Home  »  The American Language  »  3. Geographical Names

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

X. Proper Names in America

3. Geographical Names

“THERE is no part of the world,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous and picturesque as in the United States of America.” A glance at the latest United States Official Postal Guide or report of the United States Geographic Board quite bears out this opinion. The map of the country is besprinkled with place names from at least half a hundred languages, living and dead, and among them one finds examples of the most daring and elaborate fancy. There are Spanish, French and Indian names as melodious and charming as running water; there are names out of the histories and mythologies of all the great races of man; there are names grotesque and names almost sublime. “Mississippi!” rhapsodized Walt Whitman; “the word winds with chutes—it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.… Monongahela! it rolls with venison richness upon the palate.” No other country can match our geographical names for interest and variety. When there arises among us a philologist who will study them as thoroughly and intelligently as the Swiss, Johann Jakob Egli, studied the place names of Central Europe, his work will be an invaluable contribution to the history of the nation, and no less to an understanding of the psychology of its people.

The original English settlers, it would appear, displayed little imagination in naming the new settlements and natural features of the land that they came to. Their almost invariable tendency, at the start, was to make use of names familiar at home, or to invent banal compounds. Plymouth Rock at the North and Jamestown at the South are examples of their poverty of fancy; they filled the narrow tract along the coast with new Bostons, Cambridges, Bristols and Londons, and often used the adjective as a prefix. But this was only in the days of beginning. Once they had begun to move back from the coast and to come into contact with the aborigines and with the widely dispersed settlers of other races, they encountered rivers, mountains, lakes and even towns that bore far more engaging names, and these, after some resistance, they perforce adopted. The native names of such rivers as the James, the York and the Charles succumbed, but those of the Potomac, the Patapsco, the Merrimac and the Penobscot survived, and they were gradually reinforced as the country was penetrated. Most of these Indian names, in getting upon the early maps, suffered somewhat severe simplifications. Potowanmeac was reduced to Potomack and then to Potomac; Unéaukara became Niagara; Reckawackes, by the law of Hobson-Jobson, was turned into Rockaway, and Pentapang into Port Tobacco. But, despite such elisions and transformations, the charm of thousands of them remained, and today they are responsible for much of the characteristic color of American geographical nomenclature. Such names as Tallahassee, Susquehanna, Mississippi, Allegheny, Chicago, Kennebec, Patuxent and Kalamazoo give a barbaric brilliancy to the American map. Only the map of Australia can match it.

The settlement of the American continent, once the eastern coast ranges were crossed, proceeded with unparalleled speed, and so the naming of the new rivers, lakes, peaks and valleys, and of the new towns and districts no less, strained the inventiveness of the pioneers. The result is the vast duplication of names that shows itself in the Postal Guide. No less than eighteen imitative Bostons and New Bostons still appear, and there are nineteen Bristols, twenty-eight Newports, and twenty-two Londons and New Londons. Argonauts starting out from an older settlement on the coast would take its name with them, and so we find Philadelphias in Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, Richmonds in Iowa, Kansas and nine other western states, and Princetons in fifteen. Even when a new name was hit upon it seems to have been hit upon simultaneously by scores of scattered bands of settlers; thus we find the whole land bespattered with Washingtons, Lafayettes, Jeffersons and Jacksons, and with names suggested by common and obvious natural objects, e. g., Bear Creek, Bald Knob and Buffalo. The Geographic Board, in its fourth report, made a belated protest against this excessive duplication. “The names Elk, Beaver, Cottonwood and Bald,” it said, “are altogether too numerous.” Of postoffices alone there are fully a hundred embodying Elk; counting in rivers, lakes, creeks, mountains and valleys, the map of the United States probably shows at least twice as many such names.

A study of American geographical and place names reveals eight general classes, as follows: (a) those embodying personal names, chiefly the surnames of pioneers or of national heroes; (b) those transferred from other and older places, either in the eastern states or in Europe; (c) Indian names; (d) Dutch, Spanish, French, German and Scandinavian names; (e) Biblical and mythological names; (f) names descriptive of localities; (g) names suggested by the local flora, fauna or geology; (h) purely fanciful names. The names of the first class are perhaps the most numerous. Some consist of surnames standing alone, as Washington, Cleveland, Bismarck, Lafayette, Taylor and Randolph; others consist of surnames in combination with various old and new Grundwörter, as Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Bailey’s Switch, Hagerstown, Franklinton, Dodge City, Fort Riley, Wayne Junction and McKeesport; and yet others are contrived of given names, either alone or in combination, as Louisville, St. Paul, Elizabeth, Johnstown, Charlotte, Williamsburg and Marysville. All our great cities are surrounded by grotesque Bensonhursts, Bryn Joneses, Smithvales and Krauswoods. The number of towns in the United States bearing women’s given names is enormous. I find, for example, eleven postoffices called Charlotte, ten called Ada and no less than nineteen called Alma. Most of these places are small, but there is an Elizabeth with 75,000 population, an Elmira with 40,000, and an Augusta with nearly 45,000.

The names of the second class we have already briefly observed. They are betrayed in many cases by the prefix New; more than 600 such postoffices are recorded, ranging from New Albany to New Windsor. Others bear such prefixes as West, North and South, or various distinguishing affixes, e. g., Bostonia, Pittsburgh Landing, Yorktown and Hartford City. One often finds eastern county names applied to western towns and eastern town names applied to western rivers and mountains. Thus, Cambria, which is the name of a county but not of a postoffice in Pennsylvania, is a town in seven western states; Baltimore is the name of a glacier in Alaska, and Princeton is the name of a peak in Colorado. In the same way the names of the more easterly states often reappear in the west, e. g., in Mount Ohio, Colo., Delaware, Okla., and Virginia City, Nev. The tendency to name small American towns after the great capitals of antiquity has excited the derision of the English since the earliest days; there is scarcely an English book upon the states without some fling at it. Of late it has fallen into abeyance, though sixteen Athenses still remain, and there are yet many Carthages, Uticas, Syracuses, Romes, Alexandrias, Ninevehs and Troys. The third city of the nation, Philadelphia, got its name from the ancient stronghold of Philadelphus of Pergamon. To make up for the falling off of this old and flamboyant custom, the more recent immigrants have brought with them the names of the capitals and other great cities of their fatherlands. Thus the American map bristles with Berlins, Bremens, Hamburgs, Warsaws and Leipzigs, and is beginning to show Stockholms, Venices, Belgrades and Christianias.

The influence of Indian names upon American nomenclature is quickly shown by a glance at the map. No fewer than 26 of the states have names borrowed from the aborigines, and the same thing is true of most of our rivers and mountains, and of large numbers of our towns and counties. There was an effort, at one time, to get rid of these Indian names. Thus the early Virginians changed the name of the Powhatan to the James, and the first settlers in New York changed the name of Horicon to Lake George. In the same way the present name of the White Mountains displaced Agiochook, and New Amsterdam, and later New York, displaced Manhattan, which has been recently revived. The law of Hobson-Jobson made changes in other Indian names, sometimes complete and sometimes only partial. Thus, Mauwauwaming became Wyoming, Maucwachoong became Mauch Chunk, Ouabache became Wabash, Asingsing became Sing-Sing, and Machihiganing became Michigan. But this vandalism did not go far enough to take away the brilliant color of the aboriginal nomenclature. The second city of the United States bears an Indian name, and so do the largest American river, and the greatest American water-fall, and four of the five Great Lakes, and the scene of the most important military decision ever reached on American soil.

The Dutch place-names of the United States are chiefly confined to the vicinity of New York, and a good many of them have become greatly corrupted. Brooklyn, Wallabout and Gramercy offer examples. The first-named was originally Breuckelen, the second was Waale Bobht, and the third was De Kromme Zee. Hell-Gate is a crude translation of the Dutch Helle-Gat. During the early part of the last century the more delicate New Yorkers transformed the term into Hurlgate, but the change was vigorously opposed by Washington Irving, and so Hell-Gate was revived. The law of Hobson-Jobson early converted the Dutch hoek into hook, and it survives in various place-names, e. g., Kinderhook and Sandy Hook. The Dutch kill is a Grundwort in many other names, e. g., Catskill, Schuylkill, Peekskill, Fishkill and Kill van Kull; it is the equivalent of the American creek. Many other Dutch place-names will come familiarly to mind: Harlem, Staten, Flushing, Cortlandt, Calver, Plaat, Nassau, Coenties, Spuyten Duyvel, Yonkers, Barnegat, Bowery (from Bouvery). Block Island was originally Blok, and Cape May, according to Schele de Vere, was Mey, both Dutch. A large number of New York street and neighborhood names come down from Knickerbocker days, often greatly changed in pronunciation. Desbrosses offers an example. The Dutch called it de Broose, but in New York today it is commonly spoken of as Des-bros-sez.

French place-names have suffered almost as severely. Few persons would recognize Smackover, the name of a small town in Arkansas, as French, and yet in its original form it was Chemin Couvert. Schele de Vere, in 1871, recorded the degeneration of the name to Smack Cover; the Postoffice, always eager to shorten and simplify names, has since made one word of it and got rid of the redundant c. In the same way Bob Ruly, a Missouri name, descends from Bois Brulé; Glazypool, the name of an Arkansas mountain, from Glaise á Paul; Low Freight, the name of an Arkansas river, from L’Eau Froid, and Barboo from Baribault. “The American tongue,” says W. W. Crane, “seems to lend itself reluctantly to the words of alien languages.” A large number of French place-names, e. g., Lac Supérieur, were translated into English at an early day, and most of those that remain are now pronounced as if they were English. Thus Des Moines is dee-moyns, Terre Haute is terry-hut, Beaufort is byu-fort in South Carolina (but bo-fort in North Carolina!). New Orleans is or-leens, Bonne Terre, an old town near St. Louis, is bonnie tar, Lafayette has a flat a, Havre de Grace has another, and Versailles is ver-sales. The pronunciation of sault, as in Sault Ste. Marie, is commonly more or less correct; the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad is popularly called the Soo. This may be due to Canadian example, or to some confusion between Sault and Sioux. The French Louis, in Louisville, is usually pronounced correctly, but in St. Louis it is almost always converted into Lewis. The rouge in Baton Rouge is correctly pronuonced, though the baton is commonly boggled. The local pronunciation of Illinois is Illinoy, an attempt to improve upon the vulgar Illin-i.

For a number of years the Geographic Board has been seeking vainly to reëstablish the correct pronunciation of the name of the Purgatoire river in Colorado. Originally named the Rio de las Animas by the Spaniards, it was renamed the Riviére du Purgatoire by their French successors. The American pioneers changed this to Picketwire, and that remains the local name of the stream to this day, despite the effort of the Geographic Board to compromise on Purgatoire river. Many other French names are being anglicized with its aid and consent. Already half a dozen Bellevues have been changed to Belleviews and Bellviews, and the spelling of nearly all the Belvédéres has been changed to Belvidere. Belair, La., represents the end-product of a process of decay which began with Belle Aire, and then proceeded to Bellaire and Bellair. All these forms are still to be found, together with Bel Air. The Geographic Board’s antipathy to accented letters and to names of more than one word has converted Isle Ste. Thérése, in the St. Lawrence river, to Isle Ste. Therese, a truly abominable barbarism, and La Cygne, in Kansas, to Lacygne, which is even worse. Lamoine, Labelle, Lagrange and Lamonte are among its other improvements; Lafayette, for La Fayette, long antedates the beginning of its labors.

The Spanish names of the Southwest are undergoing a like process of corruption, though without official aid. San Antonio has changed to San Antone in popular pronunciation and seems likely to go to San Tone; El Paso has acquired a flat American a and a z-sound in place of the Spanish s; Los Angeles presents such difficulties that no two of its inhabitants agree upon the proper pronunciation, and many compromise on simple Los, as the folks of Jacksonville commonly monly call their town Jax. Some of the most mellifluous of American place-names are in the areas once held by the Spaniards. It would be hard to match the beauty of Santa Margarita, San Anselmo, Alamogordo, Terra Amarilla, Sabinoso, Las Palomas, Ensenada, Nogales, San Patricio and Bernalillo. But they are under a severe and double assault. Not only do the present lords of the soil debase them in speaking them; in many cases they are formally displaced by native names of the utmost harshness and banality. Thus, one finds in New Mexico such absurdly-named towns as Sugarite, Shoemaker, Newhope, Lordsburg, Eastview and Central; in Arizona such places as Old Glory, Springville, Wickenburg and Congress Junction, and even in California such abominations as Oakhurst, Ben Hur, Drytown, Skidoo, Susanville, Uno and Ono.

The early Spaniards were prodigal with place-names testifying to their piety, but these names, in the overwhelming main, were those of saints. Add Salvador, Trinidad and Concepcion, and their repertoire is almost exhausted. If they ever named a town Jesus the name has been obliterated by Anglo-Saxon prudery; even their use of the name as a personal appellation violates American notions of the fitting. The names of the Jewish patriarchs and those of the holy places in Palestine do not appear among their place-names; their Christianity seems to have been exclusively of the New Testament. But the Americans who displaced them were intimately familiar with both books of the Bible, and one finds copious proofs of it on the map of the United States. There are no less than eleven Beulahs, nine Canaans, eleven Jordans and twenty-one Sharons. Adam is sponsor for a town in West Virginia and an island in the Chesapeake, and Eve for a village in Kentucky. There are five postoffices named Aaron, two named Abraham, two named Job, and a town and a lake names Moses. Most of the St. Pauls and St. Josephs of the country were inherited from the French, but the two St. Patricks show a later influence. Eight Wesleys and Wesleyvilles, eight Asburys and twelve names embodying Luther indicate the general theological trend of the plain people. There is a village in Maryland, too small to have a postoffice, named Gott, and I find Gotts Island in Maine (in the French days, Petite Plaisance) and Gottville in California, but no doubt these were named after German settlers of that awful name, and not after the Lord God directly. There are four Trinities, to say nothing of the inherited Trinidads.

Names wholly or partly descriptive of localities are very numerous throughout the country, and among the Grundwörter embodied in them are terms highly characteristic of American and almost unknown to the English vocabulary. Bald Knob would puzzle an Englishman, but the name is so common in the United States that the Geographic Board has had to take measures against it. Others of that sort are Council Bluffs, Patapsco Neck, Delaware Water Gap, Curtis Creek, Walden Pond, Sandy Hook, Key West, Bull Run, Portage, French Lick, Jones Gulch, Watkins Gully, Cedar Bayou, Keams Canyon, Parker Notch, Sucker Branch, Fraziers Bottom and Eagle Pass. Butte Creek, in Montana, is a name made up of two Americanisms. There are thirty-five postoffices whose names embody the word prairie, several of them, e. g., Prairie du Chien, Wis., inherited from the French. There are seven Divides, eight Buttes, eight town-names embodying the word burnt, innumerable names embodying grove, barren, plain, fork, center, cross-roads, courthouse, cove and ferry, and a great swarm of Cold Springs, Coldwaters, Summits, Middletowns and Highlands. The flora and fauna of the land are enormously represented. There are twenty-two Buffalos beside the city in New York, and scores of Buffalo Creeks, Ridges, Springs and Wallows. The Elks, in various forms, are still more numerous, and there are dozens of towns, mountains, lakes, creeks and country districts named after the beaver, martin, coyote, moose and otter, and as many more named after such characteristic flora as the paw-paw, the sycamore, the cottonwood, the locust and the sunflower. There is an Alligator in Mississippi, a Crawfish in Kentucky and a Rat Lake on the Canadian border of Minnesota. The endless search for mineral wealth has besprinkled the map with such names as Bromide, Oil City, Anthracite, Chrome, Chloride, Coal Run, Goldfield, Telluride, Leadville and Cement.

There was a time, particularly during the gold rush to California, when the rough humor of the country showed itself in the invention of extravagant and often highly felicitous place-names, but with the growth of population and the rise of civic spirit they have tended to be replaced by more seemly coinages. Catfish creek, in Wisconsin, is now the Yakara river; the Bulldog mountains, in Arizona, have become the Harosomas; the Picketwire river, as we have seen, has resumed its old French name of Purgatoire. As with natural features of the landscape, so with towns. Nearly all the old Boozevilles, Jackass Flats, Three Fingers, Hell-For-Sartains, Undershirt Hills, Razzle-Dazzles, Cow-Tails, Yellow Dogs, Jim-Jamses, Jump-Offs, Poker Citys and Skunktowns have yielded to the growth of delicacy, but Tombstone still stands in Arizona, Goose Bill remains a postoffice in Montana, and the Geographic Board gives its imprimatur to the Horsethief trail in Colorado, to Burning Bear in the same state, and to Pig Eye lake in Minnesota. Various other survivors of a more lively and innocent day linger on the map: Blue Ball, Pa., Cowhide, W. Va., Dollarville, Mich., Oven Fork, Ky., Social Circle, Ga., Sleepy Eye, Minn., Bubble, Ark., Shy Beaver, Pa., Shin Pond, Me., Rough-and-Ready, Calif., Non Intervention, Va., Noodle, Tex., Number Four, N. Y., Oblong, Ill., Stock Yards. Neb., Stout, Iowa, and so on. West Virginia, the wildest of the eastern states, is full of such place-names. Among them I find Affinity, Annamoriah (Anna Maria?), Bee, Bias, Big Chimney, Billie, Blue Jay, Bulltown, Caress, Cinderella, Cyclone, Czar, Cornstalk, Duck, Halcyon, Jingo, Left Hand, Ravens Eye, Six, Skull Run, Three Churches, Uneeda, Wide Mouth, War Eagle and Stumptown. The Postal Guide shows two Ben Hurs, five St. Elmos and ten Ivanhoes, but only one Middle-march. There are seventeen Roosevelts, six Codys and six Barnums, but no Shakespeare. Washington, of course, is the most popular of American place-names. But among names of postoffices it is hard pushed by Clinton, Centerville, Liberty, Canton, Marion and Madison, and even by Springfield, Warren and Bismarck.

Many American place-names are purely arbitrary coinages. Towns on the border between two states, or near the border, are often given names made of parts of the names of the two states, e. g., Pen-Mar (Pennsylvania+Maryland), Mar-Del (Maryland+Delaware), Texarkana (Texas+Arkansas), Kanorado (Kansas+Colorado), Tex-homa (Texas+Oklahoma), Dakoming (Dakota+Wyoming), Texico (Texas+New Mexico), Calexico (California+Mexico). Norlina is a telescope form of North Carolina. Ohiowa (Neb.) was named by settlers who came partly from Ohio and partly from Iowa. Penn Yan (N. Y.) was named by Pennsylvanians and New Englanders, i. e., Yankees. Colwich (Kansas) is a telescope form of the name of the Colorado and Wichita Railroad. There are two Delmars in the United States. The name of one is a blend of Delaware and Maryland; the name of the other (in Iowa) was “made by using the names (i. e., the initials of the names) of six women who accompanied an excursion that opened the railroad from Clinton, Iowa.” In the same state Le Mars got its name in exactly the same way. Benld (Ill.) is a collision form of Benjamin L. Dorsey, the name of a local magnifico; Cadams (Neb.) is a collision form of C. Adams; Wascott (Wis.) derives from W. A. Scott; Eleroy (Ill.) from E. Leroy; Bucoda (Wash.) is a blend of Buckley, Collier and Davis; Gilsum (N. H.) is a blend of Gilbert and Sumner; Paragould (Ark.) is a blend of W. J. Paramore and Jay Gould; Marenisco (Mich.) is named after Mary Relief Niles Scott; Miloma (Minn.) derives its name from the first syllable of Milwaukee, in the name of the Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis & St. Paul Railroad, and the first two syllables of Omaha, in the name of the Chicago, Minneapolis & Omaha Railroad; Gerled (Iowa) is a blend of Germanic and Ledyard, the names of two nearby townships; Rolyat (Ore.) is simply Taylor spelled backward; Biltmore (N. C.) is the last syllable of Vanderbilt plus the Gaelic Grundwort, more.

The Geographic Board, in its laudable effort to simplify American nomenclature, has played ducks and drakes with some of the most picturesque names on the national map. Now and then, as in the case of Purgatoire, it has temporarily departed from this policy, but in the main its influence has been thrown against the fine old French and Spanish names, and against the more piquant native names no less. Thus, I find it deciding against Portage des Flacons and in favor of the hideous Bottle portage, against Cañada del Burro and in favor of Burro canyon, against Cañonsy Ylas de la Cruz and in favor of the barbarous Cruz island. In Boug re landing and Cañon City it has deleted the accents. The name of the De Grasse river it has changed to Grass. De Laux it has changed to the intolerable Dlo. And, as we have seen, it has steadily amalgamated French and Spanish articles with their nouns, thus achieving such barbarous forms as Duchesne, Eldorado, Deleon and Laharpe. But here its policy is fortunately inconsistent, and so a number of fine old names have escaped. Thus, it has decided in favor of Bon Secours and against Bonsecours, and in favor of De Soto, La Crosse and La Moure, and against Desoto, Lacrosse and Lamoure. Here its decisions are confused and often unintelligible. Why Laporte, Pa., and La Porte, Iowa? Why Lagrange, Ind., and La Grange, Ky.? Here it would seem to be yielding a great deal too much to local usage.

The Board proceeds to the shortening and simplification of native names by various devices. It deletes such suffixes as town, city and courthouse; it removes the apostrophe and often the genitive s from such names as St. Mary’s; it shortens burgh to burg and borough to boro; and it combines separate and often highly discreet words. The last habit often produces grotesque forms, e. g., Newberlin, Boxelder, Sabbathday lake, Fallentimber, Bluemountain, Westtown, Three-pines and Missionhill. It apparently cherishes a hope of eventually regularizing the spelling of Allegany. This is now Allegany for the Maryland county, the Pennsylvania township and the New York and Oregon towns, Alleghany for the mountains, the Colorado town and the Virginia town and springs, and Allegheny for the Pittsburgh borough and the Pennsylvania county, college and river. The Board inclines to Allegheny for all. Other Indian names give it constant concern. Its struggles to set up Chemquasabamticook as the name of a Maine lake in place of Chemquasabamtic and Chemquassabamticook, and Chatahospee as the name of an Alabama creek in place of Chattahospee, Hoolethlocco, Hoolethloces, Hoolethloco and Hootethlocco are worthy of its learning and authority.

The American tendency to pronounce all the syllables of a word more distinctly than the English shows itself in geographical names. White, in 1880, recorded the increasing habit of giving full value to the syllables of such borrowed English names as Worcester and Warwick. I have frequently noted the same thing. In Worcester county, Maryland, the name is usually pronounced Wooster, but on the Western Shore of the state one hears Worcest-’r. Norwich is another such name; one hears Nor-wich quite as often as Norrich. Another is Delhi; one often hears Del-high. Another is Warwick. Yet another is Birmingham; it is pronounced as spelled in the United States, and never in the English manner. White said that in his youth the name of the Shawangunk mountains, in New York, was pronounced Shongo, but that the custom of pronouncing it as spelled had arisen during his manhood. So with Winnipiseogee, the name of a lake; once Winipisaukie, it gradually came to be pronounced as spelled. There is frequently a considerable difference between the pronunciation of a name by natives of a place and its pronunciation by those who are familiar with it only in print. Baltimore offers an example. The natives always drop the medial i and so reduce the name to two syllables; in addition, they substitute a neutral vowel, very short, for the o. Anne Arundel, the name of a county in Maryland, is usually pronounced Ann’ran’l by its people. Arkansas, as everyone knows, is pronounced Arkansaw by the Arkansans. The local pronunciation of Illinois is Illinoy. Iowa, at home, is Ioway. Many American geographical names offer great difficulty to Englishmen. One of my English acquaintances tells me that he was taught at school to accent Massachusetts on the second syllable, to rhyme the second syllable of Ohio with tea, and to sound the second c in Connecticut. In Maryland the name of Calvert county is given a broad a, whereas the name of Calvert street, in Baltimore, has a flat a. This curious distinction is almost always kept up. A Scotchman, coming to America, would give the ch in such names as Loch Raven and Lochvale the guttural Scotch (and German) sound, but locally it is always pronounced as if it were k.

Finally, there is a curious difference between English and American usage in the use of the word river. The English invariably put it before the proper name, whereas we almost as invariably put it after. The Thames River would seem quite as strange to an Englishman as the river Chicago would seem to us. This difference arose more than a century ago and was noticed by Pickering. But in his day the American usage was still somewhat uncertain, and such forms as the river Mississippi were yet in use. Today river almost always goes after the proper name.