What’s in a Name?

Southwest Swamp.

The unexpected capitalization is deliberate: The sign on the Interstate is providing the proper name of the swamp beside the road.

All right then. I’m used to seeing big bodies of water named, both salt and fresh: oceans, seas, coves, bays, lakes (aka ponds, in Newfoundland). Of course, sometimes folks seem to sort of miss the point.

Newfoundland highway sign: Nameless Cove.


But never mind the occasional oddities. I’m also used to seeing running bodies of water named: rivers and creeks. But who names a swamp? I mean, its synonyms include “slough,” and my Prairie upbringing makes it hard for me to see a slough as deserving a name.

Yet, as becomes clear over the next few days as we wend our way south to Florida, the folks hereabouts name swamps, and with enthusiasm.

Rocky Swamp. Beaverdam Swamp. Maple Swamp. Douglass Swamp. Bullstown Swamp. Puddin’ Swamp. Okefenokee Swamp. And my own favourite, Toisnot Swamp. (Although it’s just possible that I’ve been unduly influenced by my recent round of Scabs and Guts. Toi-snot, get it? Now you see why I love this swamp!)

And, of course, the Everglades are the mother of all swamps.

As the named swamps pile up, something tickles at the back of my brain. Wise in the ways of my subconscious, I wait for it to emerge in its own good time. And so it does.

Label from individual-size butter portion: Land o' Lakes.


Aha! Land o’ Lakes! And as so often happens, things I think about turn up in person in the next day or so. In this case, in the form of an individual portion of butter at the hotel’s included breakfast.

Land o’ Lakes. The butter made by a Minnesota co-op, with a brand name that riffs on Minnesota’s nickname: Land of 10,000 Lakes.

But Land o’ Lakes – or Land O Lakes as the label has it – will not do for this eastern strip of the US of A. These are not lakes, dagnab it, they are indubitably swamps.

With a prompt from Word’s thesaurus (looking for synonyms for “land” that start with an “s”), I considered State o’ Swamps which offers a double entendre, but there is more than one State involved. That’s why my vote goes to Spread o’ Swamps: accurate, evocative, and available (I checked).

If this Senate thing doesn’t work out (which seems unlikely, I know), maybe I’ll go into tourism branding.


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12 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Ralph Gibson says:

    Your card could read “Belle O Branding.” Hmmmmm, what else begins with B ?

  2. I grew up thinking Okefenokee had to be a joke because it was featured in a comic strip, albeit a philosophical one: Pogo. When I moved to the South, I was amazed to discover humans inhabited swamps, as on the Louisiana bayous. In the north, we do name marshes, which are almost synonymous with swamps and bogs that we don’t name. Is this practice the result of our having such extensive tracts of that type of wet land — wetlands is another similar term — that they have no defining perimeters? Places are named for the convenience of the people who inhabit those areas; swampy land is almost by definition difficult or impossible to traverse and uninhabitable. Hmmm. As always, Isabel, you provide food for musing and for metaphors.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I got about to the point that I figured people name what they have a lot of – partly just because it’s there, and partly to distinguish it from other similar stuff. I don’t know if there’s any academic work on this, but I expect so!

  3. John Whitman says:

    Isabel: I guess if all you have are swamps, it makes sense to name them. Otherwise, how would you know what swamp you are lost in.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Yes, I always like to know where I’m lost, or what I’m lost in. Very comforting.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    You mentioned Newfoundland. One of my favourite towns there is Bonavista, mostly because the streets and roads make absolutely no pretence of following a grid plan. We were told it used to be a swamp. People ran their fishing boats ashore on the beach, built a home as close as possible to where they beached their boat, and the roads simply followed the tussocks of higher ground from house to house. To me, that’s the way things SHOULD evolve.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I sort of agree, but it’s a challenge to navigate to a brain raised on the grid systems of Edmonton and Calgary. I saw a documentary about New York City that said an old Native American footpath to oyster beds at the southern tip of the island is still evident in the crooked progress of some major north/south thoroughfare. I, of course, forget which. All to say that sometimes the evolution isn’t obvious.

  5. Tom Watson says:

    We lived in Manitoba for a time. Sloughs abounded. Never saw one worth naming.

    We also spent a couple of years in Newfoundland. One of favorite place names is Witless Bay.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yes, Witless Bay is a Newfoundland classic, isn’t it? I guess (to be fair) that sloughs are usually smaller than swamps, although some of the named ones we saw alongside the Interstate didn’t seem big in the sense of the Everglades or Okenofee. But maybe our municipalities could sell naming rights to any odd bits of water and whatnot that grace their limits, adding a local-interest touch while raising some revenue.

      • Jim Taylor says:

        Wasn’t there a Slough of Despair in Pilgrim’s Progress? And it seems to me that my parents once picked up their new Vauxhall at the factory in Slough, England — although I believe it was pronounced Slow.
        Jim T

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Jim – Close: “The name of the slough was Despond.” See original here. I wonder where the “sluff” pronunciation came from – as in “slough off.”

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