Where am I? To be lost, disoriented, confused about where we are situated in the world can evoke a profound sense of unmooring. We rarely experience this in the extreme; usually we are lost in a building, a mall, on a highway or, perhaps, hiking. These situations are relatively inconsequential because we are oriented within a much larger matrix of place. We possess background knowledge that serves as a “North Star” to keep us oriented. Although the surroundings may be unfamiliar and even, perhaps, alien and strange, we still are able to place ourselves, know where we are and not be completely lost.
What are the coordinates of place that we typically rely on to anchor ourselves? Names. Place names. For example, I grew up on Amsterdam Road in the city of Rochester, in the state of New York, in the country of the United States of America. Place names, all imaginary constructions of collective agreement—a virtual reality—blanketing the entire landscape that provides a sense of stability and “home.” Failure to be reflexively situated within this “home” is to be disoriented and adrift.
Where do these signposts come from? History and power reside in the names. The names are tracings of the past, a residue given official designation by those with the authority to name. Look at a map—it is a crazy quilt of names. Each name possesses a history, not only of what is designated by the name, but, less visibly, who designated it. Let’s take a little road trip and pause to consider some of the road signs.
Countries and Continents
Most countries are named after one of four things:
Tribal names, which include Thailand (Thais), France (Franks), Russia (Russ), Italy (Vitali), Germany (Germanic tribes), England (Angles), Switzerland (Schwyz).
Land features, for countries like Iceland, Greenland, Haiti (“mountainous”), Costa Rica (“rich coast”), Honduras (“deep water”) and Peru (“land of the river”).
Directional placement, which include Australia (“unknown southern land”), Norway (“northern way”), Japan (“Nippon, land of the rising sun”, i.e., east of China), Ecuador (“equator”) and Chile (“where the land ends”).
Important figures (almost always men), which identifies America (Amerigo Vespucci), Colombia (Columbus), Bolivia (Simon Bolivar), Philippines (King Philip II), El Salvador (“The Savior”), Seychelles (Jean Moreau de Seychelles) among others.
Who names the names? World history is imprinted on the map. The “New World” was new to European explorers (but not to the indigenous peoples) who were the colonialist scouts for European conquest. The continents, North, South as well as Central America are named after an Italian adventurer who was the first to appreciate that these new lands are separate continents from Asia. The names of the countries, and the languages now spoken there, tell all: English speaking, in the North, with a French outpost in Quebec; Spanish speaking in the Central and South, with a Portuguese outpost in Brazil.
Two other continents, Australia and Africa, also bear the imprint of colonizing Europe. Australia, of course, named by the British, and speaking English. Many African countries names are the residue of colonization, and often the spoken languages are a mix of indigenous peoples and colonizers. Prior to colonization, the native peoples did not have maps and charts demarcating sharp (and sharp angled) tribal boundaries. These came later, organized in the Berlin Conference of 1884 that drew territorial boundaries that were distributed among seven European countries in their “Scramble for Africa”.
Asia, with its long history of high civilization and bustling, populous cities carries its own history in the country names and languages. The influence of European colonization, while late arriving, is folded within the history of many of these countries; witness, for example, the histories of India and Pakistan, where English is widely spoken and the borders defined by an unprecedented “redistricting”.
United States of America
Continuing our road trip closer to home, the map of the United States is a map of colonial exploration, claimed—and often fought over— ownership, and established settlements. New England is, of course, new England, and the thirteen Colonies are Britain transplanted: New York. New Jersey. New Hampshire. Delaware (after Lord De La Warr). Georgia (King George II). North and South Carolina (King Charles II) and so forth. Many cities and towns of this region also mirror the “Mother Country”. This includes my home town, Rochester, in the state of New York, and my home on Amsterdam Road echo’s the earlier Dutch colonists that preceded the English.
The French plied their trade along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and French names signpost this trail. Louisiana (King Louis XIV) and the French trading posts of New Orleans, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Sault Ste. Marie are among the more notable. The Southwest and Florida carry the imprint of the Spanish: California (named after a queen in a popular 16th century Spanish novel). New Mexico. Colorado (color red, for color of the Colorado River). Florida (“full of flowers”). Traveling through the Southwest, the names encountered at every turn could easily cause a naive traveler to think they were in Mexico…or Spain.
This naïve traveler touring the length and breadth of our country could also easily think they are visiting territory settled by tribal peoples. Half of the states names derived from Native American languages: Alabama. Alaska. Arizona. Arkansas. Hawaii. Illinois. Iowa. Kansas. Kentucky. Massachusetts. Michigan. Minnesota. Mississippi. Missouri. Nebraska. New Mexico. North and South Dakota. Ohio. Oklahoma. Tennessee. Texas. Utah. Wisconsin. Wyoming. Not to be left out are the names of the Great lakes: Ontario. Erie. Michigan. Huron. These names are gravestones; markers of peoples and cultures, mostly gone, except for a few small, flickering outposts in the most remote and forbidden corners of this land.
All the states have towns with bizarre, humorous, crazy names that make you wonder, “Wherever did this name come from?!” We have spent some time in Arizona and visited several towns I find amusing: Why (“Why?”, I ask). Tombstone (obvious). Show Low (a card game hand that won ownership of the town). Arizona towns we have missed include: Nothing (a good name for a ghost town), Three Way (use your imagination), and Skull Valley (yup, skulls found in a valley).
Head-scratch-and-chuckle names abound across our country’s broad landscape. Here are a few of my favorites: Knockemstiff, OH; Hell for Certain, KY; Satan’s Kingdom, MA; Cut and Shoot, TX; North Carolina’s answer to Why AZ— Whynot. There are also several surprising “sister cities”: Cannon Beach, OR and Cannon Ball, ND; Gunbarrel, CO and Gun Barrel City, TX; Rifle ,CO and Point Blank, TX; Boogertown, NC and Booger Hole, WV; No Name, CO and Nameless, TX. Of course, I must also mention Truth or Consequences, NM, named after a radio game show. Only in America. Indeed, these and many other crazy, colorful, irreverent names reflect our crazy, colorful, irreverent history.
Where am I?
So, “Where am I?” Surprisingly, I find myself in the land of the dead. As I speak the language of the conquerors and am oriented by historical markers and gravestones, I am oblivious that the past is my North Star that fixes me in place as surely as geographic coordinates, themselves but imaginary lines etched by history. The past surrounds me, speaks through me as I navigate the present and motor into the future. My journey leaves its own faint trail on the human landscape that, I hope, may help orient a few travelers who pass by this way after me.