World Savvy: What’s in a place name?

As Adrian Room said in Placenames of the World, “A placename is often much more than just a label. A name may bespeak the history of a nation, the culture of a people, or the hopes of an individual.”

I first got interested in the origin of place names when I went back and forth to Jamaica some 30 times when my company was building a factory many years ago. Kingston was easy to figure out (Kings Town) but Montego Bay, or Mobay as the locals call it, was not. So I dug around in library archives, since there was no Google at the time, and found an explanation. In the 1600s, Spanish ships frequently came to Jamaica for fresh water and to hunt for feral pigs that roamed the island. They would capture and take them to the beach to butcher and render. You would, of course, get pork meat but also fat — lard in English. But in Spanish, lard is manteca, so this wonderful beach where people go swimming and expose their tan bodies is really named “Lard Bay.” Given that meaning, I would say it is better for some people with expansive bodies not to go bathing there in skimpy bathing suits. This helped my world savvy standing with many of the Jamaicans I was working with, for like many people, they hadn’t given a lot of thought to their place name origins. Every time I travel to a new place around the world, I try to figure out why it was called what it is, and my local hosts are generally appreciative that I have some knowledge of their surroundings.

There is no hard and fast rule on how places get their names. Sometimes the name of a small locale such as a port is used to describe the larger town it serves. Portugal evolved from the Latin Portus Cale, a major port at the time, and where port wine first came from. And Puerto Rico, which means rich port, became the name for a whole island. Then we have the port getting its name from its activity. Copenhagen means merchant’s port, based on what was first traded there.

Byblos is the Greek name of a small port north of Beirut in modern day Lebanon, a former Phoenician city dating back thousands of years. The Egyptians brought papyrus paper to Byblos, which they sold to the Greeks. The Greeks called it Byblos because of the paper trade, and from this papyrus writing material we get the words Bible and biblioteca (library in Spanish). It also carried over to an endless bunch of other languages — to wit, bibliothek in German, biblioteka in Polish and bibliotèk in Haitian creole. I joke that for the happenstance of geography, today’s “Holy Bible” could have just as easily been called the “Holy Rotterdam” or “Holy Marseille” or even the “Holy Hong Kong.” Boy, do the evangelicals call me out on this one!

The fascination of the origin of place names was expounded on by Dame Cateline de la Mor la souriete in her paper “A Survey of the History of English Placenames.” She says that English place names reflect the history of England. Waves of conquest and settlement were accompanied by new languages, from Latin to Ango-Saxon to Norman French, each of which left their mark on English place names. “In the names themselves, however, one has the opportunity to glimpse the world through medieval man’s eyes. There are the broad brushstrokes of the landscape, the hills, valleys and forest and bodies of water in all their variety. . . . This detail provides a different, more personal view of the past than the sweeping pictures of history,” notes Dame Cateline.

Today we typically give little thought to how names and cultures mixed and matched. Look at the place names that the Normans brought over to England; these names in turn came over with English settlers to the Americas. Richmond is a perfect example, and means rich hill, but having been in Richmond, Virginia, many times, I have seen that no one there realizes it. Except, of course, the scholars who collect as many early forms of place names as possible and analyze them in the light of their knowledge of language and dialect, grammar, pronunciation, topography, sound shifts and other factors.

The name of whole regions have interesting meanings as well. The word Europe is linked to the Assyrian ereb or irib, indicating a land of darkness or setting sun. As a Latvian whose country lies at 57 degrees north and toward the eastern reaches of Europe, I can attest to that. This is opposed to Asia, derived from the word for sunrise in ancient Greek, or asu meaning east in Assyrian. On a smaller scale, we have Las Vegas, for example. The gambling and resort town picked up the name for the whole broad valley it lies in. Las vegas means the plains in Spanish. It’s said that when European explorers came to present day Venezuela, they stumbled upon houses on stilts in Lake Maracaibo and said it looked like a little Venice (Venezuola in Italian). The whole country got its name from the houses built on stilts found in a very small part of the country. When the island of Capri was discovered, the explorers found lots of goats roaming the steep slopes, and so named the island after those animals.

And then we have place names that were acquired due to invaders and transients that came in and out. Hungary is a perfect example. The Chinese started it all way back when a collection of tribes called the Hsiung-nu formed a vast empire extending from the Great Wall of China to the Caucasus. Around the year 350, the Chinese defeated them and chased them west. Out of the defeated group came the rein of Attila the Hun, starting in 434. Sorry, I don’t have the month and exact day of the week. But in any event, that is how Hungary got its western name, even though the Hungarians themselves call their land Magyarország.

The Bohemia region of the Czech Republic was named after the Boii, one of the most powerful of the ancient Celtic peoples. To make a long story impossibly short, the Boii were defeated by the Marcomani tribe whose leader was reputedly a guy named Czechus, from whom the country got its name. Now the Boii were anything but bohemian in the current sense, and the story of how bohemian came to be associated with the unorthodox thinking and voluntary poverty of literary gypsies is a bit complicated. It appears to have arrived with the traveling Romani people of France, who had reached France by way of Bohemia.

While “foreignisms” may have crept into Chinese and Japansese, much in these languages still refers to original characteristics and not who conquered them. In Japanese, the city names that we think of as really exotic are rather simple to understand: Tokyo means eastern capital; Kyoto means capital city; and Iwo Jima means sulfur island (although in Japanese, the island name, still meaning sulfur island, is officially pronounced Ioto). As with many English last names such as Hill, Japanese family names often refer to some geographic feature presumably having to do with the historical home of the family.

Chinese place names are much the same. Again, the starting points are the directions of the compass: north — bei; east — dong; south — nan; west — xi; and central — zhong. So national and province names are geocentric: Beijing means northern capital, Nanjing means southern capital, Guangdong means eastern expanse, Shanghai means upper sea, Hainan means south of the sea, Hunan means south of the lakes and Hubei means north of the lakes.

My own theory on the geocentric nature of place names in Japan and China is that they did not have the hordes of foreign invaders tramping across their country like many other parts of the world, and so the names remained relatively untouched.