On Indian place names

I’ve been thinking lately about the petty crimes we Americans have performed on place names that come from Indian languages. There are a ton of them, from Massachusetts to Seattle, and from Alabama to Wyoming.

Confronted with these mysterious names (which we white folks made even more mysterious by corrupt pronunciation), some historians and other writers have indulged in making up stories about where the names came from.

In the worst cases, they derived the names from pidgin English placed in the mouth of a stereotyped “ugh-ugh” Indian. This is most easily done with a name that has already been so corrupted as to look like a string of English words, as in Moose-look-me-gun-tic. My favorite southern example is a story about the town name Eufaula, pronounced (and once spelled) “U-fall-ah.” Take one careless Indian maiden, one steep cliff, one alert Indian lover, and mix with a happy ending. I don’t suppose I have to actually tell you the story, or how “U-fall-ah” figures into it.

Then there are the names assigned to characters in made-up stories of doomed lovers, usually involving a “princess” who commits suicide after being kept from her true love. Examples range from Mount Nittany, next to Penn State University, to Sautee-Nacoochee, Georgia, and Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in central Mexico. I’m intrigued with how often white writers seemed to feel compelled to make up love-and-death stories about imaginary Indians. (If you know a story like these, give me a line or two about it in the comments. I’ve started a collection.)

Then you have the made-up etymologies for Indian names, like the legend that Alabama means “Here we rest.” In fact, that name was first given by the Choctaws to a closely related Muskogean tribe and can mean either “herb gatherers” or, perhaps more likely, “thicket clearers.” (The name of Thicket magazine, currently in suspended animation, pays a clever tribute to the state name.)

Finally there are the cases in which a place name becomes the jumping-off point for some tale-weaving based solely on the author’s own imagination. Or else a name that strikes the author as colorful or pleasing is simply lifted out of context and deployed somewhere else. (I may blog some examples soon.)

2 thoughts on “On Indian place names

  1. My girlfriend grew up near a suburban area in Philadelphia named Conshohocken, which comes from ‘Gueno-sheiki-hacking’, meaning ‘Pleasant Valley’ in the native language of the Lenape tribe of the area’s native Americans who first occupied the land over 300 years ago. My mother grew up in Sylacauga, Alabama, which is reported to mean “buzzard”.

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