1. THE POWER OF NAMES
Names matter. Just ask any parent agonizing over what to call a newborn. Or any kid burdened with a name they hate. Just think of the song made popular by Johnny Cash, about a boy who explains that “life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue,” and confronts the father who named him (“My name is Sue. How do you do! Now you gonna die!”). Whether you traverse your life as a Jane or an Ali or a Joaquin or an Eve—or you decide, as a grown‑up, that you’d rather endure or enjoy it as someone else—we all learn that names mark us. Totems of identity, systems of allusion, names can signal where we’re from, who our people are, who we attach ourselves to, which Bible character or dead relative or living movie star our namers loved best. Murmured by an intimate or yelled by a foe, a name can be an endearment or a curse. Declaimed by protesters in the street, a name becomes an assertion of dignity, of rights, and of the refusal to overlook or forget. Names are shorthand, they’re synecdoche. They are acknowledgments or shapers of history, containers for memory or for hope. And if names matter so much when attached to people, they matter even more when attached to places, as labels that last longer, in our minds and on our maps, than any single human life.
“Name, though it seem but a superficial and outward matter, yet it carrieth much impression and enchantment.” That’s how Francis Bacon described the matrix of associations we affix, consciously or not, to the public words by which we navigate our days. Place-names can bind people together, or keep them apart. They can encode history and signal mores. They can proclaim what a culture venerates at one moment in time, and serve as vessels for how it evolves and shifts later on. Gettysburg, Attica, Stonewall, Rome. Wall Street, Main Street, Alabama, Prague. Malibu, Beirut, Boca Raton—place-names can summon worlds and evoke epochs in just a few syllables. They can recall long-ago events or become, as settings for more recent ones, metonyms for historical change. Place-names can become styles of dress (Bermuda shorts, Capri pants) and of dance (once we did the Charleston, now we do the Rockaway). They can hail rebellions or honor heroes or spring, like Sleepy Hollow and Zion, from books. Whether a name’s born of whimsy or faith, whether it was first written down by a cavalier in his log or a bureaucrat in a city hall, its “impression and enchantment” derives, too, from the truth that its meaning can’t be fully divorced from its roots.
In place-names lie stories. Stories, in the first instance, about their coiners—tales, say, about the long-ago Dutchmen who wandered an island of wetlands and hills that the people who lived there may or may not have called Mannahatta, but whose northern acreage those Dutchmen named for a marshy town in Holland called Haarlem. Then there are also stories about the complex or contradictory processes by which certain labels come to be recognized as “official.” Stories about how people, singly or in groups, attach certain attributes to place-names that grow iconic (iconic of, for example, as with twentieth-century Harlem, Black culture and pride). And stories, too, about all the ways that such words thus do much more than merely label location. About how these words—in their rhythm and sound and how they look rendered into Roman letters or affixed on street signs and maps—shape our sense of place.
Toponymy—the study of place-names—isn’t a well-known field. Say the term “toponymist” even to a professional geographer, and you’ll conjure a hobbyist or word hoarder—a figure seen as a compiler of useful trivia. Some of us find our minds fed and our road trips improved by this kind of trivia, by learning, for example, that American place-makers fell in love with two sophisticated-sounding suffixes meaning “town,” one borrowed from German (-burg) and one from French (-ville), with which they ran wild in naming Hattiesburg and Pittsburgh and Vicksburg and Fredericksburg and Charlottesville and Hicksville and Danville (a village in Vermont near where I grew up, which one might incorrectly guess is named after a guy named Dan). We are intrigued to learn that during another bout of Francophilia, in the late 1800s, city planners who had wearied of the mundane word “street” began calling the broader ones by a term—“avenue”—which in France meant a tree-lined drive to a grand estate. Who, while walking down Manhattan’s Mulberry Street, does not find the trip made richer by pondering how its blocks, long before they became home to Italian immigrants and then to the restaurants that still make its name synonymous with the best cannoli, were home until the 1850s to an actual mulberry tree? As legend, if not history, has it, the Gangs of New York–era folk hero Mose Humphrey pulled the tree up by its roots and used it to bludgeon rival toughs from the Plug Uglies.
Toponymy, at its simplest, is all about such bits of knowledge and lore. But as George R. Stewart, the doyen of American place-name lovers, observed, “the meaning of a name is bigger than the words composing it.” And Marcel Proust agreed: In Swann’s Way, he described how place-names “magnetized my desires” in his youth, “not as an inaccessible ideal but as a real and enveloping substance.” The names that obsessed him weren’t matched by the actual places; Parma was “compact, smooth,” redolent of “Stendhalian sweetness and the reflected hue of violets,” unlike the fusty and sprawling burgh in Northern Italy that he later visited. Proust was making a point similar to one that geographer Yi‑Fu Tuan made in his book Topophilia: It’s only in and through place—the places we love and leave and pass through and want to go to—that we figure out who we are. If language is consciousness and humans are a “place-loving species,” then place-names—toponyms—may mold a larger piece of our minds than we think.
Place-names have the power not merely to locate experience, but to shape it: not merely to label the locales to which they refer but also “in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of [them]” as the writer Henry Porter put it. Portals through which to access the past, place-names are also a means to reexamine, especially in times of ire and tumult, what’s possible. And nowhere is this more true than in a great city—a place, Tuan wrote, that “can be seen as a construction of words as much as stone.” Cities are monuments to civilization, and its opposite. They’re condensers of experience and creators of encounter. They’re nothing if not generators of tales.
Copyright © 2021 by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.