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 Everdeen? Caesar Flickerman? Alma Coin? Collins has never explained how she came up with these names, leaving the books’ many fans to hatch their own theories.
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. 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.
While the names may seem as random as the reaping, I think there’s order in them. Below is my attempt to explain those that belong to the more important characters who either appear or are mentioned in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. They are listed alphabetically by first name.
Note: There are some spoilers ahead for for those who have not read the books, though I have tried to avoid spoiling much from the final two movies in the series.
Alma Coin (Julianne Moore): The president of District 13 is the leader of the rebellion. Alma may mean soul in Spanish, Italian, and other European languages. It has Latin roots, and can mean kind and loving in that language. Her surname, on the other hand, hints at other interests, though we will not learn more about those until Mockingjay Part 2.
Beetee (Jeffrey Wright): The name of Beetee, a tribute at the 75th Hunger Games and the tech genius behind many of the rebellion’s coolest moves—such as hijacking the Capitol’s television feed—sounds out the first two letters of BTU, a unit used to measure energy. Sound like a stretch? Well, Beetee teamed up with Wiress to make up “nuts and volts,” volts, of course, being a measurement of electricity. And the two are the nuts and bolts of the tributes’ escape plan at the end of Catching Fire. Both Beetee and Wiress are from District 3, the technology district. (Wiress died at the end of Catching Fire.)
Boggs (Mahershala Ali): Boggs is a vaguely earthy name, but it also connects this character to Charles S. Boggs, a lifetime officer in the U.S. Navy who served with distinction in the American Civil War, during which he was made a captain. Boggs starts out as one of President Coin’s main advisers, and becomes something like Katniss’ bodyguard. He is vital to the revolution, which is also described as a civil war.
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 is also a flick). In the books he wears a suit decorated with light bulbs.
Castor (Wes Chatham) and Pollux (Elden Henson): These are Cressida’s two cameramen. In Greek mythology, they are the twin sons of Leda and brothers of Helen of Troy. When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus (his father) if he could share his immortality with Castor to keep them together, and that’s how they became the constellation Gemini. While they are on the side of the rebellion when we meet them, they were previously citizens of the Capitol, hence the Roman names.
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 is what happens to Katniss’ stylist in Catching Fire.
Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones): The name Claudius stems from a Latin word for “crippled” or “lame” (and the emperor Claudius famously walked with a limp) but the modern, colloquial meaning of “lame” seems more fitting for Mr. Templesmith.*
Commander Paylor (Patina Miller): The leader of the rebels in District 8 has one of the more cryptic names in the book. Perhaps Paylor can be read as pale ore, hinting at a contrast with Alma Coin. But if you have a better idea, let me know in the comments.
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. Snow also has a preference for white and an icy cold demeanor.
Cressida (Natalie Dormer): A former director from the Capitol, she joins the rebellion and brings her camera crew (Pollux and Castor) with her. Cressida appears in retellings of the Trojan War starting in the 12th century and including Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. She pledges her love to the youngest son of King Priam of Troy, but when she is sent to the Greeks, falls in love with the warrior Diomedes. The name has become symbolic of an unfaithful lover. In The Hunger Games, Cressida betrays the Capitol to direct Katniss’ propo spots.
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—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.
Egeria (Sarita Chouhury): While many characters in the book didn’t make it into the movie, Egeria is the most prominent character that isn’t in the books at all. But the movie’s writers knew a thing or two about how to create a Hunger Games name: According to mythology, Egeria was a nymph who served as a divine counselor to the second king of Rome—her name has become eponymous for a female adviser. In the movie, she serves as a speechwriter and adviser for President Snow.
Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin): The District 4 victor known for his dashing good looks, Finnick can, of course, be finicky about his appearance. 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. Many of these qualities are lacking in Mockinjay as Finnick is still suffering from the Quarter Quell.
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 for much of the series, 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? It also echoes Hamish, the Scottish version of James, and “Hay” lends the name an appropriately earthy quality.
Johanna Mason (Jena Malone): Johanna is 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 and is taken captive by the Capitol with Peeta.
Messalla (Evan Ross): As part of Cressida’s film crew, Messalla deserts his place in the Capitol to help her film the rebellion. His Roman inspiration (spelled with one L) appears in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and is loyal to Brutus after he kills Caesar, just like Messalla is loyal to Cressida when she abandons the Capitol.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence): The heroine of the trilogy has what initially seems 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. Everdeen rhymes with evergreen, of course—and Katniss is responsible for those around her year round. One could even read the name as “ever dean”: Katniss always has to serve as a leader.
Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson: Katniss’ fellow District 12 tribute comes from a family of bread bakers, and his name is an alternate—or dystopic, if you will—spelling of pita. The humble Peeta stands in contrast to the grandiose Panem, which, as noted above, is Latin for bread. Commenters have also pointed out that Peeta is very similar to Peter—and while Hunger names are not generally Biblical, Peeta is, like that apostle, the closest friend to the savior (Katniss), and does everything he can for her. He does, though, give everyone quite a bit of malarkey in Mockingjay.
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) 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.
Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields): In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers as tribute in place of her younger sister, who is also named for a plant. The primrose is a pretty flower that doesn’t provide any food, but, some botanists refer to it as the king’s cure-all for its medicinal uses. Primrose is also pretty and, at the start, fragile, seemingly not having any immediate benefits. But her medicinal remedies become essential. The shortened version, prim, meaning formal or proper, also places her in stark contrast with her sister’s rebellious attitude.
*Correction, Nov. 20, 2014: This post originally misstated that the Roman Emperor Claudius was given his name because of a physical deformity. Claudius was a family name.