Monday, January 7, 2013

More names in American geography

I have mentioned the surprising influence of French on American names.  Spanish has had even more influence, but this is less surprising.  You could probably name a dozen cities with Spanish name for saints, as well as a few with common Spanish words -- Amarillo (yellow), El Paso (the pass), Las Vegas (the meadows).  Five states bear names that are plain Spanish words -- Florida (flowery), Colorado (coloured red), Montana (mountainous), California (hot), and Nevada (snow-covered) -- and others have Spanish-influenced names.  The city of Toldeo, Ohio, however, appears to have little to do with any direct Spanish influence.

France and Spain were present in North America during the early stages of settlement, which is why so much of the land's names are influenced by them rather than by German, which was the native language of more Americans than any other country (at least according to Wikipedia).  Apart from a few small communities, such as Germantown (Pennsylvania) and Germanna (Virginia), very few towns bear names of German origin, certainly nothing to match the likes of New Orleans, St. Louis, Des Moines, and Detroit in French.  The most important town with a German name, Bismarck, was so called by a railway company in the hope of attracting German investment (although North Dakota does have a high population of German settlers).

The Dutch, while constituting a much smaller portion of American immigrants than Germans, have had a major influence on American culture; but they, too, have left little influence on our landscape.  Their biggest impact came in the area they settled first, New York City, where one can find names like Harlem (originally Haarlem), Brooklyn (Breukelen), Staten Island (Staaten Eylandt), and Long Island.  Their influence extends a little to the surrounding areas, with names like the Catskills, the Schuylkill River, and Renssalaer.  Outside of New York, there are few areas of obvious Dutch influence.  One in western Michigan, where one finds the town of Holland (which still has a Dutch festival) and a number of smaller communities with Dutch names.

Naturally, English names predominant in the original thirteen colonies, mixed with many names of Indian origin.  The original settlers were also fond of classical references, which is why you can visit Rome, Athens, and Corinth without leaving America (or indeed the South); Memphis and Cairo (pronounced KAY-ro) lie on the Mississippi; and Cincinnati, though named in honour of George Washington, is actually the name of an ancient Roman hero.

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