“Literal Meanings”

The other day, Slate magazine posted a map titled “Literal Meanings of Places in the US.”  It’s a fun graphic, I recommend it, but I will also mention a couple of caveats.  These caveats may be obvious in themselves, but perhaps I can express them in a way that will suggest interesting thoughts.

First, what is the “literal meaning” of a name?  When I think of that phrase, I ask two questions.  First, is the name likely to bring that meaning to the minds of most of the people who are likely to hear it?  And second, can the name be used independently to signify that meaning?  For example, the name “Newfoundland” likely brings to the minds of most English speakers, not only the place Newfoundland and the breed of dogs named after it, but also the idea that a land has been newly found.  With just a little typographical liberty, we can refer to places other than Newfoundland as new-found lands.  So I don’t object to saying that new-found land is the “literal meaning” of Newfoundland.

What we see on this map are not, in that sense, the “literal meanings” of North American place names.  They are etymological meanings, that is to say, meanings that have, at one time or another, been associated with words that have influenced the development of those names.  For example, “New York” is supposed to “literally mean” “New Yew-Tree Village.”  When the Latinism Eboracum was coined sometime before the year 95 of our era it probably represented an attempt to spell in Roman letters a Celtic word that meant “Place of the Yew Trees.”   And Eboracum, evolving in tandem with that Celtic word, changed its pronunciation over the centuries to become “York.”  But of course only scholars hear the word “York” and think “Place of the Yew Trees.” And by the time the word came to be pronounced “York” it was centuries past any connection with yew trees.  I suspect that no one has ever looked at a place of yew trees and called it a “York.”

I think it would be reasonable to imagine the history of a word as something like an archaeological site, in which collections of material from different periods of history can be found concentrated on on top of another.  So, two thousand years ago, Eboracum and its Celtic root may have meant “Place of the Yew Trees” to most of the people concerned with settlements in the far northeast of Roman Britannia.

At a a higher stratum, that is to say, a later period, very different meanings are associated with the word.  The acts of the British crown which created the Province of New York in 1664, 1665, and 1674 and thus introduced the name “New York” into the English language were executed by a king who was not only ignorant of the Celtic etymology of the name “York,” but who was not likely giving much thought to the city of that name.  The province was created under the patronage of the king’s brother, the Duke of York, and was named for him.  That nobleman later became King James II of England and VII of Scotland, the last of the Stuart dynasty.  James was York by title, but doesn’t seem to have been greatly involved with the city or its affairs, and he never visited the North American territory claimed in his name.  It is as if we found that someplace named New Newfoundland was named, not for Newfoundland, but for a particular dog of the Newfoundland breed.  At that point, the etymology of the name might have been glossed as something like “James’ new province,” or, considering James’ awkward position within the royal house in 1664, “We still care about you, James.”

If we dig further down to an earlier period, the root word might have meant something quite different.  Various Celtic languages include words similar to Eboracum that refer to various trees; perhaps the root of those words meant something other than “yew tree.”  It is possible that Phoenician merchants, whom we know to have been active in Cornwall and southern Ireland in Roman times, brought with them a word cognate with the Coptic ebu, “ivory,” and its Latin derivative ebor, eboris, and that this word was the base of those Celtic words.  This may not be a particularly likely etymology, but I have never been one to miss an opportunity to bring up the Phoenicians.

A second point enters in with glosses like “of the monks” for Des Moines, Iowa.  This appears to be a folk etymology that white settlers applied to mooyiinkweena, a name that the Peoria people used for certain neighbors of theirs.  The opinion the Peoria had of those neighbors can be surmised from the fact that the parts of the word mooyiinkweena appear to be mooy, meaning “dung,” and iinkwee, meaning “face.”  So, when they pointed at the site where Des Moines now stands and said mooyiinkweena, they were telling the whites that the people who lived there were shit-faces.  I should add that the erudite sources I link to above are not where I first learned the etymology of “Des Moines”; I first saw it last week on Cracked.

Originally, the folk etymology of Des Moines might have been a mistake.  But words mean what people use them to mean, not what they are supposed to mean.  If Des Moines residents and others who are concerned with the city have thought that the meaning “of the monks” is part of the name’s history, then it is part of that history.   And the fact that the name is now “Des Moines” rather than “Mooyiinkweena” is an example of the role that the folk etymology plays in that history.  Therefore, a map listing etymological meanings of North American place names would have to include both “of the monks” and “shit-faces” for Des Moines.   To return to the image of an etymology as an archaeological site stratified into layers, we might think of a three-dimensional map, on which both the geographic location of the places and the temporal development of the names’ meanings could be represented.

Even the two-dimensional map on Slate must be the result of a great deal of work; a three-dimensional map would require a great deal of drudgery, and even then it would be a severe oversimplification.  So I mention it only to illustrate the point, not to find fault with the map or to take back my recommendation that everyone look at it.

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1 Comment

  1. At the other end of the literal-etymological spectrum: Townville, PA (discussed briefly here: http://poetry-contingency.uwaterloo.ca/ambivalent-toponyms/)

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