When I was a young girl or maybe even a teenager, one of my favourite things was to take my school atlas and, using only the pages showing North America, transcribe all the place names into a separate little book with a freshly sharpened pencil, crossing them off as they were recorded. I loved the sound and the look of the placenames on the page and for some reason they seemed the most exotic and characteristic of all of the nations included within the atlas, despite the fact that I had probably not even made it to France at that stage. Walking by the local bookstore this morning brought that name-affection back to me with a notice for the evening’s book-reading, ‘Names on the Land – A historical account of place naming in the United States’.
I was absolutely satisfied. A variety of readers (some better than others) treated a good-sized audience to snippets of the book and opened up about bits of their land-connections and musings on nomenclature. And normal people asked straight-forward questions without any pretentiousness. For the country itself, I learned that some of the alternate names offered instead of the United States of America were: Freedonia, Alleghania and Columbia. The writer, George R Stewart, scorns the one that was settled for in the end. Needless to say, I bought the book and read three chapters in one night which, by the way, is really good for me.
‘No one knows when man came, or who gave the first names. Perhaps the streams still ran high from the melting ice-cap, and strange beasts roamed the forest. And since names – corrupted, transferred, re-made – outlive men and nations and languages, it may even be that we still speak daily some name which first meant “Saber-tooth Cave” or “Where-we-killed-the-ground-sloth”.