithet is anything but arbitrary: J.K. Rowling, a former French teacher, surely knew that "vol de mort" roughly translates from French as "flight of death." In fact, Rowling intended "Voldemort" to be pronounced with a silent "t" as if it were French, but the moviemakers changed it — all the better to hear the "mort" element (from Latin "mors"), which we associate with such deathly words as "mortality," "mortuary," and "rigor mortis."

J.R.R. Tolkien, for his part, took the task of naming characters in the Middle-earth saga more seriously, and his wordplay was the kind only a scholar of ancient languages could appreciate. He explained that the name of "Smaug," the evil dragon in The Hobbit, was nothing more than "a low philological jest," formed from the past tense of an old Germanic verb meaning "creep" or "crawl." Those arcane roots are lost on modern moviegoing audiences, who might hear in the name something pernicious that Tolkien never dreamed of: "smog"!

While Tolkien enjoyed plumbing the depths of old Germanic tongues, modern movie villains are often given German-sounding names simply because they fit cultural stereotypes: think of Hans Gruber from Die Hard, or Dr. Szell from Marathon Man. More impressive to me is when the name itself, regardless of stereotypical baggage, can do the work of making audiences uneasy. And that is why a name like "Maleficent" works so well for a magnificent malefactor.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of and the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.