Putting Place-Names in their Place


A map of place-names taken from indigenous languages translated into English. Source: Usa.gov

America is a nation in a constantly developing condition of amnesia. Its citizens can hardly remember its heroes from it enemies, its past from its future, its letter from its spirit. To do his small part in illuminating the spirit behind the letters on the map, George R. Stewart wrote Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States a veritable encyclopedia of the stories and processes behind the names given to the country now called the United States of America.

Even in their forgetfulness, and perhaps because of it, Americans recognize and appreciate their names’ oddity and mystery. It is almost as if Americans relish in their engima, in their ignorance of their own selves, at least when it comes to names. As Stewart points out, “Talk to any average American about names, and he will be likely to say before long, with pride: ‘You know, we have a lot of queer names down our way.’” The names themselves may not in origin be so queer (Goodnight, TX is just the last name of its founder), but in the distance between history and understanding, the queerness comes.

In many societies, some of which exist within and predate the U.S., names are more than a mark on the map but rather succinct stories and guides for the people who use those names to situate themselves physically, morally and culturally*. American names could function in a similar way, except that they usually don’t. This lack of recognized narrative force behind the fledgling nation may come from the constant reworking of a cultural and political identity. Steward recounts with much chagrin the trend of “Good Taste” in the post-civil war era when many of the more colorful names describing the hardships and vulgar minds of earlier settlers were replaced by fair sounding and “snobbish” names. Hence the evocative Hungry Harbor in Long Island became the bland Brookfield. There is also the awkward reversal of enemy names whenever America finds itself in a conflict. First, the royal names all had to go, then later there was an issue with the German names, then with the “Tokio”s, then with Russian River and all its fellows. Many of these were changed only until the last year of whatever war and then returned.

The book also goes into detail about the many names of America obviously and not so obviously taken from the many indigenous languages the government was otherwise intent on destroying. What is interesting to note is the way in which some Indian names became common place to the American tongue while others retain their “difficulty”. As Stewart so backhandly states, “Massachusetts, Mississippi, Chicago and Milwaukee are essentially just as grotesque strangers to the English language as are Paducah and Punxsutawney.” Momentarily disregarding the qualification “grotesque”, it is certainly true that though all of these words are recognized place-names, my spell check objects to the latter two—they are more alien than the others.

In this way, America has enfolded and estranged the indigeneity it has appropriated for its national project. The major locales listed above stray so much from their Indian origin as to be more English in their severe appropriation (truly deserving the qualifier grotesque), while the “queer names” of Indian origin retain the difficult spellings and pronunciation, always remaining slightly alien to the settler. These names fit into the larger struggle for a unique American identity. Philip J. Deloria in his work Playing Indian traces the way in which the personality crisis manifests itself in different kinds of Indian play throughout American History, from the Boston tea party to the Grateful Dead Indians. While Stewart does not take up a parallel project for appropriation of Indian words in American names, the seeds of such a study are strewn throughout his book.

The authors in their separate projects find similar trends. For instance, in the period right after the revolution Americans sought to discard trappings of their British parentage and in looking for a more fitting mark of American rebellion and freedom, they turned to the Indians. There is also the conflicting sentiments between admiring the perceived mysterious and noble nature of Indians while also seeking to justify the destruction of Indian peoples and theft of tribal lands: basically a conflict between romanticism and racism. No matter what they chose, both Deloria and Stewart note the flippant attitude towards maintaining any semblance of authenticity. Just as a hippie commune modeling itself after Pueblo communities might live in tipis, so too might an American namer take an Iroquois name for their southern town. A trend unique to linguistic appropriation is the folk-etymology practices of American people trying to make sense of those strange Indian names. Often the explanation is more bizarre than the name itself as in the case when Pocotaligo is explained as a saying in black slave dialectic.

While his account strives for historical accuracy and scholarly rigor, Stewart is certainly not above narrative flourishes and prejudiced colorings. Such aspects are surely what have garnered this book its ranking as a popular classic (few titles involving either the words “place-naming” or “a historical account” are ever so lucky. It is very clear from the start that Stewart rallies against the bourgeois and the bureaucratic or anything that would rob the color and imagination of people’s names. He is also rather partial to romanticizing those men honored in American history as great explorers and adventurers, as if traveling to places with white skin somehow makes you more brave than the people that had been traveling there before.

His greatest show of emotion, however, comes when Stewart explains his biggest gripe with the biggest name of all, The United States of America. He bemoans it as the worst misfortune of all American names for its length, its vagueness, its lack of poetry. This may be true, but its alternative, Columbia, would have added insult to injury to Native peoples who must suffer the sick, twisted conservation of indigenous names on stolen and bloody land.

*I am referring in part to the Apache method of place-naming, which is explored in the one other classic text about place-naming, Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso.

Books I Talked About:

Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-naming in the United States, by George R. Stewart. New York Review of Books, 2008.

Playing Indian, by Philip J. Deloria. Yale University Press, 1999.

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