What’s in a Place-name?

Metonomasia is an obscure term– it’s not even found in the OED!– but it’s a real thing, the alteration of a place-name. Very often this takes place for political reasons: think of the change of St. Petersburg to Leningrad and then back again, or the Belgian Congo to Democratic Republic of Congo to Zaire. Even old New York was once New Amsterdam.  Next summer, I’m hoping to see Brian Friel’s powerful play Translations, which will be playing in London–set in the 19th century Ireland, it deals with the mapping of the countryside by the Royal Engineers and their anglicizing of Gaelic place-names.

The idea of metonomasia was on my mind this week because of politics. Yet again, another idea of President Trump’s rears its bone-headed head, revealed recently about a meeting with Senators from Alaska in March 2017 (as CNN reports):

The meeting came as Trump and the senators discussed several Obama administration moves limiting development in Alaska.
But Trump had one final issue on his mind. “He looked at me and said, ‘I heard that the big mountain in Alaska also had — also its name was changed by executive action. Do you want us to reverse that?'” Sullivan said.
Lisa — Sen. Murkowski — and I jumped over the desk,” Sullivan said. “We said no, no!”
Trump, perplexed that the two Republicans wanted to keep an Obama-era decision, asked why.
“The Alaska Native people named that mountain over 10,000 years ago,” Sullivan said. “Denali, that was the name.”

A good history of the name issue is found on the National Park Service site. When the name was changed in 2015, the New York Times reported Senator Murkowski as saying,

“For generations, Alaskans have known this majestic mountain as ‘the great one,’” she said in the video, appearing in front of the snow-topped mountain, its peak reaching above the clouds. “I’d like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska.”

“Honor, respect, and gratitude” for native peoples, however, is not much on the agenda these days in Washington. At one point in Translations, one of the officers in charge of the Ordnance is troubled by his role in the re-designating the original toponyms. “It’s an eviction of sorts,” he says, and he’s right. There’s a displacement at work in renaming such places, a way of denuding the landscape of a powerless people and even the words they used to describe it.

I’m hoping to come back to this subject sometime soon–to think about the way that political names dot the landscape around me. The Times reported a few summers ago about the “thousands of miles” named for Confederate generals. On the Sewanee campus, Armfield Bluff is named for a slave-trader (as I’ve discussed before), and someday soon it will be changed, I am certain. To what, I can’t say–it’s not certain what the bluff might have been called by the native peoples of the area–though Bluff of Shame comes to mind, as a way to remember more correctly what once was thought honorable locally.

Such heavy thoughts. Perhaps some metonomasia of a lighter sort:

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Drama, England, Ireland, Language & Etymology, Military, Sewanee, Slavery, The South, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What’s in a Place-name?

  1. Susanna Lang says:

    I didn’t know the word, but I’ve thought about the phenomenon. In Druid Hills, where East Lake meets Ponce de Leon, there is a stone marker low to the ground that says Jefferson Davis Highway. I made a note of it years ago, but only recently found a way to include it in a poem.

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