Podunk, based on an Algonquian word meaning ... something?
September 30, 2019 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Podunk was a place name (Wikipedia) long before it became a punchline. The word has Algonquian roots, but Ives Goddard, senior linguist emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and a leading expert on Algonquian languages, notes that "you'll be able to find guesses in the sources if you look around. Don't believe any of it." (NPR Codeswitch)
... according to Goddard, when it comes to Native American place names in the Eastern United States, a lot of what we think we know is actually misinformation. He says the standard source for these definitions is a man named William Bright, a linguist who in 2004 wrote a book called Native American Placenames of the United States (Google books preview). "He was a good linguist, a smart guy," Goddard says of his colleague, who died in 2006. "But when he got to Eastern areas, there wasn't any information."

Rather than saying he didn't know what certain place names meant, Goddard says, Bright cited a man named John C. Huden, who in 1962 published a book called Indian Place Names of New England (Archive.org). But Huden, Goddard adds, didn't exactly have indisputable definitions himself.

Huden "would look through all this amateur literature and find a [place] name, find a translation, and pick the one he liked," Goddard explains. "And this book was considered authoritative. So if you're looking at Bright, as I just did, he cites Huden, and then he cites like three or four people after Huden who are just copying Huden, of course, and are equally uninformed."

Goddard said that story can be told of many Native American place names in southern New England, New Jersey, all the way down into Virginia. There are exceptions — for instance, we know that "Connecticut" means "long river." But with a lot of others, he says, "We don't really have any hope of figuring them out."
Indigenous Erasure in Plain Sight: Place Names in New England (Intercontinental Cry)
Frederick J. Dockstader, a former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, best contextualized* (Hathi Trust) the study of indigenous place names in the US:
The native geographer has come and gone in New England; as is true of so many aboriginal inhabitants, his was a light touch which left little impress upon the land. Because the White emigrant to the region had little understanding of the various local dialects, and even less interest in native cultures, by and large the names the Indian gave to his landmarks have disappeared. Many of these have survived in extremely distorted forms, and only a small proportion of the currently-used place names are clearly defined and readily translatable Indian terms. This is an unfortunate loss to our historic heritage.
When discussing indigenous languages in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, all fall under the Algonquin family; the dialects included Massachusett, Natick, Nipmuc, Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Pocumtuck. Unfortunately, New England was one of the first colonized areas in the United States, which is to say that the Indigenous Peoples were decimated early on. The last documented reference to Wampanoag being spoken dates back to 1833; likewise, all the languages listed above are considered “dead” languages. This means that the meaning of many indigenous place names has been lost to the scythe of colonization.
* Dockstader's contextualization comes from the 1962 edition of Huden's Indian place names of New England, where the preface includes an older quote from James Hammond Trumbull (Wikipedia), an American scholar and philologist, who remarked that, "translating of [Indian] names in Southern New England is far more difficult than in "new" states [Michigan, Minnesota, etc.] where Algonkian is not a dead language. Half the Indian names in Rhode Island are so corrupt as to defy analysis!"

That said, Wikipedia has a very long list of place names of Native American origin in the United States, with an almost as long list of citations. But remember that just in the days of Bright and Huden before him, not all sources are good or right.

More on the topic of Native American and First Nation placenames: when President Obama renamed Mount McKinley as Denali, restoring an Athabaskan name (previously) the Smithsonian Magazine published Denali and America’s Long History of Using (or Not Using) Indian Names, looking back at the romanticizing of "Indian" place names.

One final link: Anthropological Studies of Native American Place Naming (Thomas F. Thornton, American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring, 1997)) -- [ligthly] paywalled article on Jstor, noting that "the study of Native place names has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance within the discipline [of American anthropology]." Thornton also notes that "place names are a particularly interesting aspect of culture because they intersect three fundamental domains of cultural analysis: language, thought and the environment."
posted by filthy light thief (4 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The metaphorical Podunk was last seen having merged with Palookaville, producing “Padookaville”.
posted by acb at 8:25 AM on September 30, 2019

There is a real place named Podunk near Ithaca, NY.
posted by mareli at 9:23 AM on September 30, 2019

translating of [Indian] names in Southern New England is far more difficult than in "new" states [Michigan, Minnesota, etc.]

Erm... yeah, about that...
posted by Etrigan at 10:03 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

There is a real place named Podunk near Ithaca, NY.

There are a number of places named Podunk. And As Etrigan noted, Henry Schoolcraft made up "Indian" names, including "Lake Itasca." The Ojibwe name is Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan (Elk Lake); this was changed by Schoolcraft to "Itasca", coined from a combination of the Latin words veritas ("truth") and caput ("head").
posted by filthy light thief at 10:24 AM on September 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

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