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names against the land

By Stephen Burt

Thursday I flew into, and yesterday I flew out of, the Washington, D.C. transit hub formerly known as Washington National Airport, now designated by act of Congress as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Not for the first time, I was perfectly satisfied with the airport but slightly angry about the name, not just because it still feels like a mistake (I grew up in DC in the 1970s and 1980s, and the renaming took effect in 1998) but because Reagan—who began his presidency by breaking the union of air traffic controllers; who talked up small government even while he expanded it—seems like an odd, or even a perverse, namesake for a national symbol of infrastructure, federal and state cooperation, and public investment. The massive bronze Gipper who now oversees the airport’s pickup and dropoff—perhaps that should be Andropov?— lanes just makes it worse.

But flying into, or out of, Reagan Washington National isn’t just a reason to think about our fortieth president; it’s also a reason to think about place names, how they change, why they matter to us, and whether there’s a sense in which—if all language is fossil poetry—place names might be fossils of an especially intricate kind. Wordsworth’s “Poems on the Naming of Places” (1800) record the private names that he and his friends gave to otherwise nameless points—hills, groves, and prospect points—around the land in northwest England where he lived. Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s once extraordinarily famous poem “Indian Names” (1834) notices the ironies in so many American place names: white settlers and white statesmen took the name for one place after another from the native people who were no longer permitted to live there.

You can’t tell the story of many American place names without telling stories about dispossession and genocide. But American place names have other stories too: you can find many of them in George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, a memorable, and delightfully old-fashioned, study of how hundreds of U.S. states, mountains, conurbanations, creeks and hamlets got their names: Stewart’s 1945 effort has now been put back into print by the incomparable book-publishing arm of the New York Review of Books. I’m making my way through it now, and have already learned about Cape Fear and Virginia, nearly called Wingandacoa: “Thus the first two names the English planted on that coast commemorated virginity and fear, although neither was a commodity held in much repute” by the sailors who “discovered” the places thus named.

Stewart goes on to explain why so many sites in Massachusetts replicate English place names, and why so few are named for European-American persons; why poorly-overheard Spanish in Florida created the “Appalachians”; why Suffield, or Southfield, is the name of the northernmost town in Connecticut; and much else in the first fifty-odd pages alone. And yet he displays a neat modesty about his whole etymological, locodescriptive, toponymic, chorographic project. Some people, Stewart writes, “think first of the soft play of vowels” when they cherish a place name, Stewart writes, or else they “like a name which sounds strange and distant. But the deepest poetry of a name and its first glory lie, not in liquid sounds, but in all that shines through that name—the hope or terror, or passion or wit, of those who named it. The second glory of a name, as with Marathon or Valley Forge, springs later from the deeds done there.”

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 by Stephen Burt.