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Putting American English on the Map

(from "About Language” by William H. Roberts )

                                       W.F. Bolton

What happens when "a whole new nation … composed of literally millions of places – states, counties, cities and towns, rivers, mountains, even swamps - … [awaits] new names from its new inhabitants”?

W.F. Bolton, a writer and philologist at Rutgers University, answers this question with wit and scholarship, concluding that place names are a major in defining the linguistic character of our nation. For Bolton, toponymics, the study of place names, is essential to a grasp of American English.


JOURNAL PROMPT  The history of a place or region can be revealed by its place names. What do the place names in your neighborhood, room, or region reveal about its history?


1. American English came of age in the nineteenth century when it accomplished the naming of places and naming of persons. For while the name for a native American plant or animal may be distinctive, it is usually no more so than its referent, and often rather less. The change of meaning for an ancient English word such as robin, for example, adds nothing to the resources of the vocabulary, although it does adjust them a trifle. Even the outright borrowing of a word like boss from a foreign language is only a minuscule addition. Most important of all, such adjustment or addition takes place unsystematically and anonymously.

2. But when a whole new nation, and a huge one at that, is composed of literally millions of places – states, counties, cities and towns, rivers, mountains, even swamps – all awaiting new names from its new inhabitants, then the consequence, whatever else it is, will be equally huge importance in defining the linguistic character of the nation. So the study of toponymics – placenames – is essential to a grasp of American English.

3. When, furthermore, the nation’s new inhabitants arrive in their millions from hundreds of other nations, and become parents in their new country to hundreds of millions more new inhabitants, then the patterns of personal name giving that they develop here are hundreds of millions of times more significant than designation of an unfamiliar bird as robin. So, the study of onomastics – personal names – like the study of toponymics assumes an importance to be measured by nothing less than the nation into which America grew during the nineteenth century.


Names of Places

4. Twenty-seven of the fifty United States – over half – have names of native American origin. Eleven of the others have names that come from personal names; five are named after other places; five are from common words in Spanish or French; and two are from common words in English. These five categories (native words, personal names, other placenames, common words in other European languages, and common words in English) account for most other American placenames as well, although not always in the same proportions.

5. The state names based on native words range from Alabama and Alaska to Wisconsin and Wyoming. They include the names of tribes (Arkansas, Dakota), descriptions (Mississippi, "big river”; Alaska, "mainland”), and words of  long-lost meaning (Hawaii, Idaho). Many of them are now very far from the form they had in the native language, some seen to be simply a mistake. The native Mescousing or Mesconsing, of uncertain meaning, was written Ouisconsing by French who first heard it, and Wisconsin by the English. One map had the French form misspelled as Ouariconsint and broke the word before the last syllable, so a reader who did not notice the sint on the line below would take the name – here of the river – to be Ouaricon. At length, that became Oregon. The Spanish heard the Papago word Arizonac (little spring) as Arizona; Spanish and American alike now think it is from the Spanish for "arid zone”. 

6. The confusion is not surprising. The native Americans themselves often did not know what the placenames meant because the names had been around since time out of memory, perhaps given by a tribe that had long ago disappeared, taking its language and leaving the names. Many placenames were invented on the spot for the benefit of curious white settlers where the native Americans lacked a name; that was especially true of large features in the landscape like mountains. When a Choctaw chief was asked the name of his territory, he replied with the word for "red people” – Oklahoma. The names were transcribed in so many different forms that it is usually sheer accident, and often unhelpful, that one has survived as the "official” form rather than another, Delaware Susquehanna (a tribal name) became something quite indecipherable in Huron, from which the French got their version Andastoei; the English made this Conestoga (ultimate source of the name Conestoga wagon) and used the word to name a branch of the Susquehanna River, a toponymic variant of the "I’m my own grandpa” song. And careful study of native American languages did not begin until long after many of these names had become settled – indeed until many of the native speakers too had become settled in six feet of earth and were beyond unraveling the placename mysteries they had left behind. Maybe that is just as well, at least for delicate readers; native Americans had a vocabulary rich in abusive terms, and they were not above using them as a joke when a white inquired the name of a local river or neighboring tribe.

7. All that is true of state names from native source is also true of other such placenames. Chicago appears to mean "the place of strong smells”, but exactly which strong smells is not clear. Mohawk is familiar name, but its derivation – apparently from the Iroquois for "bear” – is obscured by its early spellings in no fewer than 142 different forms, the most authentic seeming to be something like mahaqua. A single expedition might bring back many new names – the Frenchmen Joliet and Marquette, for example, brought back Wisconsin, Peoria, Des Moines, Missouri, Osage, Omaha, Kansas, Iowa, Wabash, and Arkansas. The story of Des Moines is typical. The Frenchmen found a tribe, the Moingouena, who lived on a river. It was the explorers who named the river Rivière des Moinguoenas and later shortened it to Revière des Moings. Now moines is "monks” in French, so by folk etymology des Moings, which is nothing in particular, became des Moines, which is at least something. But the French pronunciation /de mwan/ is far from what an American makes of the spelling Des Moines, and so we have /də moin/. It is a long way from the Moingouena tribe – too long for us to trace by the normal process of historical reconstruction back through Americanization, folk etymology, shortening, and the European transfer of a tribal name to a river, if we did not have the documents to help us. In most other cases, we do not have the documents, and the native names speak in a lost language.

8. Many of the earlier native placenames became disused among the descendants of the settlers who adopted them: Powhatan’s River became the James, the Agiochook Mountains became the White Mountains. Fashion in these matters followed the fashion in the native Americans’ prestige, some whites thinking them fine in an exotic and primitive way, others scorning them as crude and even barbaric. Frontier people were often among the latter, people in the settled regions among the former; but of course the frontier turned into the settled region, which sometimes brought about a return to a native name or the imposition of a new one. In New England, Agawam became Ipswich (after the English town), and later Agawam again. The names settlers chose were not always tribally appropriate; unlike the frontier people, settlers were insensitive to the differences among tribes about whom they knew next to nothing anyway, so that – for example – the name of a Florida chief would be given to some seventeen places, many of them far from his Florida habitat.

9. The vogue for native American placenames was supported by literary models like Longfellow’s Hiawatha. But the native names did not always meet the demands of American literary taste or English poetic forms, and when they clashed it was the placenames that were reworked. As a result, the "beauty” of such names is sometimes in the pen of the poet and not on the lip of the native speaker. The same is true of translations: Minnesota is approximately "muddy river”, but muddy could also be "cloudy”, and skies are "cloudy” too. Clouds pass, skies remain, and what have you? Minnesota translated as "the sky-blue water.” The nineteenth-century American fad for native placenames falsified the native American words in both form and meaning, and often imposed a native name where none had been before. Ironically, the travestied native name is often more recent than the English or other European placenames it replaced.

10. Native American names in their least native American form appear not only in places like Indian Bottom, Indian Greek, Indian Harbor, Indian Head, Indian Lake, Indian Peak, Indian River, but also Cherokee River, Cherokee Strip, Chippewa River (two), Chippewa Village, Chippewa County (three), Chippewa Falls, and Chippewa Lake.


Placenames from Personal Names and Other Words

 11. The states named after persons stretch from Pennsylvania (after William Pen, the English Quaker who founded it) in the east to Washington (after George Washington) in the west. Three were named after one royal couple: Charles I named the two Carolinas after himself (Latin Carolus means Charles), and Maryland after his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. Queen Elizabeth I named Virginia both after herself (the virgin queen) and after the New World (the virgin land); West Virginia followed naturally. Other royal names remain in Georgia (King George II of England) and Louisiana (King Louis XIV of France). The governor, Lord de la Warr, supplied the name for Delaware. Just as Arizona seems to stem from the Spanish for "arid zone,” so California seems to represent the Spanish for "hot oven”. It figures. It figures, but it is wrong. When Cortés came to the place around 1530, he thought he had found a legendary land entirely peopled by women – his soldiers must have loved that – teeming in gold and jewels and ruled by the fabled Queen Calafia. He named it, accordingly, California, and California, accordingly, is a state named after a person. 

12. The Americanization of placenames involves not only folk etymology, translation, and loan translation, but the distinctive rendition of words pronounced quite differently elsewhere. To English ears our pronunciation of Birmingham (Alabama) may or may not contain a giveaway /r/, depending on the regional dialect of the American who says it. If he is from the place itself, the /r/ will probably be absent, as it is in England. But almost any American will make the last syllable much more distinct than would an English resident of Birmingham (England), where the last three letters get no more than a syllabic [m]. This tendency is also observable in the local pronunciation of a place like Norwich (NJ), approximately "nor witch”; in England the place of the same name rhymes with "porridge”. The tendency is not always present in common nouns, however; for example, the noun record is pronounced with two distinct syllables in Britain but not in America. The careful spelling-pronunciation seems to be a consistent Americanism only when it comes to placenames.

13. If the placename is not an English one, American pronunciation will vary even more. We have already seen that many native American placenames changed beyond all recognition in the white settlers’ vocal apparatus. The same is often true of names from European languages other than English. Los Angeles is a notorious case – the common pronunciation contains several sounds not in Spanish, and the first word is liable to sound like las in Americanized form. But no matter, the city was not, in any case, named after the angels, but after the mother of Christ, "The Queen of the Angels.”


Other Placenames

 14. The five states that are named after other places show, in four of them, the origins of their settlers: New Mexico by Spanish explorers coming northward from "Old” Mexico; New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York by Britons who remembered an English country, an island in the English Channel, and a northern English city, respectively. But Rhode Island is named after the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, where the famous Colossus once bestrode the entrance to the port, a statue of a man so huge that it gives us our adjective colossal today. Why the smallest state should struggle under a name associated with the largest statue is, all the same, a colossal mystery.

15. Spanish words for common things remain in the state names Montana (mountainous), Colorado ([colored] red), Nevada (snowed on), Florida (flowered, because it had many flowers, and because it was discovered a few days after Easter, called "the Easter of flowers” in Spanish), and – in an unorthodox form – the French Vermont (green mountain). English common words remain in Maine (great or important, as in mainland or main sea, from which comes the billowing main or the Spanish main); and in Indiana, from the Indiana Company that was formed by land speculators to settle the Indian Territory.

16. All these patterns, like the pattern of naming with native American words, are repeated in the patterns of naming places other than states. Washington names not only a state but, at one count, 32 counties; 121 cities, towns, and villages; 257 townships; 18 lakes and streams; 7 mountains; and no end of streets. Many saints’ names appear in Spanish, French, and English placenames. With suitable suffixes on secular names we get Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and many more. Common things remain in Oil City and in Carbondale, as well as in the rather less common Canadian Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat. Placenames are transferred from abroad – the English Boston supplied the name for the well-known city in Massachusetts and eighteen more Bostons and New Bostons – or from the east of the United States, reproducing Princetons (fifteen municipalities and, in Colorado, a peak) and Philadelphias across the American landscape with no more than a zip code of difference among them.

17. So what is true of the state names is true of other placenames. But the other placenames have a few features that, probably fortunately, never got put on the map in letters quite so large as those employed for states. Some of these are European words from languages other than the staple of Spanish, French, and English. Some are names from classical or biblical lore. Some describe the place or its animals or plants. And some seem to be inspired by nothing more serious than verbal playfulness, nothing more reverent than onomastic cussedness. Placenames such as these, especially the last category, have attracted the disproportionate attention of many otherwise judicious investigators of American English, and they have inspired poetic encomiums such as Stephen Vincent Benét’s "American Names”. They are colorful, it is true, but you can scan the average gasoline company map for hours before you will find anything more than the usual, usually colorless, run of American placenames.

18. Dutch names are among the most important following the native American, French, Spanish, and English. Like the others, the Dutch had a way with native names, and their way gave us Hackensack and Hoboken (the latter from Hopoakanhacking) and other names too. They named New World places after Old World places, like New Amsterdam and Haarlem; their Bruekelyn born anew on these shores became Brooklyn. They gave their personal names to places as well, so that Jonas Bronck (actually a Dane in a Dutch settlement) gave his to the Bronx, and Jonkheer (squire) Donck gave his title to Yonkers. And they gave the name of their language and culture to places like Dutch Neck (NJ). Many of the Dutch names did not survive the occupation of their settlements by the English – Nieuw Amsterdam became New York, for example – and in this as in the other Dutch placenames, only the language in question is different: the patterns of naming are the same as they were for the languages that named thousands of other places.

19. A somewhat more novel trail of American placenames is their reference to classical and biblical lore. Philadelphia may "mean” City of Brotherly Love, in approximate translation from the Greek, but it was probably named (by William Penn) after an Asian city of the same name, with the additional warrant of the words of Saint Paul, "Be kindly affectionate one to another with brotherly love.” Both the classical and the scriptural had singular importance in a country that, unlike Britain, had millions of new places awaiting names, places as often as not settled by those (again like Penn) whose wandering had a religious impetus. When we today have a new product, we may invent a neoclassical name for it: television is the most common example. But when we want such a name, it is to the classical scholar that we turn. The early settlers likewise turned to the schoolteacher or to the minister who was, frequently, the same person. And they got just what they might have expected: in central New York there is a Troy, a Utica, a Rome, an Ithaca, and a Syracuse. (Troy was not the first name the place had; under the Dutch it had been Vanderheyden or Vanderheyden’s Ferry). State names like the Carolinas and Virginia took a Latin-like form, and when the Virginia town near the Alexander plantation got its name, it was more than a happy coincidence that it was called Alexandria after the great city of the ancient world. The practice is most notable in the east, but that has not stopped placenames father west like Cincinnati (Ohio), Cairo (Illinois), Tempe and Phoenix (Arizona), and many others from achieving permanence.

20. The Bible too had an influence beyond the Philadelphia city limits. Mencken counted eleven Beulahs, nine Canaans, eleven Jordans, and twenty-one Sharons. The pattern is general: a preference for the Old Testament over the New as a toponymic source. Most of the American placenames with St. – are taken over from the French or the Spanish, as are the frequent placenames still untranslated from those languages: Sacramento, San Francisco, and so many more than Whitman grew angry at their number and demanded their renaming in secular terms. It didn’t come about. Placenames very quickly lose their referential content beyond the place they name. They "mean” nothing more than the place, and so Phoenix (AZ), for example, become a different word from the phoenix that was a legendary bird. By the same process, Sacramento has no religious overtones for those who know it as a place, even though they may also know something of the sacrament it was originally meant to recall. And folk etymology often made oblivion certain. The place the Spanish called El Rio de las Animas Predidas en Purgatorio (River of the Souls Lost in Purgatory) was translated and shortened by the French into Purgatoire, and the Americans who followed them imitated this as Picketwire. Any resemblance between purgatory and picketwire is purely coincidental.

21. A name like the one the Spanish gave this river is a reference to something else not present, as is most naming for persons and places. But some placenames refer to the place itself by describing it: Sugarloaf Mountain, for example, which looked like a sugarloaf to those who had to name it, and Cedar Mountain, which was covered with trees. Nowadays no one knows what a sugarloaf looks like, so the name of the mountain is as abstract as if it had been Algonquian; and chances are the cedars have all been cut down as well to make shingles for houses where no sugarloaf will enter. No high school French course will enable the American pupil to see in the Grand Teton mountains the original comparison to "big breasts”, which may be why the name has been left untranslated. Descriptive placenames have made a great comeback since World War II, for they appear to lend a quaint and historical air to new subdivision developments. Oak Dell certainly sounds worth a down payment, even if no oaks even grew within miles of the sport and the terrain is perfectly flat; and Miry Run has the same reassuring sound, at least until the customer remembers what miry means.

22. The most colorful names are the rarest. They are found mostly in old accounts of the frontier and in books like this one. Many of the most colorful have been civilized out of existence: in Canada, Rat Portage became Kenora. But King of Prussia and Intercourse still survive in Pennsylvania, Tombstone in Arizona, and others elsewhere. Mencken claims that West Virginia is "full” of such placenames, giving as proof Affinity, Bias, Big Chimney, Bulltown, Caress, Cinderella, Cowhide, and Czar, just for the ABCs. But some of his examples are more madcap than others, and they do not really "fill” the state. Truth or Consequences (NM) is a recent alteration that needs no explanation. Almost self-explanatory are the portmanteau or blendword placenames such as Calexico (on the California side of the Mexican border; Mexicali is on the other side), Penn Yan (settled by Pennsylvanians and Yankees), Delmarva (a common though unofficial name for the peninsula that is partly in Delaware, partly in Maryland, partly in Virginia). The blend process is relatively common in all varieties of the English language, but as a source of placenames it seems to be distinctively American.             


Questions on Content

  1. Why is toponymics "essential to a grasp of American English” ?
  2. What five categories of U.S. place names does Bolton identity?
  3. Explain the origins of the names Wisconsin and Minnesota.
  4. Which states were named after famous persons?
  5. Identify some U.S. place names that are Dutch in origin. What kinds of things are they named after?
  6. Which source do you think accounts for the most colorful place names?


Questions on Structure and Style

  1. Examine the relationship between paragraphs 1 and 2. What is the function of paragraph 2?
  2. What kind of transitions are used in the first three paragraphs? Are the transitions in the rest of the selection similar?
  3. We note Bolton’s sense of humor in paragraph 6. Find other examples of his humor. What do they tell us about him and about his attitude toward his subject?
  4. Are Bolton’s examples appropriate? Does he include enough examples?



  1. Study Bolton’s five categories for the names of the fifty states. Then write an essay classifying the place names in your region. (You may have to devise new categories.)
  2. Write an essay discussing the history of your region as reflected in its place names.   




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