General Jon Snow Sand Snakes

Words Are Wind: Bastards and bastard names

“Words are wind” is a common phrase in A Song of Ice and Fire, usually used to say “talk is cheap.” But that’s a view that underestimates both the power of words and wind themselves. In this “Words Are Wind” column, contributor Scott Andrews discusses some of the more important words in the world of Game of Thrones.

I never met my mother. My father wouldn’t even tell me her name. I don’t know if she’s living or dead. I don’t know if she’s a noblewoman or a fisherman’s wife… or a whore. So I sat there in the brothel as Ros took off her clothes. But I couldn’t do it. Because all I could think was what if I got her pregnant and she had a child, another bastard named Snow? –Jon Snow, Episode 1.4, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”

Everything about Jon Snow’s life has reminded him that he is a bastard: Cat’s cold regard. Exiled from dinner with the king. No right to inherit Winterfell or its lands. And most of all, his name. He is no Stark. Ned takes pains to console him, during their last talk, that he may not have the Stark name, but he has Stark blood.

But if that’s true, why is he a Snow rather than a Stark? Why does Ramsay have the same last name as Jon? Why are Oberyn’s daughters called the Sand Snakes? Let’s explore the concept of bastardy in Westeros and the many words and names related to it.

The wrong side of the sheets

In Westeros, bastard is something of a legal definition that means a child born out of wedlock. Beyond that, there is an entire lexicon of slang for the concept of bastardy. “Natural child” is the polite way to say it. “Baseborn” is the word you use if your intention is to insult or provoke. A saucier way to put it is “born on the wrong side of the sheets.”

The social stigmas that Jon has to deal with, both inside and outside the Night’s Watch, are very real. There’s a reason why the noble and legitimate Ser Alliser Thorne calls Jon Snow a bastard every chance he can get. The one exception is Dorne, where bastards face no discrimination. In the Season 4 episode The Lion and the Rose, Prince Oberyn introduces his paramour Ellaria Sand to Cersei Lannister. “Can’t say I’ve ever met a Sand before,” Cersei says in her most passive-aggressive tone, pointing out Ellaria’s bastard name. “We are everywhere in Dorne,” Ellaria replies, “I have ten thousand brothers and sisters.” Oberyn defends his paramour: “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne.” “No?” Cersei says. “How tolerant of you.”

In Westeros, legitimate children are the key to maintaining power through generations via inheritance. Thus, keeping track of who’s legit and who’s not is critical. The system of naming bastards by their region arose from this necessity. It has the added benefit, for the sires of such children, that the names don’t reveal their actual parentage.

While lords are expected to father bastards, their noble wives have no obligation to embrace those children or indeed tolerate their lord’s infidelity. A Stark is a Stark, but a Snow could be anyone’s child. The name Snow provides deniability for the bastard’s father.

A bastard’s name matches the region of his or her birth: a Snow hails from the North, Flowers from the Reach, Hill from the Westerlands, Pyke from the Iron Islands, Rivers from the Riverlands, Sand from Dorne, Stone from the Vale, Storm from the Stormlands, and Waters from the Crownlands around King’s Landing.

Despite the social stigma, bastards still have opportunities. They can become maesters and knights, and even serve on the Kingsguard. They may not use their father’s coat of arms. However, they can use a similar version with reversed colors or with a “bend sinister” — a line of color running across the symbol.

And of course they can also volunteer for the Night’s Watch, but who would be crazy enough to do that?

Those European bastards

As he does for many concepts in Game of Thrones, Martin drew the concept of bastard names from medieval history. In England, royal bastards often took the surname “FitzRoy,” which means “son of a king.” Such bastards used a “bend sinister” coat of arms. Rumors abound that Henry VIII had several illegitimate children (despite his proliferation of wives), but he only acknowledged one: Henry FitzRoy. Charles II sired at least 20 bastards and acknowledged 14 of them, including several named FitzRoy and two dubbed FitzCharles.

Bastards carried a similar stigma in the real world as they do in Martin’s. France’s Louis XIV, despite fathering many bastards and even finding matches for them, once said, “No issue should come from such species.”

Many words considered uncouth have survived virtually intact across both ages and languages. Bastard is one such. It derives from the Latin bastardus, and it has been intact as bastard since as far back as Old French. A related phrase from Old French is fils de bast, meaning “packsaddle son.” Given that packsaddles were often used as beds while traveling, the term means a son conceived on the road.

The word today still carries a negative connotation, though now in modern English it is most often used to mean “an unpleasant or despicable person.”

“Baseborn” and “natural child” are real-world terms. The latter can mean any child born of his or her parents, rather than an adopted one, in addition to an illegitimate child.

Bastards of Westeros

Game of Thrones has given us a number of bastard characters. Jon and Ramsay Snow are bastards of Northern lords and are so named. Ramsay, however, is now a Bolton. A royal decree legitimized him in return for the Boltons’ service in destroying the rebellious Starks. Only a decree from the king can do so, and such decrees are extremely rare.

This reluctance stems from Westerosi history. Aegon IV Targaryen, styled “The Unworthy,” sired a number of bastards and legitimized them all on his deathbed. That unfortunate act led to the bloody Blackfyre Rebellions, in which Aegon’s bastards crowned themselves kings and attempted to conquer Westeros with armies of sellswords.

Gendry claims to have no last name, but as the bastard of Robert Baratheon, he is technically a Waters. While masquerading as Littlefinger’s bastard daughter, Sansa takes on the name Alayne Stone because her false persona would have been born in the Vale. In Season 4 we met Ellaria Sand, the bastard daughter of Lord Harmen Uller of Dorne. In Season 5, we will encounter the Sand Snakes of Dorne, so named because they are Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell’s bastard daughters.


  • I’ve been wondering : are bastards from the three sisters considered stones, snows or do they have a other name? If so what other name?

  • from Wiki:
    Flowers: The Reach
    Hill: The Westerlands
    Pyke: Iron Islands
    Rivers: The Riverlands
    Sand: Dorne
    Snow: The North
    Stone: The Vale of Arryn
    Storm: The Stormlands
    Waters: The Crownlands

  • A Wildling Bastard, gebdry was conceived and born in the stormlands thats why hes a storm. Not because robbert is a stormlander. Take for example his girl in the vale is called stone because she was conceived and born there. So, the homeland of the parents dont matter it matters where they are born

  • Excellent piece summing up Westeros bastard names.

    Can I correct one thing you said: “”Baseborn” is the word you use if your intention is to insult or provoke.”

    Here in England, I’ve done a great deal of historical archive research which includes studying original Parish Registers. The words ‘base born’ is the common usage to denote bastards in these registers, so there’s nothing provocative about it. I’ve just uploaded a scan as an example. The highlighted line reads:

    Sarah D[augh]t[e]r of Sarah Smith bas born bap[tise]d dec[embe]r 4 [1763]

  • I didn’t know bastard was from Latin. In Sweden it word is oäkting which means something like unauthentic. :)
    Anyone else wants to share their word?

    Based on marrying trends I expect most children now days are “bastards” here n Sweden.

  • One of the things that’s fascinating about bastard names is that they’re localized in translations while no other names are. Jon Snow, for instance, is Jon Nieve in the Spanish edition of the books while Robb Stark is still Robb Stark. It really underscores, at least to me, how much of a stand-in bastard names are.

  • I think in every discussion about bastards it should be mentioned that they are still nobles, sort of. Even in Westeros, it’s much, much better to be a noble’s bastard than to be a trueborn peasant. The various “bastard names” (Snow, Stone etc) are also only given to children of nobles – two names is always better than one even if it is Snow.

    Even Jon gets that through his thick head when he meets his new brothers at the wall.

  • Good Article! It’s funny that even growing up in the ’90’s I got trouble for being a bastard. I was watching the show with my wife, and she looks at me and says “we’re bastards…” I think that was the first time she realized it. Wish I had an awesome bastard name!

  • Ulrik is exactly right, and thats the reason Gendry just goes by Gendry and not “Gendry Storm” or “Gendry Waters” because he is just a peasant whos mother was a worker in an alehouse, and grew up in fleabottom. If he was born to someone of significance he would style himself Gendry Waters being from Kings landing, but he’s not so he is just Gendry from Flea bottom, nothing more. Well actually nowadays it would be Sir Gendry of Hollow Hill at least in the book, and even then, he doesn’t go by “Sir Gendry Waters” he goes by “Sir Gendry of Hollow Hill”

  • bas, Gendry was in fact born in Kings Landing not the Stormlands, just to point out don’t mean to correct you

  • Critical point, Urlick. The twist is that a bastard name is as much an acknowledgement as a denial of noble inheritance.

    Also, Gendry would not be a Waters but a Tanner, like Karl Tanner of Gin Alley and Tyrion Tanner, Lollys Stokeworth’s baby

  • I hate to quibble with you Walda but I’m fairly certain it would be Waters, he was born in the Crownlands, Idk why it would be Tanner, but if anything he would be Gendry from Flea bottom, I think Tanner would just be a someone who worked as a Tanner to distinguish themselves, i.e instead of John the Tanner, it would just be John Tanner. I’m pretty sure it worked the same in the real world in the middle ages, which is why you have people named Smith, Baker, Carpenter, Archer, Brewer, Cook, Fisher, Farmer, Mason the list goes on and on

  • The tanners sheds and stew-pits line the bottom of Flea Bottom to Pisswater Bend, below the winesinks and brothels, alongside the stables and the pig-sheds. In the books, the only acknowledged bastard from King’s Landing is a Tanner, not a Waters. That’s my only strong evidence.

    There are a couple of mentions of a King’s Landing ‘tanners boy’ or ‘tanners son’ that are clearly not referencing a highborn’s bastard, but could as easily carry the implication ‘nobody knows who his father was’ as ‘his father was a tanner’.

    It’s easier to believe one of Karl’s forefathers was a tanner, than to guess which highborn sired (or dammed) him. On the other hand, it’s not hard to believe he is a bastard. I concede Karl Tanner is not a strong proof of the use of Tanner as a bastard name.

    The legitimate names of the smallfolk in Kings Landing are a mixture of differnet types – one name or nick-name appears enough for some (Rorge, Dunk) and Gendry’s mother doesn’t appear to have any name at all, that anyone can recall. Then there’s people like Lommy Greenhands and Davos Seaworth with attribute names as you say (some also have only attributive names, like Biter and Hot Pie), but Janos Slynt’s father is a butcher, and while Master Mott doesn’t count as he is not a smith from Kings Landing, Goodman Ironbelly and Master Salloreon do, and are, so not all Kings Landing smallfolk have attributive surnames. Apart from his surname, and his coming from Fleabottom, there is nothing to suggest Karl has any knowledge of the tanning trade (not that that proves anything).