The Suitcase Lady


December 3, 2019, 8:41 pm

The other day I was reading and came across the word “toponym”. Being clueless as to its meaning, I looked it up to discover that it literally means a place name … from the Greek “topos” for place and “onoma” for name.

Since I have always been curious about how places get their names, I did a bit of research on Toponymy. Apparently, people can spend their entire careers studying how places acquire and sometimes lose their names.

My favorite article explained the five sources that we humans use to create names for our cities and countries as well as natural features of the land.

The first source is migration history. We bring the old world name to the new world home. In my state of Wisconsin we have Berlin, Paris, New London, Stockholm, New Glarus, Belgium, Luxemburg, Frankfort, Hamburg, Moscow, Denmark, Norway and Scandinavia.

Immigrants also borrowed place names from the original tenants on the land. Wisconsin is awash with Native American names which are fun to say but cause great spelling and pronunciation woes for new residents. Try saying these: Kinnickinnic, Nasewaupee, Oconomowoc, Koshkonong, Ashwaubenon and Mukwonago, (the place of the bear).

The first European explorers in Wisconsin were French voyageurs and fur traders. They left behind a liberal sprinkling of names as well, among them, Fond du Lac, Prairie du Chein, Eau Galle, and Flambeau. It must be noted that our pronunciation of most of these lovely names would cause any French person to cringe.

In addition, the French voyageurs gave us a river and town named “Embarrass”. The canoes of the voyageurs would encounter many log jams in the river so they named it Rivière d’ Embarras, river of obstacles.

Values and aspirations are the second source of place names. These can be subdivided as religious, classical or honorary. Wisconsin has a multitude of saint cities, among them St. Nazianz and St. Germaine as well as three towns named  Harmony, four named Liberty, seven named Union but only one New Hope. And as elsewhere in America, we honor Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe plus legions of other historical figures, almost all of the male gender.

The third category describes specific positive or negative events that have occurred in a place. On the negative side, Wisconsin has Lake Butte des Mort which is French for “hill of the dead” and also Port des Morts or “door of death”, the deadly waters at the top of Door County.

Physical characteristics are described in the fourth category. This huge category gives us a description of what the original inhabitants were looking at….Two Rivers, Beaver Dam, Big Falls, Black Earth, Crystal Lake, Redgranite.

The fifth and final category is cynical or sarcastic. These names describe the physical characteristics of a place but do so inaccurately or deceptively. Think retirement communities, subdivisions and industrial parks. These places are found everywhere…Fox Run with no foxes, Three Rivers Crossing with no rivers in view or Orchard Heights with no trees.

While researching this blog, I came up with a sixth category which I shall call “sheer nonsense”. In 1845, a Wisconsin township had to be cut in half because of a population boom. One half quickly renamed itself  Concord, but the other half couldn’t arrive at a new name. So they put all the letters of the alphabet on slips of paper in a hat and pulled out letters. The first six letters pulled were IXONIA which is why we have Ixonia, Wisconsin. It’s unique in America.

2 Comments for this entry

  • Victoria Samolyk

    My first car, a 1967 volvo with a bashed-in trunk, bought for $1 from my brother Joe, died on the freeway in January 1975 and was towed to an auto shop in Ixonia. I had never heard of the town befoere that!

  • everobillard

    Mary–This was so very interesting! One thing I’ve always wondered was why British farms or estates have names . . . and how they got them, of course . . .