I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin titles of mining claims,
The plumed war bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.
-- "American Names," Stephen Vincent Bene't
My family used to live in a mountain valley near a mining community in the wilds of northern Idaho, and our mailing address was Star Route, Smelterville, Idaho. Before that we lived in a town called Coeur d'Alene, which indisputably is a sharp name, although Smelterville is anything but sharp and isn't exactly a snakeskin title, either. In any case, I became acquainted early in life with the extreme possibility in the linguistic architecture of American names, which can range from ugly folk metaphor to foreign exoticism.
You can't, I submit, have an address such as Smelterville, Idaho, without having your stylistic sensibilities affected, and I remember how oddly self-conscious I used to feel as a boy when I ordered things through the mail from mythic metropolises such as Chicago and New York City and was forced to locate myself in so unglamorous-sounding a place as Smelterville. (I didn't know then that Idaho is an Indian word that means roughly "light on the mountains" and consequently is as pretty a name as Smelterville is viscid and gloomy.)
The "typical" Americans I knew -- the Cleavers (who lived in Mayfield) and the Andersons (Springfield) and the Taylors (Mayberry) and the Stones (Hilldale) -- lived in towns with straightforward, idyllic names formed from any two of a dozen or so nouns and adjectives: oak, palm, sun, wood, lake, view, green, dale, glen, hill, falls, grove, spring ... Archie Andrews lived in Riverdale, Henry Aldrich lived in Centerville, Pepper Young's family lived in Elmwood.
I have since learned, however, that there is, as Bene't asserts, something special about real American names, perhaps because they are made up of words from so many different languages. Thus we have names that cover an exotic alphabetical spectrum -- Angola on the Lake, Ball Ground, Cinnaminson, Dreamland Villa, Encino, Frostproof, Germantown, Ho-Ho-Kus, Isla Vista, Kaawa, Lost Nation, Moscow, Neon, Oblong, Pend Oreille, Quapaw, Rome, Santa Claus, Tahitian Gardens, Urania, Vermilion, West Babylon, Xenia, Young America, Zilwaukee. American names fill the mouth with fascinating combinations of vowels and consonants and are full of soft utterance and hard articulation, bird song and verbal grapeshot.
The language is a mongrel, and while it may lack the precise grace and purity of a thoroughbred language, it is full of odd tricks and delightful quirks that give it a unique class of its own.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in our place names. And they can be complicated. Sioux (the French word for the Dakota Indians) is a dulcet sound that must be altogether different for those who know that it means literally "cutthroat" (consider "Sioux City Sue," for example). Coeur d'Alene, which sounds so lyrically romantic, means literally heart of the awl, an ungainly metaphor, but the sound is nevertheless mellifluous -- so if you can stash the translation in the back of your mind the name still shines.
Names are, to begin with, utilitarian -- the labels we use to distinguish one person from another and one place from another. But beyond that they are entities of aesthetic and stylistic substance. Consider the many and varied moods and impressions evoked by: Red. Vanessa. Crazy Horse. Algernon. Blackie. Jove. Silver City. Riverdale. Canal Street. Loon Lake. Wounded Knee. Salt Lake City.
Pick a state, any state; take a close look at the map and discover the wealth of colorful, eccentric and fascinating names doled out by our forefathers to streams, valleys, meadows, hills, towns, mountains, rivers, roads. Then multiply these thousands of names by 50 and consider that this heroic task of naming was for the most part performed in a few decades as men and women swarmed westward across the plains and over the mountains. Consider those hundreds of thousands of names, summarily served up, ladled out, tacked on -- just as, no doubt, will one day happen on Mars.
America is little more than 200 years old, and already much of the history of its names has been lost in the headwaters of the Rio Tempora, untraceable in the darkling reaches of the past. California, for example, has an uncertain etymology. One theory has it that the name can be traced back to the French epic "Chanson de Roland," but the record is incomplete, a matter of speculation. Other sources say it comes from the name of an island in the early 14th-century romance, "Las Sergas de Esplandian," by Garci'a Ordo'nåez de Montalvo. No one, it seems, actually knows who named California.
Some archaeologists in the far distant future, digging up the ruins of our towns and cities, may reconstruct a record by which they believe these same had names such as Nixon and Burger King, Radio City, Tinseltown, Coca-Cola and Freeway and Playboy. And perhaps the names will sound as exotic and colorful to them as the Indian names do to us.
Larry Tritten is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.