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Folk Etymology in the Place Names of the United States


sichereren Ort verlegen, wute aber nicht wohin. Als er nun auf einer Jagd ermdet im Wald eingeschlafen war, erschien ihm im Traum die Muttergottes und rief ihm zu Hic seca. Wahrscheinlich erklrte man den Namen slawischer Herkunft schon im Mittelalter auf diese Weise, wie die hufige, ungewohnte Schreibung mit cc statt mit kk, gk 1 1 42 Seccowe (slaw. ekova zu ekti brandroden) vermuten lt. Von der niedersterreichischen Burg Greifenstein (11 35 Grifinsteine zu mhd. grfe Greif oder dem davon abgeleiteten PN Grfo) wird in mehreren Varianten eine Sage erzhlt, an deren Ende ein namenmotivierender Schwur steht, der an einem im Burghof befindlichen ausgehhlten Stein zu leisten ist: So wahr ich greife in den Stein. Die meisten dieser namenbegrndenden Sagen enthalten auch ein Krnchen historischer Wahrheit, so die Erbauung der gotischen Wallfahrtskirche Maria Buch um 1 450/60 und die Verlegung der Erstgrndung von Seckau.

reich 1). Wien. Bertol-Raffin, Elisabeth, Wiesinger, Peter (1 991 ): Die Ortsnamen des Politischen Bezirkes Ried im Innkreis (Ortsnamenbuch des Landes Obersterreich 2). Wien. Christmann, Ernst (1 937): Zur Frage der Volksetymologie. In: Teuthonista 13, 18. Frstemann, Ernst (1 852): ber deutsche Volksetymologien. In: Zeitschrift fr vergleichende Sprachforschung 1, 125. Koch, Max (1 963): Volksetymologie und ihre Zusammenhnge. In: Beitrge zur Namenforschung, 162168. Mller, Richard (1 884): Altsterreichisches Leben aus Ortsnamen. In: Bltter des Vereines fr Landeskunde von Niedersterreich 18, 101121. Panagl, Oswald (1 982): Aspekte der Volksetymologie (Innsbrucker Beitrge zur Sprachwissenschaft, Vortrge und Kleinere Schriften 30). Innsbruck. Pttinger, Josef 1 950): ( Niedersterreichische Volkssagen. Wien. Rupp, Leopold (1 928): Himberg. Ein Heimatbuch. Wien. Sanders, Willy (1 971 1 975): Zur deutschen Volksetymologie. 1 . Terminologische Prolegomena. 2. Linguistische Analyse volksetymologischer Erscheinungsformen. 3. Volksetymologie und Namenforschung. In: Niederdeutsches Wort 1 1 (1 971 ), 1 6; 12 (1972), 115; 15 (1975), 15. Sann, Hans von der (1 890): Sagen aus der grnen Mark. Graz. Schuster, Elisabeth (1 989/90): Die Etymologie niedersterreichischer Ortsnamen. 2 Bde. Wien. Wiesinger, Peter (1 992): Zur Morphologie der bairischen Ortsnamen im Althochdeutschen. In: Philologie der ltesten Ortsnamenberlieferung. Hrsg. von Rudolf Schtzeichel (Beitrge zur Namenforschung NF, Beiheft 40). Heidelberg, 355400.


Literatur (in Auswahl)

Andresen, Karl Gustaf ( 883): ber deutsche 1 Volksetymologie. Leipzig 1 883. 7. Aufl. von Hugo Andresen. Leipzig 1919. Bach, Adolf (1 953/54): Deutsche Namenkunde II: Die deutschen Ortsnamen. 2 Bde. Heidelberg [bes. 732736]. Baldinger, Kurt (1 973): Zum Einflu der Sprache auf die Vorstellungen des Menschen (Volksetymologie und semantische Parallelverschiebung) (Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.-hist. Klasse 1973/2). Heidelberg. Baumert, Herbert Erich (1 958): Die Wappen der Stdte und Mrkte Obersterreichs (Schriftenreihe des Institutes fr Landeskunde von Obersterreich 10). Linz. Bertol-Raffin, Elisabeth, Wiesinger, Peter (1 989): Die Ortsnamen des Politischen Bezirkes Braunau am Inn (Ortsnamenbuch des Landes Oberster-

Peter Wiesinger, Wien (sterreich)

69. Folk Etymology in the Place Names of the United States

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. Introduction Naming Tales Jocose False Etymology Misunderstandings Conclusion Selected Bibliography



In his introductory and pioneering book, Brunvand (1968) wrote:

Place names, both for geographic features and for communities, have been more thoroughly re-


V. Namensemantik

searched than any other branch of name-lore, but even here vast areas remain unexplored. From the folklorists point of view (but not the historians or the cartographers) the legendary folk etymologies for place names are of prime concern. Thus the folk imagination can be counted on to concoct a story about gnawing on bones to explain a town name like Gnawbone [Indiana] ...

The real name of that place was Narbonne, a name transferred from Narbonne in Languedoc (in the French department of Aube), once Narbo Martius, the first Roman stronghold in Transalpine Gaul. In the same way that foreign placenames came to be mispronounced in America (CAY-ro for Cairo, Illinois) so also did some foreign placenames transferred here get mangled and, sounding like certain English words, they were altered with a folk explanation into something new and strange. It was not difficult when Dutch, French, Spanish and English collided with the hundreds of aboriginal languages for placenames here to be misunderstood, mistranslated, misapplied and, to come to the point, subjected to the folk etymology which made the Purgatoire (Purgatory) of hard-pressed French-speaking explorers into the Picketwire of today. Despite the more than 100,000 items in the Library of Congress touching on our placenames and the thousands upon thousands of toponymic studies both professional and amateur a great deal of placename information has been collected if not much analyzed by the tireless, dedicated local historians all over America folk etymology is one category that (as Wilhelm F. H. Nicolaisen stressed when he was a member of The Place Name Commission of the United States) has been comparatively neglected. The vast Omnigraphics Gazetteer of the United States lists approximately 1 .5 million US placenames but it does not give any information about etymologies or folk etymologies. The Place Name Commission of the United States is currently developing a format for the collection of toponymic information from official and unofficial maps and all sorts of other sources and in the pigeon-holes will be a place in which folk etymology can be discussed and legends about naming can be recorded. In time some collection of micronyms such as street names will be created and that will have to take note of odd pronunciations given by the folk (CHART-ers and Bur-GUN-dy for Chartres and Burgundy

in New Orleans, GO-thee for Goethe in Chicago, HOW-ston for Houston in New York City) and also of any folk etymologies that street names, park names, names of malls and housing developments and all sorts of other places may have picked up with the passing of time. First must come the systematic collection of all examples that can be found of US folk etymology in connection with the names of US places (and we may tell stories, too, about how some foreign places got their names such as Antwerp coming from hands chopped off!). That material assembled, an analytical study of folk etymology and toponymy in America can be done. To be complete it will have to seek out, identify, and consider materials relative to folk naming on maps and in the diaries and memoirs of explorers and early settlers and in all sorts of literature, fiction included. It will have to ransack not only the large public and institutional libraries but also the small but valuable collections of genealogists, local historians, recorders of oral literature, collectors of American folk expression of all kinds.


Naming Tales

In that literature are some wild but wonderful tales about how places got their names. Particularly attractive to the folk etymologist are foreign names (and by that term we can also designate aboriginal names, which seemed very odd indeed to the white man who in the presence of this continent sought to take over from the red men who, as one writer says, came here first). Faced with an Amerindian name such as Chauquisitt (Upland), the English-speaking New Jersey settler was quick to make it Cheesequake and create the temptation to tell the tale of a cheese that quaked or something like that. Naramuke (Point?) was first made into Norwalk (one of the few Amerindian names still left on Connecticut settlements) and soon there was talk of a north walk of some sort. Tenino is Chinook for fork or junction. Railroadmen said it was 1 090 and thought up an explanation, rather trivial. Bayou Funny Creek is from Choctaw bayou (river) and fani (squirrel) but it was Choctaw, incomprehensible, to early white settlers. Just another misunderstanding. Nonetheless, folk etymology is full of information on important matters as diverse as historic dialects, strange naming habits (such

69. Folk Etymology in the Place Names of the United States


as creating Indian names out of personal initials), and migrations. These folk tales about names and naming constitute an important category of folk literature. They deserve to be studied as examples of orality (as some professors might say), of how the common people entertained themselves and their listeners with tall tales, tales of the supernatural (the US has many a Devils this or that), humorous wordplays, ingenious and surprising narratives. They are of interest also in connection with folk beliefs, folk psychology, the mind of the people. Some of them display in full measure the wit and wisdom of early America, its curiosity about everything in this new land, its demand for facts, its scorn of scholarly pomposity and show-off writers with their two-dollar words, and (perhaps most of all) the desire of practical people to know and a certain sense of humor about the impossibility of knowing everything, even why the next place down the line might be called Hard Scrabble or Angels Roost or Indian Leap. These folktales about names and naming contain valuable linguistic and literary history and profound insights into the way life was lived and things were seen in times gone by. It is easily seen why the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome impressed the new nation and caused these United States to build a capitol, compare Washington with Cincinnatus, and name places the likes of Ithaca, Troy, and Athens (very popular for academic campuses, better than College Station or Institute) and Syracuse, Naples, and Rome. A smattering of classical education assisted in convincing locals to name Eureka (California) and Cicero (Illinois) and John Meares (1 756?1 809) early brought classical names to the West Coast when, in Voyages Made in the Years 1 788 and 1 789 to the North West Coast of America he named one mountain there Mount Olympus and gave rise to the Olympic Peninsula, etc. When classical names chosen, however, ran to the slightly more exotic, people could not say Scio, Terpsichore and such in some places in New York and Louisiana, for instance, they still cannot pronounce these names and such naming might lead to mistake and folk etymology to explain the error. The strangest placename in this classical connection, however, has a real as opposed to a folk origin. The inhabitants of one Missouri town thought Excelsior (which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made famous

in the US) a classy name. Their application for this as a post office name was rejected by officials in Washington. There was already one Excelsior (Missouri) and two would cause confusion. The postal authorities urged that the applicants select a peculiar name. So the town was called Peculiar. Stories are rife about how Death Ball (from some miners bad biscuits) or Hot Coffee (where travelers could look forward to that refreshment) or the various places called Lick Skillet or Shake Rag (both suggesting dire poverty) were named by folks. This can be said to be history, albeit in the modern Annales style, noticing the lowly, rather than the traditional style that regards all history as the lengthened shadows of great personages. When the story is demonstrably false, then we enter the realm of creative narrative or tall tale or legend or folk etymology. Who could resist trying to give us the low down on the likes of odd names? All these are from Kentucky: Toad Suck, Frog Jump, Skullbone, Miser Station, Chalk Level, Ozone, Oral, Owl City, Defeated, Readyville, Finger, Wetmore, Weakly. All these are from the US Virgin Islands: All for the Better, Barrel of Beef, Elizas Retreat, Sallys Fancy, Slob, Wheel of Fortune. All these are from Texas: Alley Oople, Windmill, Barefoot Mountains, Calamity Creek, Dressy Cemetery, Ezras Bedground, Jinx Well, Lost Mule Creek, not to mention the Amerindian and Spanish names that some English-speakers could not get their tongues around. Here are the folk let loose on Oronogo. It was the name of a mining community so it might have been intended to honor the great, rich river Orinoco which flows importantly through Venezuela and other South American countries rich in minerals. It might have been dimly recalling the once-popular novel Oroonoko (1 688), the one in which Mrs. Aphra Behn introduced the concept of the noble savage that was to have so much influence on American thought. But whatever the real reason for Oronogo, here is the tale that Vance Randolph (1 977, 235236) heard from Johnny Shrader, an old lead miner from Jasper County (Missouri) who had heard it near Joplin (Missouri) some 50 years before. Randolph recorded the tale in 1 954 in these words:
One time there was a bunch of Pukes [easterners] lived over by Joplin, at a camp knowed as Minersville. The boys didnt have nothing but picks and shovels in them days, and maybe a windlass with


V. Namensemantik

a bucket. They just gophered around in prospect holes, because there wasnt no powder to speak of. Whenever they hit hard rock they would quit, and dig a new hole somewheres else. What they dug up was mostly white-looking ore that they called drybone or turkey-fat. There was lead in the stuff, though, and you could trade it for groceries at the store. Old lady Bradley was running the boardinghouse at Minersville then, and she had a pretty girl named Myrtle to wait on the table. Them overall boys was always a-following Myrtle around, but she never done no screwing unless they paid her first. A fellow named Taylor come down with the horn colic one night, but he didnt have the two dollars. Taylor kept hollering how hed have the money come Saturday night, but Myrtle just laughed, because shed heard that song before. Fetch me a gunnysack full of turkey-fat, she says, and well talk business. Taylor begun to cry like a baby, but he didnt have no turkey-fat neither. Bawling wont buy you nothing at the store, says Myrtle. Its ore or no go! The walls in that boarding-house was just thin slabs, without no plaster. Everybody in the house could hear what Myrtle told Taylor, and them prospectors just laughed theirself sick. It was kind of a joke in all the saloons, and finally they held a meeting to change the name of the camp. Minersville dont sound very good anyhow, the ore-or-nogo is kind of high toned. It all happened pretty near eighty years ago, but the name stuck. You can see Oronogo painted right on the post office window, any time you feel like driving up Main Street.

That is, of course, a sneaky conclusion to the tale; the invented story which began with the idea of trying to explain Oronogo relies for its credibility on the fact that the name Oronogo exists. You can, in fact, find Oronogo today on the Webb City map issued by the United States Board on Geographical Names, but that does not prove the folk etymology true. The same kind of thing applies in the case of Albany. Robert M. Rennick (author of one of the best-researched books on any of the American states, Kentucky Place Names, 1 984) cannot find any real support for the story that goes along with this placename (pronounced All-BENNY). Pretty clearly Albany comes from Britain originally, just as did Albany (New York), Albany (Georgia), and dozens of other US placenames. This has not stopped the folk from telling the tale of a popular tavern keeper named Benny who wanted the post office (and so the center of the community) to be in his establishment. What the town was going to be called is supposedly not known but what is known is

that some few opposed this plan (perhaps thinking the temptations of Demon Rum would be increased by such a cozy arrangement) while others rallied to the cause with cries of All Benny! All Benny! This is one of those folk etymologies that are probably not intended to be believed by anyone with any sense. Such stories mock the credulous and entertain the others with the plight of those imposed upon if not with the ingenuity of the implausible explanation. The principal force behind the creation of folk etymologies, however, is not humor but (as Smythe Palmer put it, 1890, vii) this fact: Few men have the courage to say I dont know. A second source of error is misheard or mangled expressions: the Margrave of Baden Dourlach (Horace Walpole tells us in his Letters, II: 208) was called by ignorant British crowds the Prince Bad-Door-Lock. Fighting ships have been called the Bullyruffian (Belerephon) in the UK and Rusty Guts (Restigouche) in Canada, and so on. Smythe Palmer (xxvii) cites from Farrars Origin of Language (58) the ways in which words are corrupted. These are, briefly, so as to be significant and in some sense appropriate (crayfish from crevise); so as to convey a meaning, but one totally inappropriate, though sounding familiarly to the ear (from Icelandic tittr, sparrow, and meisingr, the bird we call a titmouse); so as to give rise to a total misconception, and consequently to false explanations (as in hold on to the bitter end); and words which, though not actually corrupted from their true shape, are suggestive of a false derivation, and have been generally accepted in that mistaken sense (such as henchman, originally just a horseman or groom, Anglo-Saxon hengest meaning simply horse).


Jocose False Etymology

The Rev. A. Smythe Palmer, one of those Victorian clergymen who found so much time for amateur literary compilations, was of the period of (and a great admirer of) the redoubtable Walter William Skeat (1 835 191 2), author of the great Etymological Dictionary 1 879 882). Smythe Palmers ( 1 Folk-Etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy was published 1 890 with Skeats encouragement and reprinted by Johnson Reprint Corporation in 1 969. It distinguishes joking false etymology from what Smythe

69. Folk Etymology in the Place Names of the United States


Palmer considers to be more accurately described as folk etymology. Among folk etymologies of placenames Smythe Palmer mentions some that are parallelled in the American experience. His list includes the jocular Solomon David (solemn affidavit), Coleridges Spy Nosy (Spinoza), the Cockney cabmans Wardevil for Londons Vaudeville Theatre, etc. These are true placename folk etymologies: Minching Lane (London) which John Stowes Survey (1 608) derives from the Minchuns or nuns of St. Helens in Bishopsgate Street; Mousehole (Cornwall) from Cornish Mzhayle (Maidens Brook) or perhaps Mzhal (Sheeps Moor), discussed in Notes & Queries Fifth Series II:90; and The Ugly Pier (Guernsey) from French La Hogue--laPerre, discussed in the same Notes & Queries place.

lips not because he was calling for silence, but because he was too young to be able to speak). In similar fashion it was added to the lively if fictitious history of American placenames a lot of inventive and wholly unfounded American folklore, colorful and incorrect.





If it be true to say, however, that history is a lie agreed upon, one might not be too far off the mark to say that the folk etymologies, when they are fully believed, unquestioned by later generations, become the true origins and the explanations of our placenames. Some of the most attractive of all US toponyms owe their present form to folk etymologists and their determination to give some kind of plausible explanation when challenged to produce that very significant thing: the reason why a place is called what it is called and not something else.

In the US there are folk etymologies due to the misunderstanding of old or obscure English words as well as errors involving foreign languages both unusual (as Cornish is in Britain, and Ojibway, also called Chippewa in the US) and more usual (such as French in both the UK and the US). Smythe Palmer notes that in North America French Anse des Cousins (Mosquito Bay) became Nancy Cousins Bay just as in Jamaica the Spanish Boca Aguas (Mouth of the Waters) became Bog Walks. So Dutch Breukelen has made people imagine that Brooklyn (New York) has something to do with a brook in the land (rather than with broken land) and there was no fever connected with the Fever River (a tributary of the Mississippi), in French Fleuve de la Fve. False etymology has created a number of famous characters for us among whom are Belial in The Bible (actually just Hebrew beliyaal, sons of worthlessness), Jack Ketch (the traditional English hangman, from the French surname Jacquet), and Harpocrates (god of silence, the Greeks misinterpreting Egyptian Har-[p]-chrot, Horus [the] Son, represented as a child with his finger on his


Selected Bibliography

Abate, Frank R. (1 991 ). ed.: Omnigraphics Gazetteer of the United States, 11 vols. Detroit, MI. Ashley, Leonard R. N. (1 989): Whats in a Name? Baltimore, MD. Brunvand, Jan Harold (1 976): Folklore: A Study and Research Guide. New York, NY. Partridge, Eric (1 959): Origins. 2nd ed. New York, NY. Randolph, Vance (1 976): Pissing in the Snow. New York, NY. Rennick, Robert M. 1 984): Kentucky Place ( Names. Lexington, KY. Smythe Palmer, A. (1 890): Folk-Etymology. New York, NY. Thompson, Stith (1 929): Tales of the North American Indians. Cambridge, MA. Walpole, Horace (1 8571 859). Letters. 9 Vols, ed. P. Cunningham. London.

Leonard R. N. Ashley, Brooklyn College, CUNY, Brooklyn, New York (USA)

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