Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Names of Our Homes

The moderns, unlike the ancients, seem to have a passion for misnomer. Why else should the great island of the eastern sea, greatest of all islands, be called New Guinea instead of Papua, or that English island, which pushes its green shores far down towards the Antarctic, be baptized New Zealand instead of Maoria, or worse still, the oldest province of Australia burden itself with the unspeakable name of New South Wales, which by natural sequence would make its people New-South-Walers! Our happiness depends a great deal upon the places in which we live, and the pleasure or pain they give is affected by the names we know them by.

...What a name is New York for this queen of western cities? Compare it with that which the Indian gave the island, barbarian as we call him, Manhattan or Manahatta. Who for its euphony and its significance would not wish the old name back again? Who that cares for such things does not grieve over the incongruity of the present name with the place? Old York and New York are as unlike as possible; one a small inland city, the other the seaport of half the world. As the voyager comes in from the sea, beholding the amplitude of the haven, the beauty of the islands, the richness and variety of the shores, the two rivers which clasp the island city with a rushing of great waters; the buildings, and the ships; the great bridge hanging in the air above them all, looking from below like an arch of gossamer, but above trodden on its solid floors as if it were part of the enduring earth, and withal the abounding and exultant life that animates the scene, he is ready to exclaim: 'Oh thou that art situate at the entry of the sea, which art a merchant of the people unto many isles; thy borders are in the midst of the seas; thy builders have perfected thy beauty.' One thing only is wanting to the completeness of the picture; the crown of a fitting name on the head of the imperial city. May we not hope that one day, when she joins hands with her sister city, as she surely will, she will retake the old and true name of the ever bright island of Manhattan.
The above is an excerpt from a lecture I stumbled upon by David Dudley Field to the American Geographical Society in February of 1885, in which he laments the uninspired and inadequate old-world names of towns, cities, and places all across the North American continent. Field is dissatisfied with recycled classical nomenclature like "Athens, Arcadia, Attica...Babylon, Cairo, Carthage..Ithaca...Jerusalem...Rome" as well as European reruns like "Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden...Dublin, Edinburgh, Florence, Genoa...Naples...Vienna." While he is perturbed by these unimaginative misnomers of American places, Field is wholly disgusted with the simplistic, "semi-barbarous" small-town appellations like "You Bet, Pop Corn, Wild Cat, Cub Run, Cut Shin, Bake Oven, Big Coon, Burn Corn, Bawhide, Toad Vine, Black Jack, Skunk Lake, Buzzard Boost, Cat Creek, Dirt Town, Doctor Town, Jug Tavern, Sawdust, Big Fort, Fish Hook, Big John Cowskin, Cut Off, and so on." Field advocates a return to native American names (he proposes "Tacoma" for what became the state of Washington, and "Sonora" in place of New Mexico, for example), which he believes would serve as a "memorial" to "the words of their plaintive tongue, lingering forever upon the hill-tops, the valleys and the streams which they loved so well[.]" Field also argues that the superior richness of the English language over French pleads for the banishment of the affix "ville," which he considers to be "mortifying proof of bad taste, or poverty of invention or of stolid indifference. The passion for it is almost a disease, and the instances of its disfigurement may be counted by thousands upon thousands. What could be more dreadful than McGrawville?"

As a map-geek who has spent hours studying the names of places and their origins and who spends almost as much time naming his fictional SimCities as he does building them, I so completely appreciate this man's passion for this subject matter and commiserate with his exasperation as to the lame unoriginality of the names of many of the places we call home.

Step into the rain:

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