How We Name Things

Including boats, cats, dogs, schools ,and colleges

My friend Jim Johnson called on me one day and held up a large photo as he came through the front door.  “I got a new dog,” he said jubilantly.  “What do you think I decided to call it?”

As I was hanging up his London Fog in the closet I squinted at the picture.  “Odd looking dog.  What breed is it?”

“A little of this, a little of that.”

“A blended beast, eh?”  I said leading him to the kitchen. “Would you like something to drink, a Jim Beam, a Sam Adams, a Dr. Pepper?”

“Yup, it’s a plural pedigree, a medley mutt,” Jim responded.  “And a cup of joe will be jim-dandy.”


I made him some Sanka.  “Medley!  That’s it.  You named him Medley.”

With a smirk on his face, he tugged at the sleeve of his cardigan.  “Nope.”

I poured myself an RC.  “How about Gallimaufry?  That’s a good name.”

“No again.”

We went to the Florida room where Johnson sat down in the howdah I had gotten from Pier One Imports.  As I stretched out in my Lazy Boy I offered another guess.  “You named it Potpourri.”



He shook his head.

“Okay, I give.  What is it?”

Johnson grinned like a Cheshire.  “Guess!”

“I’m done guessing?” I said.

“No, that’s his name, Guess.  Get it?”

“Yeah,” I sighed like Lou Costello.  “And Who’s on first base.”

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A fish named Fred

Like my friend Jim Johnson, we all get to name something in our lifetime. We can treat the occasion as a solemn duty, a mindless chore or a chance to express our creativity or our sense of humor. In any case, we seldom realize what power there is in naming something — in creating a string of syllables that others must use. It is like inventing a new word for the language. Even if the sounds and spelling are old, like Guess, that new label you assign to someone or something gets a new definition, a new meaning for the people around you — and maybe, if fate dictates, for the whole world.

We are not talking just dogs and cats here. There are babies and boats, committees and comets, songs and streets. Every day names get attached to everything from quasars to quarks. Yet the interesting thing is that most names are not unique or original symbols even though their job is to designate people, places and things uniquely. They are almost always borrowed from someplace or something else or derived from some common circumstance. And even in commerce you find many strange names are not new at all. For example, you might think Mazda was just a brand name of a car, one created for that purpose. In fact, it comes from the Zoasterian religion and refers to the supreme god, Ahura Mazda. Strangely enough, it was also once the name of a General Electric lamp in the early 20th century.

That’s the funny thing about names. They almost always have curious histories or odd connections. Searching the origins or usage of names is like untangling a large knot of different strings. You start by looking at one thread and soon you find yourself taking a twist along another. That happens because names keep popping up — because they are such a vital portion of our language. In short, the story of a name is an odyssey. That’s what this chapter is — an odyssey through the vocabulary of names.

Let us begin where Jim Johnson left off, by looking at dog names. Did you know that Max and Lady are the two most common names given to dogs in America — according to one survey, that is. The results depend upon when, where and who compiles the stats. Some think Buddie and Jake are the most popular. Around my area, Bear seems to be number one. In classier neighborhoods, Maggie and Molly are favorites. I wonder why people pick such ordinary labels for their pets. It is refreshing to go into someone’s house and hear the master say, “Dogsup, come here!” or “Don’t jump, Jump.” What better example of such creativity than Homer Simpson’s dog, Santa’s Little Helper. I too am inclined to go for the rarer name like Xeno, Furball, Grandpaw or Wymee. This from a guy named Jim.

Finnish Spitz

Finnish Spitz mix

According to one report, people with pit bulls tend to pick unfriendly names like Brutus, Boss, Hammer, Capone, Crusher, and Felony. I would think they would call their vicious looking dogs something more antithetical like Please, Lint or Drizzle, just to mellow first impressions. I read about a collie named Attila, named not for its disposition, but because the owners had turned the affectionate term Honey into “Hun” which led inevitably to Attila.

It is no surprise that people often name their dogs after famous people but generally only if the name is one word like Kojak, Houdini, and Tojo. Calvin Coolidge, however, liked two word names for his canines, choosing from mythical or legendary people like King Kole, Peter Pan, Tiny Tim, Rob Roy and Calamity Jane. John Kennedy called one of his many pooches Pushinka while Richard Nixon went with a more folksy Checkers. Abe Lincoln had Fido who unfortunately was assassinated (stabbed by a drunk) a year after his master. The president who owned the largest number of dogs was not only father of his country but also the father of the American foxhound. Among George Washington’s 36 dogs were Captain, Forester, Streaker, Vulcan, Taster, Searcher and strangely one called Truman.

There is no big surprise about what cat names are popular. Top favorites include Kitty, Smokey, and Tiger. Socks, Fluffy and Midnight are common also. One owner named his cat “Eleven Fifty Nine” because it was not quite as black as midnight. Often cats do not have names at all because they respond just as well to “Cat” as demonstrated by Audrey Hepburn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In Pajama Game the cat was named, what else, P.J. And in Bell, Book and Candle the witch, Gillian Holroyd (played by Kim Novak), calls her cat Pyewacket (played by Simba), a name from old English legends about the nether world.

What about pet fish, you ask? From my research I have found that the most popular names for goldfish are Jaws, Goldie and Fred. No kidding.

A boat named Egg-Sta-Sea

Having a pet certainly provides an opportunity to come up with a creative name. But having a pleasure boat unleashes all bounds for crafting a silly label. Not even owners of hair salons have such latitude in shuffling the alphabet to come up with the likes of C-Shell, N-Joy, X-at-Sea, Y Knot, EZ Breeze, B Nice (which forces me to designate them in italics). Although some boat owners give their titanic toys trite labels, such as Maverick, Sea Breeze, and Explorer others are after something unique and witty like Harvey DockBanger and Atsa Ma Boat. (These are all real, folks.) A few self-styled sailors put their laments on the backs of their boats with such monikers as Empty Pockets, Money Pit, and Pennyless. I’m sure The Kids’ Inheritance is out there, too.

By and large, most boat names are water puns. Some are downright corny like Bow Movements, Egg-Sta-Sea, NautWorking, Sell-A-Bait, Reel McAhoy, Marlin Monroe, and Boat Diddly, while others are silly or childish like MasterBaiter, Absolute Deck-a-dance and Aye Sea U. The CEO of the imfamous telecommunications conglomerate WorldCom named his first yacht Aquasitions (now there is an aft name.)

But puns do not have to be groaners if they can stand up as real language; consider Bow Wow, For Sail, Sea Questor, and Knot Guilty. One that makes you stop and think is Hole in the Water. (If you need a boat name, try the Boat Name Generator.)

Of the thousands of pleasure crafts sloshing in slips or racked on driveways many are uniquely named, usually honoring loved ones like Linda Rose or telling personal messages like I Can. Yet duplication is afloat and each year some names rise to the top of the popularity chart, as shown in the table at right. It is amazing that any boater who sailed the waters for any time at all would paint such a stale phrase as Wet Dreams or Liquid Asset on the side of his or her Obsession. (See Most Popular Boat Names.)

There may be lots of Obsessions on the lakes but the name is not a brand name like Bayliner. We might not think about it much but such a designation, a brand name, is really a “name” given to a genre. For example, you might have a car you call Puddles because of the spots it leaves on the garage floor, but it also has a model name, like Intrepid, and a brand name, like Dodge. In 2004, there were more than 200 models of automobiles to choose from, including one with a traditional dog name, Rover.

Edsel car

1959 Edsel by Ford

Car brand names used to be predominantly surnames like Buick, Tucker, and Mercedes, a tradition going back to the Studebaker brothers who were in the carriage business as early as the 1850s. There have been very few cases where a human first name has been given to a car model. One short-lived attempt occurred in 1957 when Henry Ford tried to honor his son with the introduction of the Edsel, and we all know how that turned out. In another case, a photographer turned industrialist and millionaire started a car company after World War II and gave his surname to one model, the Kaiser, and his first name and middle initial the Henry J. — both having only slightly more to another, success than Edsel. Currently you can buy a heavy utility vehicle called Jimmy from GMC, not exactly a label representing muscle, but certainly better than Michelle.

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Don’t call me Jimbo

Speaking of Jimmy, the most popular male name in the U. S. at the turn of the century was James. That doesn’t mean babies are being named James (because they're not), but rather that means more people in this country are called Jim than anything else because for the most part Jim is synonymous with James. In fiction also the name is among the most popular, from Conrad’s Lord Jim to Huck Finn’s companion on the Mississippi to Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. Some James’ shun the nickname, such as does Ian Fleming’s spy master, 007, and female model James King. But typically if you are named James, you are also a Jim. By the way, most Jims do not like to be called Jimbo, particularly those with large ears.

James is derived from the Hebrew name Jacob which means “supplanter” or one who comes after. Besides Jim, there are many other names related to this human label, such as Jaime, Jamie, Jimmy, Jaymes, and Jemmy. Foreign versions have found their way into our culture with Diago, Iago, Haime, Hymie, Iacovo, Kimo, Shamus and others. James also is a prevalent surname, the 71st most common in the U.S at the beginning of this century. As a result, there are dozens of people named James James, maybe even a few named James James James.

The name James until the 1980s was always among the top five choices of new mothers, but is now much less popular than other male names. As a result, there will soon be more Michaels in the US than any other name. The reason is because, according to the Social Security Administraton, Michael has been either the first or second choice of mothers from 1954 to 2006. So, after all the wrinkled and withered James’ pass on, Michael will become the most popular male name in the country. Won't that be Mick Dandy?

Joseph and the nickname Joe once were popular, but like James and Jim, the names are dated, leaving only the legacy of GI Joe, Cowboy Joe, Joe Blow, Average Joe, Sloppy Joe, and cup of Joe. Like James, Joseph also is a surname. Several decades ago there was a professional bowler from Michigan with the full name of Joseph Joseph Joseph — no jo-king.

There should be no surprise at what is the most popular female name in the United States. No, it is not Nicole or Jessica, but rather Mary because, like James, throughout the centuries it was an old Christian standby, anchored by the mother of Jesus and buoyed by the Queen of England. But like James, in the last decade Mary is no longer a favorite of expectant mothers and may cede first place to Patricia, Linda, Barbara, Elizabeth, or Jennifer, the next five popular female names over the past few decades. The true extent of the popularity of Mary may be questionable, however, because the data comes from the U. S. Census which interprets two word variations of this old standby as a first name and a middle name, so that varieties such as Mary Ann and Mary Beth and Mary Lou all get counted as Mary. (Of course there are the Maryann, Maribeth, and Marylou versions, too.)

Girls and women who have been called “Mary Something” all their lives don’t respond well to simply “Mary.” And their mothers do not always recognize that name either. Many years ago, our daughter Mary Beth injured a knee in a minor accident at school. The principal’s secretary called and said, “Your daughter Mary has hurt her leg.” My wife replied she had no daughter Mary and that the woman must have a wrong number. Only after the voice on the phone persisted did it dawn on my wife she meant Mary Beth. The secretary must have thought the mother strange for not knowing her own daughter’s name.

So if your first name is not James or Mary, it probably is another traditional name like Robert, Edward, Susan or Karen. Many common names have become rooted in the clichés of our language, even if they never get used to label anybody ever again. Jack does not appear here because this name hits the jackpot with over 80 related terms, everything from jack-in-the-box to jack-in-the-pulpit, from Jack Frost to Union Jack, from blackjack to yellow jack. But then who gives a jack.   (See Jack O’ Words.)

Maybe your name is a little less common like Adam, Donna, Nancy, or David, or even rarer like Delphine, Ramon, or Alyce, or any one of thousands of other handsome sounds that tickle the fancy of expectant parents. Most have been around for a long time but new ones pop up every year, like Kaitlyn, and Arynne. Many modern parents want their children to have unique or rare names. So much for the “Junior” tradition.

There is a Peanuts cartoon where Lucy says to Charlie Brown on the pitching mound, “Look, I found a list of the players on the other team. Clay, Blake, Morgan, Travis, Trent, Hunter, Bailey, Madison, Taylor and Justin.” Charlie Brown then observes aloud, “Nobody’s named Bill anymore.” So it seems. Soon it will be James or Mary who will have the odd name.


Brando as Jor-El

Where are parents getting all these non-traditional names? Often from relatives, friends, the bible, or famous people, like Elvis, Marilyn, Leonardo and Hillary. People are looking more at ethnic names like Coyle (Irish), Choy (Chinese), Juanita (Spanish), Kai (Hawaiian), Keiko (Japanese) and Jerzy (Polish). Some first names are invented by parents, like Jaxine, Terilynn, Kelvert, and Lukard. Others come from the invention of writers, like Jorel (from Jor-El, the father of comic hero Superman), Dorian (from Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray), Kayla (from the daytime soap, Days of Our Lives), and Samantha (from TV’s Bewitched.) Still others come from the world around us. Did you ever wonder why people get named Penny, Gale, June, and Scarlet, but not Dime, Fog, February, and Orange?

If you think numbering your children instead of giving them names would be original, forget it. Back in 1835, there was a colonel Benjamin Stickney who led a contingent of the Ohio militia against Michigan troopers in the Toledo War. That he was captured is not historically noteworthy except it did bring to light he had a son named Two who was also nabbed. His eldest son, One Stickney, was not involved in the battle. Alas, there was no Three Stickney.

In olden days, female names used to be obviously female, like Elizabeth, Kathryn, Helen, and Monica. Often they were marked as feminine because they ended in “a” as in Ada, Emma, Ida, Ona, and Uta. Sometimes they were derived from male names by adding diminutive endings as with Josephine, Georgette, Roberta, and Danielle.

Now all that is changed. Today, women do not simple borrow a masculine name, they steal it as with Jamie, Laurie, Leslie, Delaney, and Sandy which were once exclusively boy’s names. Isn’t it odd that we hear of famous females like Glenn Close, Wallace Simpson, George Eliot, and Michael Learned but not male notables like Abbie Lincoln, Charlotte Lindbergh, Joan Glenn, or Sylvia Stallone?

Even as traditional names like James and Mary are on the wane, other Biblical ones seem to be on the rise. Although none of the genre tops the charts, many like Noah, Benjamin, Naomi, and Sarah are popular today. Dozens of other ancient names are still to be found by parents, such as Arnan, Ezra, Ezekiel, Magdalena, and Sheba. Jesus has always been popular in Latin America but never in Europe where the Church approved the notion of namesaking children after the apostles but not the main guy. For Protestants, the names of religious lions like Calvin and Luther have also been given. Although no one is named Christ that I know of, there have been the likes of Christian Slater and Christian Dior. This is odd if you think about it, naming a child after a religion. Why then do we not find people named Jewish Goldberg, Baptist Bakker, Mormon Young or Islam Ali?

There was a Swiss reformation leader in the early 16th century who fought for the same kinds of changes in the Church of Rome as did Martin Luther, only a decade earlier. Ulrich Zwingli was a powerful force in the reformation movements, advocating, for example, marriage for priests and the removal of icons from churches. Unfortunately, after his initial success in the Swiss cantons, the protester from Zurich led his forces against a superior army of Catholics at Kappel in 1531 and was slain. Who knows — had he won, many of our American streets might have been named Ulrich Zwingli King Jr. Blvd.

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The Catholepistemiad Wolverines

Speaking of religion, we must say something about the naming of Christian churches. (This is not meant as a theological bias. The places of worship for other religions often rely on foreign words in their names, so I will pass on commenting on them.) In selecting a church name, the Catholics generally select a reference to a holy person like St. Thomas or St. Mary. There is also the more litany-like names such as Our Lady of Mercy and Our Lady of Perpetual Help. However, these institutions of Mass production also have their Holy Cross, Resurrection, and Sacred Heart (why not Sacred Liver, or Sacred Brain?)

The Catholics do not have a lock on saintly names, of course; the Episcopalians and Lutherans use such designations also. The Baptists, however, have used a little more imagination in naming their churches embedding such niceties as Charity, Friendship and Hope. You have True Light Missionary, Solid Rock, etc., even though there seems to be a lot of First Baptist churches also. (They can’t all be the first, they?) Ironically, the word “world” is popular with smaller sects; for example, World Church of the Living God, World Harvest Tabernacle, World of Fire Revivals, and World Wide Church. I guess the word “world” in these names is a relative term, as in World of Carpets.

There is a non-denominational church in town called The House of Prayer — an apt name, I admit, but it does have a Prayers R’ Us ring to it. The name Church of God is fitting and reasonable, but Original Church of God is a little hard to believe. More amazing is the Original Church of God No. 2 (no kidding.) Then there are the Mormons who apparently prefer names as long as sermons. I had to marvel at a large lawn shingle in front of a church that proclaimed the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I wonder if they call it RCJCLDS for short. (Actually, they are known as RLDS.)

Notre Dame

Notre Dame in Paris

Many colleges began with an affiliation to a church. As a result, today we have hundreds of institutions of higher education with pious names like College of the Holy Name (now Holy Name University) and Our Lady of the Lake College. There are over a hundred campuses named after a saint, the favorites being St. Mary, St. Francis, and St. Joseph. Many have less pious handles, from somber surnames like Lindsey Wilson College, to stark statements like Tennessee Temple, to euphemistic phrases such as Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College. Alas, no Pew of Piety College.

And then there is the eminent Notre Dame — I mean, of course, that small college in Manchester, New Hampshire founded in 1950. In fact, there are eight institutions memorializing that cryptic “Lady of Ours” including the preeminent university in Indiana established in 1843.

There are so many colleges and universities, over 2000 in the United States, that you would expect, and can find, a pageant of names. Since many institutions were established, endowed, or entrusted by notable men, we find a large number of them memorializing their benefactors, like Allan Hancock College, Yale University and Brigham Young University. And there are hundreds of campuses with cloned place names like University of Great Falls, Susquehanna University and Foothill College. But there are also a few named after odd sorts of things.

One college got its name from an old arsenal built after the Denmark Vesey slave uprising in 1822. The old fortress at Marion Square in Charleston housed troops until 1843 when military students from the first Corps of Cadets occupied it. By 1845 the school was known as the South Carolina Military Academy. When union troops marched into Charleston at the end of the Civil War the institution was closed. Not until 1882 did the military college reopen as The Citadel as it is still known today.

Many institutions of higher education are named quite simply as the “University of Wherever.” Typically the “wherever” is the name of a state or city as in the University of Kentucky or the University of Chicago. Then there are all those “state” institutions like Ohio State, Arizona State, and Florida State where the word University is optional unless you are talking about academics. “So you went to Penn State,” she remarked. “No,” he replied, “I said the State pen.”

The University of Michigan, formerly Catholepistemiad

formerly called Catholepistemiad

It is all so confusing. Such sterile, prosaic names do not really tell you anything about the place. Augustus B. Woodward understood this in 1817 when he proposed a new institution of higher education in the city of Detroit which he called Catholepistemiad. This is an extraordinary blend of syllables that means something like “a place to study universal knowledge.” A few years later the legislative counsel of the territory decided on the less scholarly name of the University of Michigan. In 1837, the campus was moved to Ann Arbor where it prospered. If not for the counsel’s wisdom we may have seen headlines like “Washington Huskies meet Catholepistemiad Wolverines in Rose Bowl.”

Names of governmental agencies are just as unimaginative as universities, except these tend to offer propaganda at the same time. Take, for example, the Department of Corrections, an agency found in nearly every state of the Union. You might ask, whose corrections? Is this the place where all bureaucratic blunders get rectified? No, it is the executive agency responsible for the confinement of people convicted by the judiciary branch of government for doing what the legislative branch said they should not do. Now we all know that virtually no correction goes on in those places. Perhaps before naming the department, they should have examined their mission statement, or determined exactly the purpose of jail time. They might have more appropriately called this home for prisoners something like Department of Rehabilitation, Department of Retribution, or maybe simply Department for the Confinement of Convicted Citizens.

Elected and appointed officials apparently believe that giving an agency a new name will appear positive and responsive to the taxpayers. What was once the Department of Public Instruction becomes the Department of Education; the Department of Community Health becomes the Department of Public Health. In Michigan, the agency that provides service to the needy became in the 1990s the Family Independence Agency; this after it had been the Department of Social Services for several decades, Department of Social Welfare in the 1930s, and the State Welfare Department in the 1920s... and now it is the Department of Human Services. In Arizona, the equivalent organization is call the Department of Economic Security; in Minnesota, the Department of Human Services; in Illinois, the Department of Public Aid. To me, however, none of these numbing euphemisms has any vigor or allure. I like the candid name used by the Philadelphia agency in the 1790s, Overseers and Guardians of the Poor.

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If Zilwaukee, why not Zittsburgh

“Welfare,” like “social” and “crippled,” is only one of the many words to fall into disfavor with changing times. When any of these tainted words is part of a label, people clamor to have the designation refashioned to reflect the prevailing views. A case in point involves the Narraganset word for woman as recorded back in 1643 by a settler named Roger Williams. The other pale faces picked up on it and soon it became an English word. Over time every female Indian on the continent was being called a “squaw,” with the connotation of race and gender inferiority.

Yet, over the years, to the pale faces, the word lost its history and degradation and took on innocence and natural beauty. Along the way it was attach to over a thousand environmental features including streams, mountains, lakes, and islands. We have scores of Squaw Creeks, Squaw Mountains, and Squaw Islands on this continent, none, of course, christened by the Indians.

But recently the word “squaw”, like other references to native people, is being expunged from the geographic vocabulary. Why? Because the word is now viewed by Native Americans as degrading in spite of the laundry of time. “It’s equivalent to having the New York Mets called the New York Jews,” says a Chippewa historian with perforated logic. Even worse, there is now a myth that “squaw” was derived from a Mohawk word for the female genitalia.

Such rumblings did result in a law being passed in Minnesota in 1996 that required all names using the word “squaw” to be changed, so that, for example, Squaw Pond became Gulf Pond. Although other states have reacted similarly in the pursuit of political correctness, I have to wonder if the meaning of a name like Squaw Valley is stained by the past or does it, with its association with snowy summits and affluence, help raise up the old word to new dignity.

Indians rarely named places after individuals. Rather they used descriptive words that characterized the location, like Pecos (in Texas) meaning “place of water”, Tonawanda (in New York) meaning “land by the water,” Chuska (A mountain range in New Mexico) for “white spruce”, and Puye (in New Mexico) for “cotton tail rabbit place.”

Sequoia trees in California

Sequoia trees in California

The Spaniards often honored people such as Albuquerque who was the Viceroy of Mexico, or aspects of their faith exemplified by Santa Fe and Las Cruces (the cross). But they also liked descriptive names, as with El Paso and Del Rio. When it came to trees, they called them like they saw them. In 1769, when the Spaniard Don José Gaspar de Portolà saw the great red trees in California he called them “palos colorados.” A few years later, during the year of American Independence, a Spanish friar named those tall trees “palo alto” and that would become the name of the town that sprouted up in the area. But those sky scraping trees were destined to get yet another name from across the continent.

In 1770, in Taskigi, Tennessee, a precocious boy named George Guess (can you imagine a policeman stopping him and asking him his name?) was born to an Englishman and a part-Cherokee woman. After working as a silversmith and serving in the U.S. Army, this scholarly soul developed a Cherokee alphabet that help that tribe preserve its heritage. By the early 1820s he had become quite famous and it was his Indian name that got nailed to those giant redwoods in California even though Chief Sequoya (Sequoia) had never seen one.

The French also favored descriptions, such as Baton Rouge (red stick) and Mont Blanc (white mountain) and tributes to explorers, like Marquette and La Salle, but rarely religion (except for La Crosse.) The English seemed to have had no particular preference for naming, coming up with whatever tickled their fancy at the time, like Morristown, Brokeoff Mountain, Boone’s Lick, Bunker Hill and, of course, Cross.

Such diversity of place names in the United States did not escape the notice of Stephen Vincent Benet, the early twentieth century poet from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He penned a verse called “American Names” that speaks to the breadth of American history. It begins,

I have fallen in love with American names,

The sharp names that never get fat,

The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,

The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,

Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

and ends

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.

I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.

You may bury my body in Sussex grass,

You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.

I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

I’ve Got a Gal in Bronson

Among the abundant and beautiful names left by early Native Americans, we find many originated from badly pronounced Indian words, like Huron which came from “irri-ronon”, the Iroquois name for the Erie tribe. In Arizona there is a town called Tuba City which has nothing to do with brassy blats but rather finds its origin in the Hopi word “Toova” for “spring waters.”

Milwaukee sounds like a good Indian name. But it too is only an approximation to something the local Potawatomi tribe pronounced as mahn-ah-wauk, or “council grounds.” The first mention of this word that became the name of a city was recorded in 1761 by a British officer; his ears heard something like “Milwacky.” After it grew into a successful town known for its breweries, Milwaukee became a magnet for German settlers arriving in the new world. In the 1850s, some residents of a small Michigan community just north of Saginaw wanted to steal some of the immigrant traffic bound for the Wisconsin city, so they invented the town name of Zilwaukee hoping some of the German travelers would err in their destination. Can you imagine a community wanting to attract the settlers of southwestern Pennsylvania by naming their town Zittsburgh?

Of the 26 state names having a native language origin, one was almost named after an American patriot. The story begins at a time when some of the first states in the new nation had no defined western border — the territory just extended into the wilderness over the Appalachian mountains. As white settlers pushed the frontier westward, states lost touch with them and the areas were ceded to the federal government. Such was the case in the 1780s, in North Carolina’s hinterland beyond the Cumberland Mountains where John Sevier and his friends established a sovereignty they called Frankland, meaning “free land.” Hoping to get it admitted to the Union, Sevier wrote to Ben Franklin cleverly reshaping the territory’s name so as to influence him. Unfortunately turmoil and bloodshed undermined the government’s authority and by 1788 the State of Franklin disappeared.

In 1790, North Carolina ceded the area once again to the federal government and this time it was called the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio. When the area finally qualified for statehood in 1796 the citizens opted to call it after the river there, which was named after a Cherokee settlement, Tanasi, which the Americans warped into Tennessee.

Let me relate one last land naming story. In 1829 a group of colonists began a settlement in the Great Lakes peninsula of the Northwest Territory on land given to the United States by the Potawatomi Indians (yeah, right!) a few years earlier. When the town was platted in 1831, it was called Bronson after the contentious leader of the settlers, Titus Bronson. It just so happened that not far away there already was another town by that common Anglo-Saxon name meaning “son of the brown guy.” This former rest stop for the travelers on the old Chicago Road had been the village of Prairie River but was renamed in 1828 after one Jabe Bronson, no kin of Titus.

The fact that there were two Bronsons did not matter at first. But in 1837, the territory between the lakes joined the Union as the State of Michigan and one of the Bronsons had to be renamed. Which one? It so happened that Titus Bronson had just recently been convicted of stealing a cherry tree, so the unhappy townspeople volunteered. They decided to adopt the name of the local river, the origin of which is in dispute. The Indian sounding phrase may have come from Kekanamazoo, the Potawatomi expression for the river meaning “boiling water” or from the Ojibwa word “kikikamagad” meaning “it goes fast”, or the Miami tribe’s name for “deep still water.” In any case, had history taken a different turn Glen Miller’s song, “I’ve Got a Gal in Bronson,” might not have been a hit in the 1940s and the world would have missed the delightfully syllables of “ Kalamazoo.”

Read all about it

The name of Kalamazoo’s only daily newspaper is the Gazette. Or rather it is more properly called the Kalamazoo Gazette. Many papers have been called the Gazette over the centuries including Ben Franklin’s paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. Probably the first time that word appeared on a masthead was in 1642 when the Oxford Gazette was published, later to become the London Gazette. The word gazette itself arose in Venice in 1563 during the war with Turkey when news was read in public places from a manuscript and the price for listening was one gazetta, a small Venetian coin.

Isn’t it curious how the name of a newspaper almost always takes the traditional format of a city name followed by a descriptor, like Mirror, Journal, or Sun. The New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Chicago Tribune are paragons of this format. A few, like the Daily Camera in Boulder and the Daily News in Los Angeles, are exceptions. The most common descriptors are Times, Post and News. But there are odd ones like The Morning Call in Allentown, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, The Columbus Dispatch, The Sacramento Bee and the Nashville Banner. In the city of Newport News in Virginia, the paper is not called the Newport News News, but rather the Daily Press.

What is amazing about this aspect of the news business is the vast lexicon used in the nation’s mastheads to describe the activity of presenting news, including Herald, Record, Examiner, Inquirer, Monitor, Globe, Journal, Observer, and Outlook, to name a few. In the past even odder descriptors were used, as seen in the table shown here.

Some bygone American newspapers

The Aurora General Advertiser (Pennsylvania)

The American Apollo (Boston)

The Argus (Boston)

New Orleans Picayune

Baltimore Clipper

The Censor (Boston)

The Daily National Intelligencer (D. C.)

The Farmer’s Weekly Museum (New Hampshire)

The Federal Orrery (Boston)

Massachusetts Spy

Connecticut Courant

The New York Packet and the American Advertiser

The Philadelphia American Weekly Mercury

The first paper in the American colonies was the Boston News-Letter started in 1704 by William Campbell. By 1910, there were over 2600 dailies in the U. S. In modern times, following scores of mergers, that number has dropped dramatically, and names of newspapers have typically become longer, often incorporating the labels of both of the joined publications. Thus we find the likes of the Columbus Ledger Enquirer, the Duluth News Tribune, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Of course, none of these compound designations makes any literal sense, but then consider the source.

A Picayune finale

Earlier I said that the funny thing about names is how tangled their stories are — you start by looking at one thread and soon you find yourself taking a twist along another thread. The history of one name leads to another, and another — they keep popping up. This final odyssey illustrates the point. It begins with a newspaper, winds through a woman’s life and ends with a town that changed its name. As you read this meandering tale, take note of the names and ponder where their stories would take you (names are in bold.)

In 1837, George Wilkins Kendall began a newspaper in the capital of Louisiana which he called the New Orleans Picayune. By 1914, the Daily Picayune as it was then called merged with a competing paper (formed from two others), the New Orleans Times-Democrat. It was known for a time as the Times-Democrat, the Daily Picayune. Eventually the new publication became simply the Times-Picayune.

The curiosity, of course, is with that odd word, “picayune,” not exactly on a par with “tribune, ” “star,” and “gazette.” In fact a picayune was a colonial coin worth two Spanish reals or 6 ¼ American cents. The word comes from the French (actually Provencal of southern France) “picaioun” which means small coin, derived from the French “pica” meaning to jingle. Interestingly, two picayunes equals 12 ½ cents which is a bit, and two bits equals an American quarter. Today the word “picayune” is meant as something trivial or unimportant. Yet the journalistic legacy of that old New Orleans newspaper name continues with dozens of small newsletters and papers around the country, like the Nevada County Picayune, the Westlake Picayune and dozens of others.

Tangled with the picayune thread is a story that begins on March 11, 1843, when Eliza Jane Poitevent was born in the hamlets of Pearlington, Mississippi, not far from a river known to the Choctaw as Hachcha, meaning simply “the river.” The early French called it “Riviere des Perles by d’Iberville” but to the later English it was simply the Pearl River. This daughter of a wealthy industrialist would have a lifelong attachment to that waterway dividing Mississippi and Louisiana.

When her mother became ill, young Eliza was sent not far away to live with her uncle and aunt in a settlement called Hobolochitto, meaning “strong creek” and named after a Choctaw chief. A childless couple, the Kimballs gladly took in young Eliza and reared her as an only child. By 14, she was writing poetry about the wildlife and lush vegetation of the beautiful Pearl River Basin and the rolling hills of south Mississippi’s pine belt region. By 18, she was being published in the New York Home Journal and the New Orleans Times under the pen name “Pearl Rivers,” a moniker she would be known by all her life.

Soon her works came to the attention of Alva Morris Holbrook, the new owner of the New Orleans Picayune, and he offered her a job as literary editor for $25 a week. She accepted and showed great innovation in adding fashion news and stories on art, and by expanding the literary features. She got along well with Colonel Holbrook who was 35 years her senior, and in 1872, the 29 year-old became Eliza Jane “Pearl Rivers” Poitevent Holbrook.

Three years later, the Colonel died and Eliza inherited the then financially troubled paper. Rather than abandon it, she tightened the budget, improved profits by increasing advertising space, and allowed George Nicholson, the business manager of the newspaper, to acquire an interest. The firm became E.J. Holbrook & Co. In 1878 she married her new partner and the ownership was changed to Nicholson & Co. The couple built a summer home on North Beach Boulevard and dubbed it “Fort Nicholson” because of a high stone retaining wall that greeted guests. Within five years, they had two sons, Leonard Kimball and Yorke Poitevent, their middle names preserving the two surnames of Eliza’s childhood.

But Eliza Jane was not going to be just a mother. At the Picayune, she expanded news coverage, injected energy into the headlines, published political cartoons by Thomas Nast, reported the baseball scores of the Pelicans and other teams in the new Gulf League, added an advice column by Elizabeth M. Gilmer under the pseudonym Dorothy Dix as well as a society column, and introduced many other features common in today’s newspapers. During the next two decades, Eliza and her husband prospered as the Picayune’s circulation increased threefold. They used their publication in a fight against inhumane sporting practices. George became vice-president of the local chapter of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) Eliza and her newspaper rallied many years against prize fighting but with little success.

On February 5, 1896, at 75, husband George died, and ten days later, at 53, the woman known as Pearl Rivers followed.

There is yet another “name” thread in this story. In 1890, the Mississippi legislature redrew the state’s county boundaries and created a new county along the southwestern border and named it Pearl River, after the waterway that had enchanted young Eliza. Being the first woman publisher of a major daily newspaper and a leader in various causes, Eliza had become a nationally prominent person by the 1880s. So in 1892, legend has it, the people of Hobolochitto (from Indian Chief Hobolo and Chitto, the Indian word for creek) in Hancock County where she grew up with the Kimballs, asked her to pick a new name for the township with its incorporation. She chose, and they accepted, the name of her newspaper, Picayune. In 1905, the township was incorporated as a town and in 1908, it was annexed from Hancock County to that new county of Pearl River. In 1922, the town of Picayune became a city.

Like Eliza Jane "Pearl Rivers" Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, most of us must have the stories of our lives told with a vocabulary of names, any one of which would lead to another story.

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Picaynue Map, Pearl River Louisiana