On the nomenclature of cities and towns in the United States

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stripes USA map

I recently found an article from 1885 on JStor with the exciting title On the nomenclature of cities and towns in the United States. It sounded fascinating - I've always wondered why certain cities in the USA were so named.

I was thinking about places I've seen on maps, places like Malta, New YorkZurich, Kansas or Lebanon, Oregon. I imagined fledgling Maltese, Swiss or Lebanese immigrant communities founding new towns and making new lives in a new land.

The actual reason is much more prosaic. Early railway companies and postal companies basically picked names at random or from long lists of places (maybe listed in almanacs)

The article speaks of certain parts of New York state with classic names like Ithaca, Syracuse, or Troy, so named as "a pedantic surveyor-general of the last century took ancient names, at random, out of a classical dictionary to scatter broadcast over this new land".

Years ago, I read Sweet Liberty by Irish writer Joseph O'Connor (brother of Sinead). In it, he travelled around the US, visiting nine towns and cities called Dublin. But despite finding something to write about in each place, he found very little connection to Ireland.

Practically all of Europe is accounted for: from Armenia, Wisconsin to Lisbon, Ohio, from Athens, Georgia, via Vienna, Missouri to Oslo, Minnesota.

These places are not named in the ways we might first think... but they could be, and that's what's brilliant.