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June 17, 2010 6:35 AM   Subscribe

The Atlas of True Names reveals the etymological roots, or original meanings, of the familiar terms on today's maps of the World, Europe, the British Isles and the United States. For example, Britain = Great Land of the Tattooed, New Jersey = New Island of Spears, and Chicago = Stink Onion. There's now an iPhone app. However, at least one linguistic historian takes issue with some of their methodology. Mefi's own languagehat responds.
posted by desjardins (67 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
What languagehat said.
posted by humannaire at 6:48 AM on June 17, 2010


And in case you missed it, languagehat said, "Intelligent, well-constructed fun is a good thing."
posted by humannaire at 6:50 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Related, but not really: The Meaning of Liff (alternate definitions for mainly UK place names)
posted by MuffinMan at 6:51 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm from Bear Guard Home, which is kind of cool. It's like we all live in WoW.
posted by arcticseal at 6:52 AM on June 17, 2010


Hm. Interesting idea, and a lot of fun, and I fourth Languagehat.

But they got lazy somewhere along the way and apparently just started making stuff up. Two off the bat:

Zürich (watertown?) - Turicum - Turikon/Turingen - "Tur[os]' place".

And Bern (hilltown?) - "[I killed a] bear [here once]".

Also: typos? Wales is the land of _stangers_?
posted by Vetinari at 6:52 AM on June 17, 2010


Checking in from the Land of Blooming Flowers here, and I must say that this is blooming awesome. I just wish it had more large cities/metro areas on it(at least in America), I want to know about Orlando.
posted by Chipmazing at 7:00 AM on June 17, 2010


From the first link, I love the names of Pennsylvania. You have "Land of the Main Hill Wood," "Pit Dweller's Town," "House of Bread," "Sibling Love" and "Home Ruler's Fort."

And then there's Scranton. Just...Scranton.
posted by slogger at 7:03 AM on June 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Does "Sarajevo" really translate as "Here is the Palace!"? Because that would be too cool.

And "Newcastle" means "Newcastle," apparently.
posted by a small part of the world at 7:03 AM on June 17, 2010


I'm totally disappointed to find out that Australia doesn't mean "Land down under, where women glow and men plunder,"
posted by happyroach at 7:06 AM on June 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


I love this. But I'm not sure how they got New Isle of Spears for New Jersey. My favorite etymology for the Jersey part is that Jersey, the Channel Island, was "Caesarea", named after Julius, and then got corrupted into Jersey over the years. It may be untrue but it's certainly the most fun theory, and was taken seriously enough that early coinage uses Nova Caesarea as the Latinized name.The map doesn't seem to have any problems with other folk etymologies of questionable merit. And going a step further, neither Caesar nor Jersey have any derivations, as far as I can see, that mean "spears". So what gives?
posted by condour75 at 7:07 AM on June 17, 2010


Those stangers are in Cornwall, too. They keep falling down on their Rs.

But I see they've corrected New York, so maybe they'll sort the stangers.
posted by Phanx at 7:08 AM on June 17, 2010


I feel like if I was better at geography and knew the actual names of the places I would enjoy this more. I'll have to look at this side by side with googlemap.
posted by amethysts at 7:21 AM on June 17, 2010


As a resident of Unaffordable River Town, I must say that the translation is only slightly off.
posted by acb at 7:22 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, I'm no longer going to list my current residence as anything but The New Golden One.

And I'm going to spend the rest of the day agonizing about spending $4.00 on that app until I break down and buy it.
posted by komara at 7:24 AM on June 17, 2010


Shouldn't Nicaragua translate pretty easily into something like "Darkwater" or "Blackwater" or whatever instead of, you know, nothing? It's sort of odd when the map does that.

Otherwise, this is tons of fun.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:26 AM on June 17, 2010


And I'm going to spend the rest of the day agonizing about spending $4.00 on that app until I break down and buy it.

I'm spending my day agonizing over whether I should spend $300 on an iPhone just to get the app.
posted by desjardins at 7:37 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I feel like if I was better at geography and knew the actual names of the places I would enjoy this more. I'll have to look at this side by side with googlemap.

Apparently on the iPhone app you can tap a location and it will give you the contemporary name along with the etymological history. The big print maps are framed with an alphabetical key, but that would probably be pretty tedious.
posted by farishta at 7:40 AM on June 17, 2010


Back in the late 80s/early 90s, there was an "English only" movement afoot in California. In response there was an editorial cartoon with a map of California with the Spanish names translated into English. My favorite remains Manteca or as we call it now Lard.
posted by vespabelle at 7:45 AM on June 17, 2010


Okay. I couldn't resist any longer and bought the app. I'll post some comments later after I get a chance to mess around with it a bit.
posted by slogger at 7:46 AM on June 17, 2010


If you are ever in New Zealand the Dictionary of Maori Place Names is an interesting read. I lived for a while in Tararu, which apparently means ‘the exposed pubic hair of the lady of intoxicating fragrance’.

Excerpt from the Coromandel region here (pdf).
posted by jzed at 7:49 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I adore finding out the etymology of place names in places when they really are ancient -- York, as a place of yew trees, for example. Or Toronto, as a meeting place.

But in their etymological fun, they've forgotten the actual word history. New York should have been properly named "Town we conquered from the Dutch and renamed after the twit who happens to be the King's brother." Almost all the places in New England should have been labelled "Oh god, I'm so homesick, I'm naming this after a place back home".

The darker side of colonialism is, sadly, reflected not in the names of places, but in the erasure of their previous names.
posted by jb at 7:50 AM on June 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


well i'm here in chicagoland and i can say that there are a bunch of stinky onions in my backyard that have a date with my weed whacker.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:54 AM on June 17, 2010


languagehat: This month's Harper's Magazine has a book review of '2000 Years of Mayan Literature' by anthropologist and Mayan translator Dennis Tedlock that talks about about Yucatán:
the name 'Yucatán' originated when an inquisitve Spanish explorer asked some fishermen what the place was called: "What they actually said was k'i ut'an which means 'The way he talks is funny'."
Haven't read the book, but I'll take Tedlock's word for it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:01 AM on June 17, 2010


I bought the app. (it's my birthday so I splurged) It's cute. A little idiosyncratic in how they do things, but altogether nicely done. Unfortunately it doesn't have the US map so I can't figure out their Jersey derivation. But for Nicaragua, it says that the meaning is unknown or etymology unsatisfactory. It does give a few theories, the last of which is Nahuatl "nican" here, + Spanish "agua" water.
posted by condour75 at 8:06 AM on June 17, 2010


Pittsburgh is from "pit dweller's town?"

from wikipedia: The earliest known reference to the new name of the settlement is in a letter sent from General John Forbes to William Pitt the Elder, dated 27 November 1758, notifying Pitt that his name had been given to the place. In that letter, the spelling is given as "Pittsbourgh."

If they're just going to make stuff up, maybe they could go even further. Like that hamburger stand situated at the bottom of a deep hole.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:07 AM on June 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Heh, Edinburgh is apparently 'Slopefort'. Given we have a bloody great castle at the top of a long slope, makes sense to me.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:14 AM on June 17, 2010


They added "Dweller". I guess technically it should be "Pit town".
They're just meant to be straight translations. The translation of the name doesn't necessarily include the reason why the place came to have that name.
posted by amethysts at 8:18 AM on June 17, 2010


New York should have been properly named "Town we conquered from the Dutch and renamed after the twit who happens to be the King's brother.

I find a lot of this weirdly lazy. Virginia isn't Virgin Land. It's "Land named affectionately for Queen Elizabeth I of England."

And what's with Maryland being "Land of the Rebellious One?" It was named for the Queen Consort of Charles I. (With an added Catholic hat-tip to Mary.)
posted by desuetude at 8:23 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I was on holiday in Wales last year, I was fascinated by all the place names - ended up getting really into translating them and making up mythologies around particularly colourful ones. That said, some of them are (not to put too fine a point on it) really boring. Bangor-is-y-coed, for example, literally means something like "The monastery on that side of the forest".

Even more disappointing was a small mountain that I climbed with my dad. It's got two peaks, and the English name for it is "The Rivals", so I was making up all sorts of legends about twin princes and giants, when I found out that that's actually a corruption of the original name Yr Eifl, meaning something along the lines of "the prongs". No fun at all.

(Although some were pretty good. Dinas Bran was my favourite - The Dark Fortress. No-one's going to try to conquer you with a name like that.)
posted by ZsigE at 8:24 AM on June 17, 2010


That said, some of them are (not to put too fine a point on it) really boring.

Keep in mind that many English-language place names are straightforward to us, but might seem interesting to non-English speakers, or might be more interesting in several hundred years when English is spoken differently. For example, where I live we have Green Bay, Door County, Greenfield, Brookfield, Beaver Dam, Brown Deer, Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, Watertown, etc. We also have many French-derived names that would sound boring to a French speaker: Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, La Crosse. The names only seem exotic when you don't speak the language. For example: Milwaukee, Oconomowoc, Waukesha, Muskego, Mukwanago, etc.
posted by desjardins at 8:32 AM on June 17, 2010


Mukwanago Mukwonago.
posted by desjardins at 8:33 AM on June 17, 2010


I'm surprised he's missed my home town of Scarborough off his map. It was originally known as Skarthi's Burgh, or 'The fortified town of Hare-Lip'. Bah!
posted by Monkeymoo at 8:46 AM on June 17, 2010


Does "Sarajevo" really translate as "Here is the Palace!"? Because that would be too cool.

"Saray" only vaguely means "castle." A better translation would be something like "governor's mansion." The ending means something like "field" or "plain," so the whole thing really just means "the field or land around the governor's mansion."

I really like the idea of this atlas, but it's a little incomplete and often inaccurate.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:54 AM on June 17, 2010


Well, my home town is really interesting. Who'd have guessed that Portsmouth meant Port's Mouth?
"Swampy Hole" has a certain ring to it though.
posted by jonesor at 8:58 AM on June 17, 2010


My state is designated "Beautiful Land" on this site. I am closing off any more etymological scrutiny and just running with that.
posted by Danf at 8:58 AM on June 17, 2010


I find a lot of this weirdly lazy. Virginia isn't Virgin Land. It's "Land named affectionately for Queen Elizabeth I of England."

And what's with Maryland being "Land of the Rebellious One?" It was named for the Queen Consort of Charles I. (With an added Catholic hat-tip to Mary.)

Doesn't work though. If you did that, half the places would pretty much be Land / City named after other city / king / queen / crackpot colony founder etc. Or you'd have a paragraph for each place. At which point you may as well just give up and read wikipedia instead.

No, the makers of these maps took the decidedly unlazy route of methodically tracing every single proper name back to its non-proper meaning.

I think the fun of it is how hyperliteral and ahistorical it is. They've completely flattened out the meanings by splitting each word into its roots and translating any proper names. Which is why seeing Iceland or Greenland or Bridgeport among these strange, never-intended-to-be-literal "translations" seems almost like deadpan humor.
posted by condour75 at 9:04 AM on June 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Your Finger, You Fool."
posted by FatherDagon at 9:05 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


This will come in handing when they scour the Shire and I must take my gang of thuggish strangers out of Bree.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:19 AM on June 17, 2010


My true name is Prisencolinensinainciusol Llewellyn IV.
posted by everichon at 9:19 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


handy, rather. Handing, is, of course, the method of determining how a door swings.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:20 AM on June 17, 2010


It may be a little squishy in its translations, and take a few liberties (which is OK by Languagehat, and it's OK by me), but darn if this isn't one of the most fun things I've seen in a while! I got that iPhone app so fast I sprained my finger.
posted by chimaera at 9:28 AM on June 17, 2010


> However, at least one linguistic historian takes issue with some of their methodology.

Not to be nitpicky, but Ben Zimmer is not a linguistic historian. He studied linguistic anthropology at the University of Chicago and is now executive producer of Visual Thesaurus (as well, of course, as language columnist for the NYT).

As far as the map goes, I stand by my earlier evaluation, and I agree with condour75:

> I think the fun of it is how hyperliteral and ahistorical it is. They've completely flattened out the meanings by splitting each word into its roots and translating any proper names. Which is why seeing Iceland or Greenland or Bridgeport among these strange, never-intended-to-be-literal "translations" seems almost like deadpan humor.
posted by languagehat at 9:43 AM on June 17, 2010


I'm a little disappointed that they didn't have the full name of L.A. which translates to something like "The Village of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels." I think it's quite pretty.

I love learning the roots of words and names, and I thought this was a lot of fun.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:03 AM on June 17, 2010


Now I get it. Just frolicsome punning, no intended historical accuracy.

I recently read that cities ending in a -wich suffix, like Greenwich, had industrial salt-works.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:24 AM on June 17, 2010


I'd like to think of these maps as the product of an alien race that doesn't quite understand how proper nouns work.

"So here we have a couple of candidates for the initial invasion. Now, you know that I favor this 'Rice Land' — sounds like a real pushover to me."

"Perhaps, Captain, but I'd advise you to look to that country's borders. What if the Autonomous Ones, the Swift and Strong Ones, and the Really Strong Ones came to the aid of their neighbor?"

"Good thinking, One Who Offers Rebuttal. Well, bad luck for the Land of Villages, then. Deploy the Ships that Attack!"
posted by Iridic at 10:26 AM on June 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Huh, from now on I'm going to call the Dizzy Gillespie song A Night in the Land of the Night Quarters.
posted by condour75 at 10:28 AM on June 17, 2010


The full name of Los Angeles: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula.

It's glorious.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:32 AM on June 17, 2010


They added "Dweller". I guess technically it should be "Pit town".

No, "Pitt" doesn't simply mean "pit". It's a name given to those who lived in or near pits/hollows. So "Pit Dweller's Town" *is* accurate.
posted by grubi at 10:34 AM on June 17, 2010


This looks like fun. It's a shame that here in China, the majority of place names are pretty transparent: Beijing, where I live now, is 北京, "[the] Northern Capital." Shandong province is just 山东, "East of the Mountains." And of course everyone in my hometown of Philadelphia knows where the name came from -- though there are plenty of Lenni Lenape (and Dutch) place names around too.

Do other places have seriously transparent placenames too? Ireland seems to have a few - "Buncrana," where my dad's from, is just "the foot of the Crana River."
posted by bokane at 10:38 AM on June 17, 2010


I'd like to nominate Namibia as a candidate for best literally-translated name: "Area Where There Is Nothing."

Any advance on Namibia?
posted by him at 10:48 AM on June 17, 2010


Yeah, this is weirdly too literal and then not. It calls Sacramento "Consecration", but that is not a synonym for "sacrament", which is what the name means in Spanish (in Spanish, consecration would be consagracion). Yet there's the hyper-literal "Saint Little Frank One" for San Francisco.

It is a fun idea, but executed in sort of an inconsistent way. This is going to bug people who take the words "true names" at face value. It is cool to think of more of these places in terms of the landscape. I remember meeting a hippie kid in Arizona, who when told of my then boyfriend's home town of Redwood City exclaimed "it sounds beautiful!" Having lived in the Bay Area all my life, I had never considered how the scrubby, concrete lined town of Redwood City once was a completely different place. "Redwood City" was just a name to me.

I'm a little disappointed that they didn't have the full name of L.A. which translates to something like "The Village of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels." I think it's quite pretty.

The original name of Los Angeles was the even more picturesque El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula, which would be something like "The Village of Our Lady, Queen of the Messengers of the River of the Small Piece of Land".
posted by oneirodynia at 10:59 AM on June 17, 2010


I just noticed Madagascar is "The End of the World". Maybe the creators of Pandemic 2 are closet etymologists.
posted by condour75 at 11:16 AM on June 17, 2010


Albania is 'Rockland'.
Which is really not nice at all. People, the place have really come far in later years as you yourself can see if you visit the charming city of Detritus.
posted by Catfry at 11:25 AM on June 17, 2010


I had never considered how the scrubby, concrete lined town of Redwood City once was a completely different place.

Several places in the Bay Area have misleading names. Treasure Island? No treasure. Angel Island? No angels. They should really put more thought into naming these things.

I lived for a while in Tararu, which apparently means 'the exposed pubic hair of the lady of intoxicating fragrance'.

Cleveland, same story.
[NOT OHIO-IST]

El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula

That's really gonna mess up The The Angels Angels of Anaheim.

posted by kirkaracha at 11:39 AM on June 17, 2010


According to Wikipedia Albania should be "White Mountains".
This was an enourmous undertaking though and I'm willing to give them quite a few passes.
I bet this project would be A+ if it were crowd-sourced.
posted by amethysts at 11:39 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


To contribute something so trivial that only I could think of it, the Ojibwe word for skunk is "zhigago".

But with this crowd I'm probably overestimating my abilities. And I may mean that in the best possible way.
posted by Twang at 12:11 PM on June 17, 2010


Yeah, this is weirdly too literal and then not. It calls Sacramento "Consecration", but that is not a synonym for "sacrament", which is what the name means in Spanish (in Spanish, consecration would be consagracion).

But if you go back as far as you can, in Latin sacramentum should and does mean consecration: the result or the means of making something sacred/holy.

posted by dd42 at 12:18 PM on June 17, 2010


What would be super awesome would be a place named I Totally Got Laid Here.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:30 PM on June 17, 2010


On the outskirts of Maribor there's a Mount Agony and a Spastic Mountain. They're both very green, gentle slopes.
posted by clarknova at 12:57 PM on June 17, 2010


Halloween Jack, I think I've been there!
posted by desjardins at 1:46 PM on June 17, 2010


I doubt the accuracy. China is called "riceland"? In Chinese, it's called "the center/central country".

Very nice looking maps, though, and a great concept. They seem to have slacked on the research.
posted by zardoz at 4:52 PM on June 17, 2010


The meanings of words are not all existent at the same point in time; it's wildly anachronistic, but it's wildly funny.

I live near Marsh Farm, and it's certainly that in summer!

Shouldn't New Jersey be New Isle of the Hairy/Big-Haired People?

(caesaries = head of hair, a pun on Caesar and etymology suggested by Roman authors -- ancient etymologies are often wrong through)
posted by bad grammar at 6:43 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


zardoz: Their source for "riceland" might be 秦 Qín (or Ch'ín), which was the name of the first united Chinese dynasty (under Qin Shi Huang, the guy in Hero) and is supposedly the source for "China" and other western names for the country. The character originally described a kind of grain (in its early forms, it depicted hands holding a pestle and a component meaning 'grain'), then came to denote the name of the valley where the grain/rice grew, and then finally the feudal state that formed the dynasty.

Of course, no Chinese person looking at the character in the last 2,000 years would think to themselves "ah, yes, grain." In fact if you feel like flipping it around, some areas (Japan, Hong Kong) refer to the US as 米国, a sound loan that translates, if one is so inclined, as..."Riceland."
posted by bokane at 7:00 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you enjoyed this but want a little more depth and scholarship, check out the wonderful Names on the Land by George R. Stewart, which covers place names in the US in their diversity of linguistic origin, the different trends in naming that have occurred at different points in the settlement and infill development of the US, etc. It's a very fun read.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:38 PM on June 17, 2010


Am from Rich Port, but the atlas fails to include any of our 89 towns. Am from a town known in taíno arawak as "Land of Fresh Waters"; so boo to the etymologist for not even trying.

Spanish speaking countries are just too easy. It's when you get to the indigenous based names of towns and regions that you get etymologically rawking :)
posted by liza at 6:22 AM on June 18, 2010


I'm seconding LobsterMitten's recommendation of Stewart's Names on the Land. For a shorter version, a couple chapters of Bill Bryson's Made in America will do (and I'm almost certain that Bryson relied heavily on Stewart).
posted by madcaptenor at 11:51 AM on June 18, 2010


> If you enjoyed this but want a little more depth and scholarship, check out the wonderful Names on the Land by George R. Stewart

Heartily seconded.

> The meanings of words are not all existent at the same point in time

Good lord, who could possibly expect that, or care?
posted by languagehat at 11:59 AM on June 18, 2010


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