October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
The Jamestown settlers, the Pilgrims of New England, and other early arrivals may have named their settlements with a grand or nostalgic sense of their past history, but many later Americans were much more casual. Often towns and places were named by accident, by whimsy, or by a local postmaster or postmistress who had to find some name not yet claimed in order to establish an official postal address. In the new book, A Dictionary of American Place-Names (Oxford University Press), George R. Stewart surveys the whole process, and we publish here a Jew of his diverting examples:
Because, in 1774, some land was marked off “by accident.”
A schooner grounded on the bar one evening in 1850; the passengers broke out some brandy and passed the night in such a way as to ensure the permanency of the name.
Coined from the name of its discoverer, Cuyler Adams, and that of his accompanying dog, Una.
A conventional spelling for the colloquial “I’m damned if I know!” Someone’s reply when asked what the name was, and taken humorously by the namer.
In New York the name dates from 1828, being that of a child; local tradition has it that the mother called so loudly and often for her that people adopted the name for the settlement.
Named as being even drier than nearby Dry Creek.
By local account, named by the postmaster for his tall daughter, known as High Mary; a connection with the ancient Greek city Himera is possible.
The term was commonly used for delirium tremens or the alcoholic jitters, and the name originated from an incident of the iSgo’s, when three miners had a difficult time sobering up.
Because associated with a road full of kiss-me-quicks, i.e. bumps of the kind so called.
Miss Doss married first W. H. Day and, on his decease, J. C. Lea, who also died. When the double widow applied for a post office, she combined the names of the two late-departed as Daylea, but later shifted to Leaday.
In 1876 the inhabitants sent three names in to the Post Office Department and had them all rejected because of duplication. One man then said that it was not likely they would ever get a suitable name, and someone else then picked on the word likely as a name that was not likely to have been already used. …
Named by a member of the boundary survey party of 1728, who had a poor opinion of marriage, because the stream was noisy, impetuous, and clamorous, though unsullied.
Spanish “modest,” “modest man.” In 1870 the namers intended to call the town for W. C. Ralston, San Francisco financier. Refusing, he was credited with modesty; hence the name.
From the Mosquito Mining Company, which was itself, by tradition, named because a mosquito lit upon the blank space where the name was to be filled in.
Latin, roughly, “Do not despair!” A name given by an unusual prospector who knew some Latin, on some unknown but apparently bad occasion.
On a chart prepared for a survey conducted by the British ship Herald the notation ? name was placed near a certain cape in Alaska. This was taken by a second draughtsman to be the name itself, and he put it as Cape Name ; the a being indistinct, the final copy came out as Cape Nome . This is a wholly authenticated instance of an origin by mistake. In Texas and North Dakota the name is derived from that in Alaska.
In Massachusetts the town was incorporated in 1872, and the name was suggested by a man who gave the unusually specific reasons that it “looked well in print, had a pleasing sound, was easy to write, and had no i to dot or t to cross.”
When the original postmaster, in 1898, was asked to suggest a name, he put forward the present one, giving three reasons: (l) it would be unique; (2) he was fond of peanuts; (3) he was eating them at that time.
Formerly Sweet Pizzlewig , locally said to be for a woman “deficient in virtuous ways,” who once lived there. An obscenity is to be suspected.
Named by an early cattleman after his clothes had been torn there by bushes.
From Sears Roebuck & Co., which did a large mail-order business in the area.
Usually from a personal name, e.g. the creek in West Virginia for William Strange. Lost in the forest, he carved on a beech tree, “Strange is my name, / and I’m on strange ground, / and strange it is / that I cannot be found.” His skeleton and inscription were later discovered.
Some rocks were thus named in the early twentieth century for President Theodore Roosevelt, who was portrayed with prominent teeth by cartoonists.
Because close to Bible Creek.
Named in 1924 after Mark Twain and Bret Harte, both associated with the region in which the town is situated. Since Twain despised Harte, the coupling is ironic.
A coined name from “We want a post office.”
Along with Nankipoo and Koko, this name is from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado , apparently placed by an enthusiast for that work. …
By folk etymology from French aux iles au bois .