This Columbus Day column is in honor of pioneers who had the joy of naming places they visited or founded, with future generations marveling at their ingenuity or wondering about their sanity.
As a child growing up in Massachusetts, I enjoyed names such as Buzzards Bay or Nutting Lake, which I thought emerged from conversation ("Whadya ketch today? Nutting") or insults ("Marblehead"). Later, in Oregon, I relished non-euphemistic names such as Drain or Stinkingwater Pass. While traveling since then I've enjoyed melodic town names (Alabaster, Ala.) and optimistic ones: Georgia has Isle of Hope, Good Hope, Hopeful, Angelville, Halcyondale, Glory, and Harmony.
This summer I asked worldmagblog.com readers for their favorite place names, and nominees flowed in: Monkey's Eyebrow and Punkin Center, Ariz.; Bucksnort, Stinking Creek, Sunshine, and Yum Yum, Tenn.; Alligator and Soso, Miss.; Ozone, Goobertown, and Smackover, Ark.; Beanblossom, Gnaw Bone, Toad Hop, and Lick Skillet, Ind.; Spray and Fossil, Ore.; Tightwad and Peculiar, Mo.
Stories also arrived, like the one from the former pastor of Calhoun Baptist Church in Hot Coffee, Miss., who explained that the town derived its name from a country store on a horseback trail that always offered hot coffee to riders: "So they'd say, 'Let's stop at Hot Coffee.'"
The origin of other names, like Enigma, Ga., may be shrouded in mystery. But I suspect good stories explain Two Egg, Fla.; Why, Ariz.; Whynot, Miss. (and N.C. also); Holy Moses, Colo.; Czar, W.Va.; Casanova, Va.; and Knockemstiff, Ohio. Readers say Snowflake, Ariz., derives from the two founders of the town, Mr. Snow and Mr. Flake, and that Chicken, Alaska, has that name because residents couldn't spell Ptarmigan.
One reader's job dispatched him at times to Morrow, Ohio, and he couldn't resist asking "if they wanted me to go to Morrow today." Kansans can choose to live in Deplorable or Fine City, and Michiganders have an even tougher decision to make: Paradise or Hell, the latter said to sport a sign at the city limits reading, "Welcome to HELL," but without a population marker.
California, of course, still has a Paradise, but residents of two other states reported, "We used to have Paradise, but that town is no more." Utah still has Mt. Olympus but Floridians, not wanting to exaggerate, settle for Niceville. Maryland and Oregon both have communities named Boring, but Oregon also has Hammond, which is heaven for keyboard enthusiasts.
Some towns change their name for momentary glory: Ismay, Mont., in 1993 temporarily changed its name to Joe in honor of the San Francisco quarterback. Television gave birth to Truth or Consequences, N.M. Liberal, Kan., should change its name to Progressive, but stick-in-the-mud folks there are resisting. George, Wash., is holding on.
Canadian correspondents wrote about Magog, Quebec, and Biggar, Saskatchewan, which reportedly has a sign on the edge of town proclaiming that "New York is big, but this is Biggar." An Alabaman wrote about the supply-side road sign in his state: EQUALITY 3 miles, RICHVILLE 10 miles.
Many states have their Athens, Paris, or Rome, but some town names are less ambitious: Ghent and Helvetia, Penn.; or Cairo, Thebes, Karnak, Goshen, and Dongola in the section of Southern Illinois known as "Little Egypt." Maine has Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, which makes sense given its cold climate, but also brags of Mexico. Students at classical Christian schools have an edge in central New York, which has Carthage, Cicero, Cincinnatus, Fabius, Homer, Marcellus, Minoa, Pompeii, Rome, and Syracuse.
Biblical names are also common. Georgia's Hiram matches up well against Alabama's Boaz, and New Jersey's Zaraphath ties Sarepta, La. (they both refer to the same city in Sidon, which the King James Bible spells with an S and other translations with a Z).
Still, nothing can beat out a map of Texas sprinkled with joyful town names like Blessing, Camelot, Cool, Happy, and Smiley, frank names like Gun Barrel City or Cut-n-Shoot, exotic ones like Odessa and Sudan, descriptive ones like No Trees (in west Texas), and wondering ones like Nameless and Uncertain.