Why Do We Say That?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

For 77 years U.S route 666, the two-lane highway that runs some 190 miles northward from Gallup, New Mexico, through southwestern Colorado, and then west to Monticello, Utah, was known as the Devil’s Highway. This was because the number 666 is associated in the Bible with Satan or the Antichrist, though the devil is not mentioned explicitly in the relevant verse from the book of Revelation: “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”

But the highway was exorcised this past summer. On July 30 dignitaries from three states and the Navajo Nation, through whose reservation the highway runs, gathered at a rest stop just south of Shiprock, New Mexico, for the renaming ceremony. Route 666 became Route 491, complete with new highway signs all along the way. (Just as well, since most of the 666 signs, which became collectors’ items once the name change was announced, had been stolen.) “We’re kicking the devil out of New Mexico,” commented Rhonda Faught, secretary of the state Department of Transportation.

Changes of this sort are not uncommon. Last June The New York Times reported that South Korea’s contribution to the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq had been increased by 7 soldiers in order to bring the total to a safe, nonsatanic 673. And in Russia in 1999, the Times noted, bus route 666 in Moscow was changed to 616.

Changing the number of Route 666 is just a special case of a general phenomenon. History offers hundreds of examples of place-names that have been changed because of their unfortunate associations. Thus the Park River in Hartford, Connecticut (now largely underground, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers), was once the Hog River; Contentment Island, in Long Island Sound, off Darien, Connecticut, was formerly Contention Island; a yellow fever epidemic in 1848-49 gave the Yellow Hook section of Brooklyn, New York, such bad publicity that the neighborhood’s name was changed to Bay Ridge, though the original name had nothing to do with the disease (it came from the color of the clay in the area); and efforts continue to remove squaw from American place-names even though the word is not offensive, at least from an etymological point of view; most likely it comes from an Algonquian word for “woman” or “wife.” The misconception that squaw derives from a coarse term for the female genitalia was popularized on a 1992 “Oprah” show.

And so it goes unto the dawn of recorded time. The ancient Greeks warded off trouble by changing their original name for the Black Sea (the Axine, or Inhospitable Sea) to the hopeful Euxine, or Hospitable Sea. But Byron had it right in Don Juan : “There’s not a sea the passenger e’er pukes in, / Turns up more dangerous breakers than the Euxine.”

As for the new U.S. Route 491, if numeral 1 is a , 2 is b , and so on, then 491 transposes into dia . That’s “day” in Spanish—and also the start of diablo . Could it be that the devil is still lurking along the highway?