What’s in a Place Name?

There’s nothing like a long road trip or even a little time with a detailed map — paper or virtual — to give you a new appreciation of the weird things people get up to. In this case, the thing is place names. These aren’t all from the route-of-flight between Ottawa and Phoenix, but that’s how I recently got thinking about the multiplicity of place names. Your results may vary.

It’s kinda like collecting license-plate sightings: Once you start, it’s hard to stop. And considering that we likely began with place names no more complicated than Here, Over There, and Waaay Over There, it’s amazing what we’ve generated.

There are the names using famous place names that everyone knows are from somewhere else (but which, of course, leave us wondering how the namesakes got going):

There are the ones that seem to invoke names from elsewhere, but cutely or coyly:

  • Eutaw, TX
  • Nuangola, PA

There are the ones recycling less-than-famous names from elsewhere, sometimes to greater glory and sometimes not:

  • Calgary, AB (from a hamlet in Scotland)
  • Morningside, AB (from another small town in Scotland)

There are all the News, in English and French and Latin and other languages, too, I’m sure, which just pushes the name-categorization task back (up?) one level:

  • New Brunswick/Nouveau-Brunswick
  • New Edinburgh (formerly a village in ON and now a mere neighbourhood in Ottawa)
  • New York, NY
  • New Zealand
  • Nova Scotia

There are the ones that anglicize an indigenous word/phrase:

There are the ones that evoke royalty, sometimes in English, sometimes not, and sometimes eliding “so-and-so’s town” and the like into something a little easier to say:

  • Kingston, ON (which likely started somewhere as King’s Town but is now used in this tidy form in 80+ places worldwide)
  • Montréal, QC (which started as Mont Réal, or Royal Mountain)
  • Prince Edward Island
  • Regina, SK
  • Victoria Falls, Zambia

There are the ones named after a famous and/or local person, using first or last name:

  • Gibson, PA (also TN and NC, which has a Gibson and Gibsonville more or less side-by-each – no chance of confusion there)
  • Scranton, PA
  • Sheldon, NY
  • Vancouver, BC (also WA)
  • Washington (too many to enumerate)

There are hundreds (thousands? kazillions?) with religious connotations:

  • Saint Lawrence River, Canada and USA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Santo Domingo, DR

There are the ones that describe or at least allude to some local geographic feature:

  • Camel Back Mountain, AZ
  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia
  • Rio Grande, TX
  • Watertown, NY (and in nine other American States; Waterton, AB is named after a naturalist and who knows how he got his name?)

There are the ones that combine a local geographic feature with a famous/local person’s name:

  • Chagrin Falls, OH
  • Hudson River, NY
  • Stevens Creek, ON

There’s the one that looks like it might be describing a local geographic feature but is really an anglicized version of a recycled name:

  • Cape Horn, Chile (named for the Dutch city of Hoorn, whose etymology is uncertain, although either royalty or alcohol may have been involved)

There are the ones that were the forte but hardly the exclusive domain of Lewis and Clarke, giving us names that describe how the namers felt about the geographical feature:

There are the ones that memorialize memorable events:

  • Dead Horse Creek, AZ (also MB and WA on this continent, and it’s hard to believe Australia doesn’t have such a place)
  • Waterloo, ON (from some minor battle in Belgium apparently; also NS and NB in Canada; and there are Waterloos in England, Hong Kong (huh?), New Zealand, Sierra Leone, Suriname,  24 American States [including three in Indiana which may have seemed like a good idea at the time], and Antarctica, if we give King George Island its Russian name, Vaterloo)

There are the ones named after trees and other growing stuff:

  • Alamo, TX (apparently a type of poplar)
  • Almond, NC (which State really got into this category with Ash, Balsam, Gumtree, Magnolia, Maple, Mulberry, and Walnut – at least)
  • Chichicastenango, Guatemala (from Tzitzicaztenanco, a Nahuatl word meaning City of Nettles, so this city finds a home in three categories at least given that its full name is Santo Tomás Chichicastenango)
  • Myrtle Beach, SC

There’s really no end to it. There are:

  • Ones that seem rude (Lugoff and Effingham, SC; Grabtown, NC)
  • Ones that might be describing the local character (Concord, Hasty, Love Valley, and Mocksville, NC) or prescribing behaviour (Fair Play, SC; Trust, NC) or identifying dominant occupations (Barber, Ranger, and Spies, NC)
  • Ones that seem like an orphaned half of a one-time duo (Dames Ferry, GA)
  • Ones that clearly bear a little more exploration (Birdtown, PA)

And then (not “finally” in any sense except the final list in this post) there are the true gems, the little puzzles that defy immediate categorization:

  • Chunky, MS
  • Dildo, NL
  • Dortches, NC
  • Phinizy, GA
  • Throop, NY
  • Shickshinny, PA
  • Snitz Creek, PA

Could I find out more about these outliers? Almost for sure. But here I rest, happy to leave some mysteries to enjoy.

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11 Responses to What’s in a Place Name?

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Gosh, I didn’t know they named a place after you, Isabel.

    One place you didn’t mention is Joe Batts Arm, Newfoundland.

    Your article reminds me of a humourous piece on the old “This is That” radio show. A town in North Dakota was suffering from a lack of tourism. They placed the blame on the town’s name. So they decided to rename it “Banff, Alberta, Canada” because their research showed that Banff had a lot of tourists go there.

    Tom (as in Watson, if there’s a place that wants to name itself after me)

  2. Great exploration of what we all kinda thought on a road trip once or twice somewhere. My last name, Umbach, translates as “By the Stream” – not terribly definitive. And there aren’t many of us, but there is a town in Austria, found and attested to by my nephew’s family.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Several years ago I tried to buy a mug with “Mexico, PA” on it, but when we diverted from the interstate, the folks in the local book/general store just looked at me blankly. I guess they don’t get much traffic (other than local) or any enquiries of that sort. And how cool to find a town with your unusual-in-Canada name.

  3. Mary Gibson says:

    And then, of course, there is the mythical Letterkenny of Crave television ‘fame’ (Letterkenny revolves around a small rural Canadian community of the same name, and most episodes open with the text: “There are 5000 people in Letterkenny. These are their problems.”) and Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland (Pop. = 19,274; we have no problems).

  4. I immediately thought of Aspiring, New Zealand from our trip of too many years ago.
    But neither Google, nor Bing, maps had heard of the place. So I looked at my pictures of the Aspiring Dental Service, and the Aspiring Pharmacy…..
    On further “research” they are in Wanaka on the South Island along with a few other businesses with that name. I suspect the name comes from nearby Mt Aspiring.
    So after all that, still an interesting name – but I don’t want to get you going on names of Mountains….

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – I’m glad you figured it out. Otherwise, it would feel like gaslighting, wouldn’t it? “No, no, there’s no place called ‘Aspiring’ – whatever made you think there was?”

  5. Ian Hepher says:

    Out here in the west, we don’t think twice about Medicine Hat AB and Moose Jaw, SK. There is considerable humour visited on the town of Climax, SK, for obvious reasons. Also Big Beaver, in the same province. My favourite town name, however, is Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, pop. 6475 (2010).

    A most entertaining post. Thanks.

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