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Place names

In the 1820's Stedman Whitwell noticed something that still bugs me somewhat today. Why is it (I am hearing Andy Rooney say this) that when you pass through any state you find that most of the places have the same names as the last state you passed through? Some states, in fact, have two or three towns with the same name. In Kentucky, the town of Jamestown is only about 50 miles (a guess) north of the town of Jamestown in Tennessee. Surely, you need look no farther than place names to determine that America has never had a "master planner." Forgetting briefly, Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase.

Unlike most other mortals, Whitwell was an aspiring Utopian recently arrived in New Harmony, IN as a part of Robert Owen's great experiment (soon to fail) in philosophical living. I say philosophical because it was probably the first time since ancient Greece that so much talking and so little physical work was aimed at the perfection of society. Imagine a whole community of Kilgore Trouts living on credit and engaging nightly in public debate. Actually, that would be, and was, very Utopian, but is, and was proven to be, very unsustainable.

Whitwell created a Rational Geographic Nomenclature to solve this problem by using longitude and latitude numbers, re-coding them into words, and thus generating unique place names. That's the problem isn't it? Trying to think of something new? How does one conceive of a name of which one has not yet heard-- unless one reverts to nonsensical babble? Look at the recent naming of locations on Mars. I have been proud of JPL's idiosyncratic naming efforts, and yet, well, somehow no matter how wild it gets, we are replicating bits and pieces of things familiar here on Earth. Does this represent some archetypal Jungian hunger that drives us to tame the unknown by slapping ordinary, mundane names onto alien things, dissolving the terra incognita into something universally banal and more reassuring? Or is it simply that we can't describe things except in terms we already know? Probably the latter. It is not that there is really anything profound here. There will always be New York, New Coke, etc. But of course, town names can be exactly the same because they are in different states, countries, or planets. What is interesting though, is the utopian attempt to escape what seems to be obvious necessity. Perhaps it is an aesthetic issue, but one that is either not worth the strenuous effort, or in a true Borgesian sense, altogether impossible to achieve. I would surmise that we are just projecting our culture into the unknown, and there is nothing else of greater value that we might do instead.

Now let's see Whitwell's nomenclature. I wrote a little computer program in the eighties on my TI-994A to generate Whitwell locations, but that stuff is all gone now. I refer to William E. Wilson's book The Angel and the Serpent for some of the generated names. New Harmony itself would become Ipba Venul, New York City: Otke Notive, Paris: Oput Tedou. Wilson wonders dryly whether lovers would write songs about "Oput Tedou in the springtime." I guess they would if that name were built into the culture for a while. However, the whole idea, like a stillborn SciFi plot, is interesting, but an artistic abomination. On the up side, no one would have to guess anymore where a town was located. Locations could be plotted from the names. I wonder if that would be good for Homeland Security? Just feed the names into the computer, and bingo, rockets are locked on and ready to fire, Tovarisch! Perhaps, operators of hand-held GPS devices would not have to scroll through a multitude of Springfields? On the down side-- what a loss of culture! No Stratford-On-Avon, no historic referents, no great men honored. I live in "Itsy Bitsy" and my friend lives in "Teeny Weeny" but never, oh never can we go to "Yellow-Polka-dot-Bikini." All towns would have these bi-partate structures. How is that unique, Stedman? Moreover, if you should strike out along the line of longitude from New York City, you would get variants like Otke Nobive, Otke Nohive, Otke Dotkey( making them up), the point being that there would be a whole list of cities of the same latitude circling the earth whose name was Otke-something. Likewise for lines of longitude. How does this advance the cause? And when you are on 0 degrees longitude or latitude, things collapse to even more repetition. How Whitwell could not see the repetitive flaws in his own system might be attributed to the perception of fewer cities at that time-- or at least in the new world? Who knows?

Clearly, New Harmony was a reasonable, and a meaningful, name. That Stedman Whitwell spent a lot of energy to spin it off into something like Ipba Venul, only underscores a utopian agenda that was practical only in the most esoteric sense. Whitwell would have done better to ponder a question that not one of the village utopians could answer at that time: "How do we get this grist mill to work?"


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 12th, 2008 07:33 am (UTC)
I think we Mexicans were very lucky in this respect. The Spaniards brought with them a very rich variety of names of Gothic, Arabic, Roman and even Carthaginian (Barcelona) origin. In America they came upon thousands of settlements that were already named in yet another variety of languages. Thus we have all kinds of names; Like Mérida which is named after the one in Extremadura, whose name evolved from the Roman Emerita Augusta, or Xochimilco an original Nahuatl name.
But many names are really new, formed by different mechanisms:
Hybridization: Santa Ana Xilotzingo
Mis-transcription: Cuernavaca
Simplification: Veracruz
All it takes is a bit of complexity and time :)
Nov. 12th, 2008 02:29 pm (UTC)
A fascinating book there: How Mexico was named. That reminds me that in the US a significant number of Native American names were were used too. Names ARE a very rich topic for study, which is why any arbitrary naming system is a sterile one, at least in the beginning. I think a good name should show its antecedents, its intent, and suggest in that way, something about its people and life.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Cydonia photo: ESA

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