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

sichereren Ort verlegen, wußte aber nicht wohin. Als er nun auf einer Jagd ermüdet im Wald eingeschlafen war, erschien ihm im Traum die Muttergottes und rief ihm zu „Hic seca“. Wahrscheinlich erklärte man den Na- men slawischer Herkunft schon im Mittelalter auf diese Weise, wie die häufige, ungewohnte Schreibung mit cc statt mit kk, gk 1142 Sec- cowe (slaw. Žekova zu žekti ‘brandroden’) vermuten läßt. Von der niederösterreichischen Burg Greifenstein (1135 Grifinsteine zu mhd. grîfe ‘Greif’ oder dem davon abgeleiteten PN Grîfo) wird in mehreren Varianten eine Sage erzählt, an deren Ende ein namenmotivieren- der Schwur steht, der an einem im Burghof befindlichen ausgehöhlten Stein zu leisten ist:

„So wahr ich greife in den Stein“. Die meisten dieser namenbegründenden Sagen enthalten auch ein Körnchen historischer Wahrheit, so die Erbauung der gotischen Wallfahrtskirche Maria Buch um 1450/60 und die Verlegung der Erstgründung von Seckau.

5. Literatur (in Auswahl)

Andresen, Karl Gustaf (1883): Über deutsche Volksetymologie. Leipzig 1883. 7. Aufl. von Hugo Andresen. Leipzig 1919. Bach, Adolf (1953/54): Deutsche Namenkunde II:

Die deutschen Ortsnamen. 2 Bde. Heidelberg [bes. §§ 732—736].

Baldinger, Kurt (1973): Zum Einfluß der Sprache auf die Vorstellungen des Menschen (Volksetymo- logie und semantische Parallelverschiebung) (Sit- zungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wis- senschaften, Phil.-hist. Klasse 1973/2). Heidelberg.













des Institutes für Landeskunde von Oberösterreich 10). Linz. Bertol-Raffin, Elisabeth, Wiesinger, Peter (1989):

Die Ortsnamen des Politischen Bezirkes Braunau am Inn (Ortsnamenbuch des Landes Oberöster-


reich 1). Wien. Bertol-Raffin, Elisabeth, Wiesinger, Peter (1991):

Die Ortsnamen des Politischen Bezirkes Ried im Innkreis (Ortsnamenbuch des Landes Oberöster- reich 2). Wien. Christmann, Ernst (1937): Zur Frage der Volksety- mologie. In: Teuthonista 13, 1—8. Förstemann, Ernst (1852): Über deutsche Volks- etymologien. In: Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 1, 1—25. Koch, Max (1963): Volksetymologie und ihre Zu- sammenhänge. In: Beiträge zur Namenforschung,


Müller, Richard (1884): Altösterreichisches Leben aus Ortsnamen. In: Blätter des Vereines für Lan- deskunde von Niederösterreich 18, 101—121. Panagl, Oswald (1982): Aspekte der Volksetymo- logie (Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissen- schaft, Vorträge und Kleinere Schriften 30). Inns- bruck.


Volkssagen. Wien. Rupp, Leopold (1928): Himberg. Ein Heimatbuch. Wien. Sanders, Willy (1971—1975): Zur deutschen Volks- etymologie. 1. Terminologische Prolegomena. 2. Linguistische Analyse volksetymologischer Erschei- nungsformen. 3. Volksetymologie und Namenfor- schung. In: Niederdeutsches Wort 11 (1971), 1—6; 12 (1972), 1—15; 15 (1975), 1—5. Sann, Hans von der (1890): Sagen aus der grünen Mark. Graz. Schuster, Elisabeth (1989/90): Die Etymologie nie- derösterreichischer Ortsnamen. 2 Bde. Wien. Wiesinger, Peter (1992): Zur Morphologie der bai- rischen Ortsnamen im Althochdeutschen. In: Phi- lologie der ältesten Ortsnamenüberlieferung. Hrsg. von Rudolf Schützeichel (Beiträge zur Namenfor- schung NF, Beiheft 40). Heidelberg, 355—400.

Peter Wiesinger, Wien (Österreich)




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



2. Naming Tales

3. Jocose False Etymology

4. Misunderstandings

5. Conclusion

6. 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-


searched than any other branch of name-lore, but even here vast areas remain unexplored. From the folklorist’s point of view (but not the historian’s or the cartographer’s) 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 Langue- doc (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 mispro- nounced 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 placen- ames here to be misunderstood, mistran- slated, 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 place- names and the thousands upon thousands of toponymic studies both professional and am- ateur — a great deal of placename informa- tion has been collected if not much analyzed by the tireless, dedicated local historians all over America — folk etymology is one cate- gory 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 in- formation about etymologies or folk etymol- ogies. 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 micro- nyms such as street names will be created and that will have to take note of odd pronunci- ations given by the folk (“CHART-ers” and “Bur-GUN-dy” for Chartres and Burgundy

V. Namensemantik

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 system- atic 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 assem- bled, 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 insti- tutional libraries but also the small but val- uable collections of genealogists, local histo- rians, recorders of oral literature, collectors of American folk expression of all kinds.

2. Naming Tales

In that literature are some wild but wonderful tales about how places got their names. Par- ticularly 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 Am- erindian 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 Con- necticut settlements) and soon there was talk of a “north walk” of some sort. Tenino is Chinook for “fork” or “junction”. Railroad- men said it was “10—9—0” and thought up an explanation, rather trivial. Bayou Funny Creek is from Choctaw bayou (river) and fani (squirrel) but “it was Choctaw,” incompre- hensible, to early white settlers. Just another misunderstanding. Nonetheless, folk etymology is full of in- formation 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 lit- erature. They deserve to be studied as exam- ples of orality (as some professors might say), of how the common people entertained them- selves and their listeners with tall tales, tales of the supernatural (the US has many a De- vil’s this or that), humorous wordplays, in- genious 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 Scrab- ble or Angel’s 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 Syra- cuse, Naples, and Rome. A smattering of clas- sical education assisted in convincing locals to name Eureka (California) and Cicero (Il- linois) and John Meares (1756?—1809) early brought classical names to the West Coast when, in ‘Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789 to the North West Coast of Amer- ica’ he named one mountain there Mount Olympus and gave rise to the Olympic Pen- insula, etc. When classical names chosen, however, ran to the slightly more exotic, peo- ple 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 classi- cal connection, however, has a “real” as op- posed 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 miner’s 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 ‘An- nales’ style, noticing the lowly, rather than the traditional style that regards all history as the lengthened shadows of great person- ages. 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 Oo- ple, 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 (1688), 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 (1977, 235—236) 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 1954 in these words:

One time there was a bunch of Pukes [easterners] lived over by Joplin, at a camp knowed as Miners- ville. The boys didn’t have nothing but picks and shovels in them days, and maybe a windlass with


a bucket. They just gophered around in prospect

holes, because there wasn’t 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 dry- bone 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 boarding- house 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 didn’t have the two dollars. Taylor kept hollering how he’d have the money come Saturday night, but Myrtle just

laughed, because she’d heard that song before.

“Fetch me a gunnysack full of turkey-fat,” she says, ‘and we’ll talk business.” Taylor begun to cry like

a baby, but he didn’t have no turkey-fat neither.

“Bawling won’t buy you nothing at the store,” says Myrtle. “It’s 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. Miners- ville don’t sound very good anyhow, the ore-or-no- go 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 win- dow, 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 Oron- ogo 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’, 1984) 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

V. Namensemantik

that some few opposed this plan (perhaps thinking the temptations of Demon Rum would be increased by such a cozy arrange- ment) 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 don’t know.’” A second source of error is misheard or mangled expressions: the Margrave of Ba- den Dourlach (Horace Walpole tells us in his ‘Letters’, II: 208) was called by ignorant Brit- ish crowds the “Prince Bad-Door-Lock.” Fighting ships have been called the Bullyruf- fian (Belerephon) in the UK and Rusty Guts (Restigouche) in Canada, and so on. Smythe Palmer (xxvii) cites from Farrar’s ‘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 sim- ply “horse”).

3. 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 re- doubtable Walter William Skeat (1835— 1912), author of the great ‘Etymological Dic- tionary’ (1879—1882). Smythe Palmer’s ‘Folk-Etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy’ was published 1890 with Skeat’s encouragement and reprinted by Johnson Re- print Corporation in 1969. 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 de- scribed as folk etymology. Among folk ety- mologies of placenames Smythe Palmer men- tions some that are parallelled in the Ameri- can experience. His list includes the jocular Solomon David (solemn affidavit), Coleridge’s Spy Nosy (Spinoza), the Cockney cabman’s Wardevil for London’s Vaudeville Theatre, etc. These are true placename folk etymolo- gies:

Minching Lane (London) which John Stowe’s ‘Survey’ (1608) derives from “the Minchuns or nuns of St. Helen’s in Bishopsgate Street”; Mousehole (Cornwall) from Cornish Môz- hayle (Maiden’s Brook) or perhaps Môzhal (Sheep’s Moor), discussed in ‘Notes & Que- ries’ Fifth Series II:90; and The Ugly Pier (Guernsey) from French La Hogue-à-la- Perre, discussed in the same ‘Notes & Queries’ place.



In the US there are folk etymologies due to the misunderstanding of old or obscure Eng- lish words as well as errors involving foreign languages both unusual (as Cornish is in Brit- ain, 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 Cous- ins (Mosquito Bay) became Nancy Cousin’s 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 some- thing to do with a brook in the land (rather than with “broken land”) and there was no fever connected with the Fever River (a trib- utary of the Mississippi), in French Fleuve de la Fève. False etymology has created a number of famous characters for us among whom are Belial in The Bible (actually just Hebrew be- liyaal, “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


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 place- names a lot of inventive and wholly un- founded American folklore, colorful and in- correct.

5. Conclusion

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 topo- nyms owe their present form to folk etymol- ogists and their determination to give some kind of plausible explanation when chal- lenged to produce that very significant thing:

the reason why a place is called what it is called and not something else.

6. Selected Bibliography

Abate, Frank R. (1991). ed.: Omnigraphics Gaz- etteer of the United States, 11 vols. Detroit, MI. Ashley, Leonard R. N. (1989): What’s in a Name? Baltimore, MD. Brunvand, Jan Harold (1976): Folklore: A Study and Research Guide. New York, NY. Partridge, Eric (1959): Origins. 2nd ed. New York, NY. Randolph, Vance (1976): Pissing in the Snow. New York, NY. Rennick, Robert M. (1984): Kentucky Place Names. Lexington, KY.



A. (1890): Folk-Etymology. New

York, NY. Thompson, Stith (1929): Tales of the North Amer- ican Indians. Cambridge, MA. Walpole, Horace (1857—1859). Letters. 9 Vols, ed. P. Cunningham. London.

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