on naming

Posted: February 18, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Names are important. Every reader of fantasy novels knows this. And place names are also important, as I pointed out in one of the first posts I did on this blog.

But what’s more important is what place names reveal about the history of the land. The Danelaw as a political entity may be a thousand years dead, but it still exists, in the hundreds of Norse place names scattered around northern England.

With that being said, the place names in America are so chaotic that they’re almost schizophrenic.

Behind my childhood home was a creek. The creek was called Meder Creek (a Scandinavian name), and it flowed through a gully called Arroyo Seco (a Spanish name). Across the street from my house was another gully, which contained a creek called Moore Creek (English name). Both creeks flow to the Monterey Bay (another Spanish name), which is part of the Pacific Ocean (Latin name). There’s a nature preserve called the Pogonip (Costanoan name) which borders Henry Cowell Redwoods (Scottish name). You can find other Scottish names by driving up Highway 9 (Felton, Ben Lomond), and there’s dozens of Spanish names within an hour’s drive (Pasatiempo, Loma Prieta, Los Gatos, Gilroy, San Jose). And this is just within an hour’s drive of my house.

California has a stereotype of having towns with Spanish names. While this is true in some respects, it’s only really true in a narrow belt along the coast, beginning at Santa Rosa and extending south to the Mexican border– probably about ten percent of California’s area. This is because this is where the Franciscans established missions, and it helps that California’s most populous cities are located within this belt (Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco, Pasadena, etc.). But when you look around the state, there’s so many more names than that.

In the Central Valley (English name), there are the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers (Spanish names), but also the Tuolumne (Yokutsan) and Mokelumne (Miwok), as well as the American River (which sounds English, but in fact has a Latin name). And scattered around California, there are towns with names like Anaheim (German), Sebastopol (Russian), South Lake Tahoe (Washo), and Eureka (Greek). The names reflect California. Although I hate the term “melting pot”, it’s appropriate, although I’d describe us more as a gigantic multi-cuisine pizza.

So, your assignment for today: Look at the names in the place where you live. If you live in New York City, try to find Dutch names (Stuyvesant, Bowery) or Algonquian ones (Manhattan). If you’re in New England, find out something about the English towns that your cities are named after (Boston, Salem, Hartford, Concord)– or just find French names in Vermont. People in Spain could examine Arabic or Moorish names of your hometowns, Australians can find out about the Aboriginal words that went into names of suburbs of Sydney, and those of you (if any) in Scotland could find the Gaelic roots of your local place names.

History is all around you, in the words that you use. You just have to look for it.

~ Ian

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