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A Mine of Name-Lore

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

Names on the Land. By George R. Stewart. Random House. $3.00.

Place-name study is a young offshoot of Philology, a branch of learning that many associate only with Sanskrit, Gothic, or at latest with Chaucer. It was near the middle of the nineteenth century that serious attention was given to this scion of linguistic erudition. Since then it has gone a long way. The Scandinavians interested themselves in it and much has been done with it by Germans, French, and Italians. The English founded a Place-Names Society some years ago which has now surveyed a dozen shires or more. America of the present century has seen considerable investigation by States. For Oregon, Nebraska, Arizona, and many special regions printed accounts are now available. For North Dakota an exhaustive work was compiled under W. P. A. auspices. Missouri is in process of making a model work under the expert guidance of Robert L. Ramsay of the State University.

Mr. Stewart’s “Names on the Land” is not another special study. Nor is it an encyclopaedia or dictionary, merely cataloguing American place-names. It is a fascinating lively book that utilizes preceding work and material of the author’s own observation and research. It is unique in that it devotes itself to a sort of bird’s-eye view of American names and deliberately concerns itself with the processes of naming, not merely with the names themselves. It is far from pedantic. Coming from a professor and doctor of philosophy, it is probably as accurate and complete as the possibilities allow, and, coming from a novelist, it is interestingly told. Poetic qualities, too, emerge here and there. The author, a scholar, essayist, and fiction writer, has also written a life of Bret Harte. He seems to be a versatile person of many interests.

In general, place-name study is not the narrow field that it seems, though it is often treated narrowly. Certainly in “Names on the Land” there is nothing “isolationist” about the handling. Not only do geography and linguistics enter into it; so do sociology, horticulture, botany, mineralogy, and zoology. Hypotheses, guesses, plays of fancy (but always so labeled) are indulged in alongside the proved facts of origins and history. Lively anecdotal details are introduced with skilful touch. Taken as a whole, Mr. Stewart’s book reflects in a sweeping way the history of the country, its settlement from East to West, its folklore and folkways.

Logically enough, the account begins with aboriginal names. The Prehistoric, when names must have been drawn largely from physical features, is dealt with imaginatively, indeed poetically. Successive chapters sketch the name-giving of the first Spaniards, the English, the French, and the retention of Indian names. Twenty-six States, eighteen great cities, most of the larger lakes and longer rivers, a few of the highest mountains, and thousands of small towns and natural features take their names from the Indians, picturesque names, such as Mississippi, Arizona, Chickamauga. The author lingers over New England, New York, and the Southern States. Historic individuals responsible for important namings are singled out. As the narrative proceeds, such chapters as “Of the Dry Countries and the Farther Mountains,” “Melodrama in the Forties,” and “Flavor of California” tell the story of the settling of the West.

The reader learns of the diverse sources of our names, the shifts they undergo, the wearing-down influence of usage, the inevitable folk-etymologizing. Names are given in curious ways and for curious reasons. The hybrid name Pennsylvania was bestowed by Charles II, despite the protest of William Penn. Interesting are the accounts of the naming of San Francisco, Los Angeles (the pronunciation of which has not even yet settled down into a fixed usage), the struggle whether the peak of the Cascade range should be called Mount Tacoma or Mount Rainier. The controversy over Arkansas or Arkansaw rates a special section. Yellowstone, it seems, translates the French Roche Jaune. Chicago, in the Indian, meant Onion river, or allegedly Skunk or Smelling river; but its founders did not know this. Mainly, Mr. Stewart deals with major names, called by him “great names,” those of States, rivers, lakes, mountains, large cities, counties; but he also deals with “little names,” those of townships, creeks, bluffs, swamps. Interwoven with the narrative are accounts of street names, stock place-names, and stock place-suffixes, such as -ton, -ville, -burg or -borough, -vale, -mere.

Topographical features that distinguish one site from another are always a favorite source of naming. Many names are transplanted from others countries. Names of battles, heroes, statesmen, ordinary citizens play a role. Occasionally names hand on the hyperbolic phraseology of real estate boosters. More rarely abstract names have been given, Union, Concord, Providence, Liberty, though one doubts whether they contributed much to the prosperity of a place. The vogue of classical names in central New York and of Biblical names in New England has often had attention. Barbarous or freak names now and then caught a namer’s fancy. Thus Screamerville became Chancellor and Mosquito, Troutdale. Attractive names such as Sweetwater and Bitter Creek are offset by commonplace names such as the street names Ford, Packard, Dodge, Cadillac in a Michigan town.

Mr. Stewart is well aware that the student of place-names must be trained and skeptical. Misleading local legends grow up amazingly. Some are quite stock, as legends of a “Lover’s Leap.” In my home town, Lincoln, Nebraska, there is a “Robbers’ Cave,” hollowed out of soft sandstone. It has been widely advertised as a hideout of horse-thieves in early days. My mother, a pioneer, said that the cave was no “robbers’ cave,” but originated as a beer cellar.

The main features of the land have been named now, and whatever happens in time to come, their names are likely to persist. Several periods of naming may be distinguished. Earliest is that of aboriginal days, a period for which there can be no sure beginnings. Some of the names given by vanished Indian tribes have stayed, no doubt. Names from the period of exploration and European occupation from Maine to Florida and California, these given by the English along the Atlantic coast and by the Spanish along the Pacific, remain as our most important names. A third and later period is a more self-conscious one. For instance, in the years following the Civil War, says Mr. Stewart, “a horrible malady called ‘Good Taste’ began to rage through the United States . . . conventional names of pale elegance” sometimes replaced the older. Bosky Dell was planted by an Ulinoisan. Dwellers along a California street called Tunnel Road sturdily rejected its proposed replacement by Woodmere. Suffixes such as dale, -vale, -hurst appeared among patterns for naming. Later, more vigorous and practical names and more commonplace ones, linked with men and events, were liked. Fabricated names such as backward spellings (Rolyat, Lebam), names coined from initials (Wascott from W. A. Scott) appeared on maps, and boundary blend-names such as Calexico, Texar-kana, Calvada. Delmarva, the name of the peninsula between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, amalgamates Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The Board of Geographic Names was established in 1890 to decide disputed cases. Its power was expanded in 1906 to approve new names, but its decrees did not always find acceptance.

“Names on the Land” is best read, not straight through, for this might become monotonous, but in random sections. The chapters are picturesquely, not conventionally, named and they are units in themselves, often reading like separate essays. Open the book anywhere and something will catch the attention. It is a mine of name-lore and Americana. Its panoramic sweep makes it an innovation among our place-name volumes, though basic for it, of course, are the amassed accumulations of earlier workers in the field.


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