Several years ago, an aging if not ancient apartment house on lower Connecticut Avenue underwent renovation and emerged as a spiffy new building. A landscaper came and landscaped, and then someone must have realized that a really swell building could not have just a landscape and an address. It had to have a name. One day a sign went up. The renovated building was henceforth "The Carthage."
Why Carthage, I do not know. I do know, though, that the original Carthage was not a condominium dwelling, but an ancient city in North Africa. It was home to Hannibal, he of the elephants, the Alps and the bitter Punic Wars with Rome. In 146 B.C. the wars finally came to an end. Rome sacked Carthage and forbade human habitation on the site. It is now a suburb of Tunis.
It struck me at the time that "Carthage" was an odd name to give a building. After all, the name suggested both a military debacle and extinction. Would a building today be named "The Hiroshima" or "The Little Big Horn"? I could only conclude that the developer had thought the name sounded English, which in a way it does. And it goes almost without saying that Americans think that anything English has a pedigree and is, therefore, classy.
The Washington Post recently devoted an article to the phenomenon of naming new housing developments. The British motif continues to predominate. Names like Kings Valley Manor, Stoney Creek Farm and the Crest of Wickford have been given to Washington-area developments. A variation of the British theme is the equestrian one. Thus we get Foxchase, Hunt Country and Derbyshire -- developments populated by people who, no doubt, have better sense than ever to get on a dumb horse to chase a clever fox. Probably the prime leisure activity of Hunt Country residents is watching television. But no one would ever call a development "Television Farms."
Things were not always this way. In the second book of his immensely readable trilogy, The Americans: The National Experience, Daniel J. Boorstin points out that Americans were not always so enamored of British place names. Of course, many of the earliest names were chosen by British colonialists and were retrospective, taking a name from the Old World and giving it to a place in the New: New York, New Jersey, New London, Plymouth. Others saluted English monarchs: Annapolis, Charleston, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia -- the state named for the Virgin Queen Elizabeth that now, ironically, says it's for lovers.
But early Americans also turned to the Continent -- Berlin, Athens, Paris -- and to Indian names, although they often got them wrong. Boorstin writes that in some cases the Indians had no name at all for certain places. When asked by whites what a place was called, they sometimes invented a name on the spot. One so-called Indian name was Idaho. Trouble was, it was probably not Indian at all -- at least no one seemed to know what it meant. It was suggested as the name for Colorado and Nevada before it was assigned to what is now Idaho. As for Nevada, it was named for a mountain range (the Sierra Nevada) that is largely in California.
Railroad men were given the job of naming stations and depots. They chose short, utilitarian names that were easy to translate into Morse code. California gold miners did pretty much what they wanted, not shying from calling a spade a spade. They left names like Dead Mule Canyon, Poker Flat, Poverty Hill, Quack Hill and Humbug Canyon. It's hard to imagine a contemporary developer naming an area of ersatz colonials Humbug Manor or, better yet, Quack Hill -- an apt name for a medical center.
Alas, the spirit of the forty-niners seems to be as dead as they are. No longer do Americans shun pretense or indulge in nostalgia when naming places. That's because their housing developments or high-rises are not mere places to live, but also ways of announcing status. Thus the passion for names that suggest mornings spent brushing down the mare.
The grandchildren of Eastern or Southern European immigrants would never live in a development called Minsk Creek Farms, Sicilian Mews, Warsaw Walk, Naples Glen, Pinsk Estates or Budapest Vistas. The object is to suggest an older New World pedigree, a virtual American antiquity -- a connection with the best known of the early settlers, the British, and of course with their descendants, the WASP elite. For residents of new developments or tummy-tucked apartment houses, the names that please are not retrospective or nostalgic. They are really forward- looking and aspiring: Someday we will be like them!
There is nothing particularly sinful about this affectation, but it is silly. The names are a reach -- and we all know it. The more a building or development name proclaims a pedigree, the more we know the residents don't have one. The more the name conjures up afternoon tea, the more we know that, one or two generations earlier, the ancestors of the current residents drank their tea from a glass. The naming of America tells you something about its people and their frantic yearning for status. "What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked, and then answered by saying, "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Not to real estate people. They would call it a Carthage.