What is in a name? Seriously?
I am a great fan of AWAD (A.Word.A.Day), a daily subscription email list founded by Anu Garg of wordsmith.org. There are certain words that I might not have ever encountered but for the daily AWAD email. Petrichor jumps to mind… that lovely indescribable scent that emanates from the parched earth after the first rains, finally got a name when it dropped into my inbox one fine morning. Bringing with it, memories of monsoons and school reopenings which for some inexplicable reason coincided most of the time. But I digress…
Last week’s AWAD theme was toponyms – words derived from the names of places. Got me thinking about how place names came into being. Also, about interesting place names.
It is easy to imagine the need to identify geographical locations in communications, even in cave people days. ‘Big mammoth felled at rock mountain; come, join the fun’ would prevent a lot of that mammoth going waste, you can imagine. 🙂 And most of the earliest place names were based on geographical features, naturally. That trend continues to the present day with innumerable names like Glendale, Riverside, Hillview, etc.
A lot of place names were carried over from the old countries by immigrants who were nostalgic for the lands left behind. New York (earlier, New Amsterdam, when it was owned by the Dutch), Lancaster, Brunswick (New, North, South), Rochester, Stamford, Berlin, Copenhagen… they are all present. When I was travelling in Egypt, the tour guide asked us why we had to have a Cairo and Alexandria in the US. The only answer we could give was that the US is a true melting pot! 🙂
Many of the current place names are derived from their original names used by the native Americans, which again were based on geographical features. A prime example is Manhattan, from ‘manna-hata’ meaning ‘island of many hills’ in the language of the Lenape tribe. Massachusetts (by the great hills), Connecticut (place of the long river), Hoboken (where pipes are traded), Passaic (river flowing through a valley)… very interesting to take a look into the thousands of such names.
Then there are place names that exist in every state, sometimes more than once in the same state. Middletown, Harrison, Bloomfield, Fairfield… can you think of any state that does not have towns with these names?
Then there are the truly interesting place names. Like Cut and Shoot in Texas, Casa Blanca and Moriarty in New Mexico, Hell in Michigan, Real and Loving also in Texas (two towns, not Real Loving!), Caliente (meaning ‘hot’ in Spanish) and Steamboat in Nevada… the list goes on. Not to forget Blue Ball and Intercourse in Pennsylvania, so inexplicably close together!
But my favourite is Truth or Consequences in New Mexico. According to my friend Google, the city called Hot Springs changed its name to Truth or Consequences, the title of a popular NBC radio program, in 1950, in response to a promise that the program will be aired from the first town that renamed itself after the show. Voila! Hot Springs got a new name!
The most poetic and literary place names I have come across belong to Columbia, Maryland. Columbia is a planned community with self-contained villages and its localities are named after places in the literary works of well-known American authors like Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, etc.
Kind Rain, Scarlet Petal, Rising Moon, Deep Calm, Open Sky, Tawney Bloom… can you imagine any more poetic place names?
According to Wikipedia though the word Manhattan has been translated as ‘island of many hills’ from the Lenape language, the Encyclopedia of New York City offers other derivations, including from the Munsee dialect of Lenape: manahachtanienk (‘place of general inebriation’), manahatouh (‘place where timber is procured for bows and arrows’), or menatay (‘island’). Which one would you think is most apt? 🙂