The Peculiarities of American Place Names

H.L. Mencken is best known for his long career as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. But did you know he was also an accomplished linguistic scholar?

H.L. Mencken: journalist, satirist, and linguistic scholar. Photographed by A. Audrey Bodine, 1956. National Portrait Gallery.

Inspired by listening to ordinary people talking in the streets in Washington and his native Baltimore, Mencken wanted to defend American English against British critics who claimed it was a “perversion” of the language. “Why doesn’t some painstaking pundit attempt a grammar of the American language… English, that is, as spoken by the great masses of the plain people of this fair land?” he complained in 1910.

And in 1919, he did.

Mencken published a book, “The American Language” as a scholarly love letter to American English. Over hundreds of pages he provided countless examples of why American English was more colorful, vivid, and creative than its British counterpart. Even today, a hundred years later, the book is still considered an important piece of linguistic scholarship. If you can get past some of the drier parts that delve deep into linguistic theory and pronunciation, its an entertaining read on why Americans talk the way we do.

My favorite part of the book is a chapter on geographic names in the United States. Through dozens and dozens of examples, he reveals patterns in how Americans have named their towns, cities, rivers, and mountains. Some of these names are familiar to us all, others not so much. They’re all good names.

Here are some of my favorite passages from “The American Language,” Chapter 10.3: Place Names in America. As you read this, think about the place names you live near. Do they fit in with any of Mencken’s theories on place names?

“There is no part of the world, said Robert Louis Stevenson, “where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous and picturesque as the United States of America.” All times races and languages have brought their contribution. Pekin is in the same State with Euclid, with Bellfontaine, and with Sandusky. The names of the States themselves form a chorus of sweet and most romantic vocables: Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, Minnesota and the Carolinas: there are few poems with a nobler music for the ear: a songful, tuneful land.” A glance at the United States Official Postal Guide or any report of the late United States Geographic Board quite bears out this ecomium. The map of the country is besprinkled with place-names from at least half a hundred languages, living and dead, and among then one finds examples of the most daring and charming fancy. There are Spanish, French, and Indian names as melodious and charming as running water; there are names out of the histories and mythologies of all the great races of man; there are names grotesque and names almost sublime. “Mississippi!” rhapsodized Walt Whitman; “the world winds with chutes- it rolls a stream three thousand miles long…Monongahela! it rolls with venison richness upon the palate.” Not was Whitman the first to note this loveliness: Washington Irving was writing about it in the Knickerbocker Magazine so long ago as 1839, and in 1844 Henry R. Schoolcraft printed an appreciative treatise upon the Indian names in New York State….

“Horseshoe Curve on Monongahela River” postcard, c. 1940. Pennsylvania State Archives.

The original English settlers, it would appear, displayed little imagination in naming the new settlements and natural features of the land that they came to. Their almost invariable tendency, at the start, was to make use of names familar at home, or to invent banal compounds. Plymouth Rock at the North and Jamestown at the South are examples of their poverty of fancy; they filled the narrow tract along the coast with new Bostons, Cambridges, Bristols and Londons, and often used the adjectives as a prefix. But this was only in teh days of beginning. Once they had begun to move back from the coast and to come into contact with the aborigines and with the widely dispersed settlers of other races, they encountered rivers, mountains, lakes and even towns that bore far more engaging names, and these, after some resistance, they perforce adopted. The native names of such rivers as the James, the York and the Charles succumbed, but those of the Potomac, the Patapsco, the Merrimac, and the Penobscot survived, and they were gradually reinforced as the country was penetrated. Most of these Indian names, in getting upon the early maps, suffered somewhat severe simplifications. Potowanmeac was reduced to Potomack and then to Potomac; Uneaukara became Niagara; Reckawackes, by folk etymology, was turned into Rockaway, and Pentapang into Port Tobacco. But, despide such elisions and transformations, the charm of thousands of them remained, and today they are responible for much of the characteristic color of American geographical nomenclature. Such names as Tallahassee, Susquehanna, Missiissippi, Allegheny, Chicago, Kennebec, Patuxent and Kalamazoo give a barbaric brilliancy to the American map…

“View on the Potomac” by William Henry Holmes, 1930. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A study of American place-names reveals eight general classes, as follows: (a) those embodying personal names, chiefly the surnames of pioneers or of natural heroes; (b) those transferred from other and older places, either in the Eastern States or in Europe; (c) Indian names; (d) Dutch, Spanish, French, German and Scandanavian names; (e) Biblical and mythological names; (f) names descriptive of localities; (g) names suggested by local flora, fauna, or geology; (h) purely fanciful names. The names of the first class are perhaps the most numerous. Some consist of surnames standing alone as Washington, Cleveland, Bismarck, Lafayette, Taylor, and Randolph; others consist of surnames in combination with various old and new Grundwörter, as Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Bailey’s Swtch, Hagerstown, Franklintown, Dodge City, Fort Riley, Wayne Junction and McKeesport; and yet others are contrived of given-names, either alone or in combination, as Louisville, St. Paul, Elizabeth, Johnstown, Charlotte, Williamsburg and Marysville.

Excerpt from Bird’s Eye View of Dodge City, 1882. Kansas Historical Society.

All our great cities are surrounded by grotesque Bensonhursts, Bryn Joneses, Smithvales and Krauswoods. The number of towns in the United States bearing women’s given-names is enormous. I find, for example, eleven post offices called Charlotte, ten called Ada and no less than nineteen called Alma. Most of these places are small, but there is an Elizabeth with nearly 125,000 population, an Elmira with 50,000, and an Augusta with more than 60,000.

The names of the second class we have already briefly observed. They are betrayed in many cases by the prefix New; more than 600 such post offices are recorded, ranging from New Albany to New Windsor. Others bear such prefixes as West, North and South, or various distinguishing affixes, e.g., Bostonia, Pittsburgh Landing, Yorktown and Hartford City. One often finds Eastern country names applied to Western towns and Eastern town names applied to Western rivers and mountains. This, Cambria, which is the name of a county but not not of a post office in Pennsylvania, is a town in seven Western States; Baltimore is the name of a glacier in Alaska, and Princeton is the name of a peak in Colorado. In the same way the names of the more easterly States often reappear in the West, e.g., in Mount Ohio, Colo., Delaware, Okla., and Virginia City, Nev. The tendency to name small American towns after the great capitals of antiquity has excited the derision of the English since the earliest days; there is scarcely an English book upon the Sates without fling at it. Of late it has fallen into abeyance, though sixteen Athenses still remain, and there are yet many Carthages, Uticas, Spartas, Syracuses, Romes, Alexandrias, Ninevehs, and Troys. The third city of the nation, Philadelphia, got its name from the ancient stronghold of Philadelphus of Pergamon. To make up for the falling off of this old and flamboyant custom, the more recent immigrants brought with them the names of the capitals and other great cities of their lands. Thus the American map now bristles with Berlins, Bremens, Hamburgs, Warsaws and Leipzigs, and also shows Stockholms, Venices, Belgrades and Christianias.

Many places in Pennsylvania have Keystone Markers at the edge of town like this one in Rome, telling travelers where the town’s name comes from.

The influence of Indian names upon American nomenclature is obvious. No fewer than twenty-six of the States have names borrowed from the aborigines, and the same thing is true of large numbers of towns and counties. The second city of the country bears one, and so do the largest American water-fall, and four of the five Great Lakes, and the scene of the most important military decision ever reached on American soil. “In a list of 1,885 lakes and ponds of the United States,” says Louis N. Fiepel, “285 are still found to have Indian names; and more than a thousand rivers and streams have names derived from Indian words.” Walt Whitman was so earnestly in favor of these Indian names that he proposed substituting them for all other place-names, even the oldest and most hallowed. “California,” he said in “An American Primer,” “is sown thick with the names of all the little and big saints. Chase them away and substitute aboriginal names…. Among names to be revolutionized: that the city of Baltimore….The name of Niagara should be substituted for the St. Lawrence. Among places that stand in need of fresh, appropriate names are the great cities of St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul.” But eloquent arguement has also been offered on the other side, chiefly on the ground that Indian names are often hard to pronounce and even harder to spell. In 1863 R.H. Newell (Orpheus C. Kerr), a popular humorist of the time, satirized the more difficult of them in a poem called “The American Traveler,” beginning:

To Lake Aghmoogenegamook,
All in the State of Maine
A man from Wittequergaugaum came
One evening in the rain.

I can find neither of these names in the latest report of the Geographic Board, but there are still towns in Maine called Anasagunticook, Mattawamkeag, Oquossoc and Wytopitlock, and lakes called Unsuntabunt and Mattagomonsis. But many Indian names began to disappear in colonial days. Thus the early Virginians changed the name of the Powhatan to the James, and the first settlers in New York changed the name of Horicon to Lake George. In the same way, the present name of the White Mountains displaced Agiochookl and New Amsterdam (1626), and later New York (1664), displaced Manhattan, which survived, however, as the name of the island, and was revived in 1898 as the name of a borough. In our own time Mt. Ranier has displaced Tacoma (or Tahoma). By various linguistic devices changes have been made in other Indian names. Thus, Mauwauwaming became Wyoming, Maucwachoong became Mauch Chunk, Ouemessourit became Missouri, Nibthaska became Nebraska, Rarenawok became Roanoke, Asingsing became Sing-Sing, and Machihiganing became Michigan

Wytopitlock Post Office, Maine, c. 1910. Maine Memory Network.

Names wholly or partly descriptive of localities are very numerous throughout the country, and among the Grudnwörter embodied in them are terms highly characteristic of American and almost unknown to the English vocabulary. Bald Knob would puzzle an Englishman, but the name is so common in the United States that the Geographic Board had to take measures against it. Others of that sort are Council Bluffs, Patapsco Neck, Delaware Water Gap, Walden Pond, Sandy Hook, Key West, Bull Run, Portage, French Lick, Jones Gulch, Watkins Gully, Cedar Bayou, Keams Canyon, Poker Flat, Parker Notch, Sucker Branch, Frazier’s Bottom and Eagle Pass. Butte Creek, in Montana, a small inland stream, bears a name made up of two Americanisms. There are thirty-five post offices whose names embody the word prarie, several of them, e.g., Prarie du Chien, Wis., inherited from the French. There are seven Divides, eight Buttes, eight town-names embodying the word burnt, innumerable names embodying grove, barren, plain, fork, cove and ferry, and a great swarm of Cold Springs, Coldwaters, Summits, Middletowns, and Highlands. The flora and fauna of teh land are enormously represented. There are twenty-two Buffalos beside the city in New York, and scores of Buffalo Creeks, Ridges, Springs, amd Wallows. The Elks, in various forms, are still more numerous, and there are dozens of towns, mountains, lakes, creeks and country districts named after the beaver, martin, coyote, moose and otter, and many more named after such characteristic flora as the paw-paw, the sycamore, the cottonwood, the locust and the sunflower. There is an Alligator in Mississippi, a Crawfish in Kentucky and a Rat Lakw on the Canadian border of Minnesora. The endless search for a mineral wealth has besprinkled the map with such names as Bromide, Oil City, Anthracite, Chrome, Chloride, Coal Run, Goldfield, Telluride, Leadville and Cement.

Dusk in Leadville, Colorado, 2016. Library of Congress.

There was a time, particularly during the gold rush to California, when the rough humor of the country showed itself in the invention of extravagant and often highly felicitous place-names, but with the growth of the population and the rise of civic spirit they have tended to be replaced by more seemly coinages. Catfish Creek, in Wisconsin, is now the Yakara river; the Bulldog mountains, in Arizona, have become the Harosomas. As with natural features of the landscape, so with towns. Nearly all the old Boozevilles, Jackass Flats, Three Fingers, Hell-For-Sartains, Undershirt Hills, Razzle-Dazzles, Cowtails, Yellow Dogs, Jim-Jameses, Jump-Offs, Poker Citys and Skunktowns have yielded to the growth of delicacy, but Tombstone still stands in Arizona, Goose Bill remains a post office in Montana, and the Geographic Board gave its imprimatur to the Horsethief trail in Colorado, to Burning Bear in the same state, ad to the Pig Eye lake in Minnesota. Various other survivors of a more lively and innocent day linger on the map: Blue Ball, Pa., Hot Coffee, Miss., Cowhide, W. Va., Dollarville, Mich., Oven Fork, Ky., Social Circle, Ga., Sleepy Eye, Minn., Bubble, Ark., Shy Beaver, Pa., Shin Pong, Me., Gizzard, Tenn., Rough-and-Ready, Calif., Non Intervention, Va., T.B., Md., Noodle, Tex., Vinegar Bend, Ala., Matrimony, N.C., Wham, La., Number Four, N.Y., Ohlong, Ill., Stock Yards, Neb., Stout, Iowa, and so on. West Virginia, the wildest of the Eastern States, is full of such place-names. Among them I find Affinity, Annamoriah (Anna Maria?), Bee, Bias, Big Chimney, Billie, Blue Jay, Bulltown, Caress, Cinderella, Cyclone, Czar, Cornstalk, Duck, Halcyon, Jingo, Left Hand, Raven’s Eye, Six, Skull Run, Three Churches, Uneeda, Wide Mouth, War Eagle and Stumptown. The Postal Guide shows two Ben Hurs, five St. Elmos and ten Ivanhoes, but only one Middlemarch. There are seventeen Roosevelts, six Codys and six Barnums, but no Shakespeare. Washington, of course, is the most popular of American place-names. But among names of post offices it is hard pushed by Clinton, Centerville, Liberty, Canton, Marion and Madison, and even by Springfield, Warren and Bismarck. A number of charming double names dot the American map, e.g., Perth Amboy, Newport News, Front Royal, Wilkes-Barre, Princess Anne, Port Tobacco, The Dalles, Baton Rouge, Walla WAlla, Winston-Salem. In the older States they are supported by some even more charming names for regions and neighborhoods, e.g. Dame’s Quarter, My Lady’s Manor and Soldier’s Delight in Maryland.

Water tower in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. The town got its name from a nearby lake, which in turn was named after Sioux chief Sleepy Eye, who was known for his droopy eye, 2020. Library of Congress.


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