Most everyone in this day and age has ordered something by phone. For me, once I state my city’s name, that experience usually involves the call center person asking, “Would you please spell that?” This has happened in every place I’ve lived for the last three decades:
Tallahassee, Florida: “How many L’s is that? How many E’s?”
Keota, Iowa: “Is that ‘Kyoto,’ like in Japan?”
Paducah, Kentucky: “Did you say Pad Thai, Kentucky?”
I love geography, and once as a graduate assistant I spent a summer hand-inking the outlines of every county within a huge outline map of the United States on a massive sheet of Mylar, so I’ve come across my share of interesting place names. Who knew how many Possum Trots there are in the South? (Kentucky seems to have the only Monkey’s Eyebrow I’ve come across, and Paducah is located between there and our Possum Trot—no lie.)
There are thousands of unusual names across our Southern states. Just for a tiny example, there are multiple Bug Tussles/Bugtussles (my nod to The Beverly Hillbillies, with whom I still identify); all manner of names including “frog,” like Frogtown/Frog Town, Frog City, and Frog Level (North Carolina, where I had my first gimlet—I was underage, so don’t tell!). There’s even a Tick Bite. And so many towns named “Roach!” Definite yuck factor going on here.
For all the Native American places usurped by Europeans everywhere, names from the many languages of the first inhabitants are common. And plenty of places are named for the towns, cities, states, and countries settlers left behind (Paducah, Texas, for example, was settled by people from Paducah, Kentucky, which is a Native-American-based name). And of course people frequently opted for place names that described where they were—Hill, Valley, Bottom, Top, Creek, River, etc.
Calling a place after a person is common whether they are founders or locally, nationally, or sometimes internationally famous/infamous. And then there are places with big dreams (or a strong desire to be Elsewhere with a capital “E”) like “Moon” and “Saturn.” The folks who named their hometown “Earth” either showed no humility or were completely humble, referring to the soil that fed their hopes and dreams.
Of course there are places where the wags admitted their indecision (or failure to agree), with appellations like Nameless, No Name, Nogo, and Why Not/Whynot. You have to wonder why people would continue living in places they named after bad weather, like “Frost,” “Four Winds” and, for pity’s sake, “Cyclone” or “Hurricane.”
I don’t attempt to be as inclusive as You Live Where? Interesting and Unusual Facts About Where We Live by George E. Thompson. I came across his book after fact checking my story and, trust me, his research on our states’ names is what you want to go with. I just give a summary of what I found myself. His is the kind of book you give your nerdy geographile/bibliophile friends or put in your guest bedroom to help them decide where their next adventure will be. (“What? Do you have to leave so soon?”)
Here are a handful of my favorite unusual Southern place names, just because I like them. I hope there are lots of comments about your favorite unusual place name(s); a conversation about this should be a lot of fun.
ALABAMA—A name taken from a Native American term, probably Choctaw for “town;” sources dispute its meaning.
The Bottle: It’s impossible to talk about unusual place names in Alabama without mentioning The Bottle. Named for a multi-use roadside attraction building shaped and labeled like Nehi soft drink, this spot on earth now sports a historic marker; the building burned in the mid-1930’s.
ARKANSAS—This state name is a Native American origin word meaning “land of the downriver” or “people of the south wind.”
What to say of a state with unincorporated places named Accident, Experiment, Smackover, and Okay? How about it makes a short short story?
FLORIDA—Named by the Spanish, La Florida means “flowery land.”
Howey-in-the-Hills is home of the first citrus juice plant in the state. The name has nothing to do with that fact. But how many place names do you know that have three hyphens?
GEORGIA—King George II is the name sake of this original colony. What? They couldn’t change the name after the Revolution?
Location, location, location. That’s how Between got its name. Halfway between Atlanta and Athens and the two largest cities in its county, this hamlet of about 300 speaks softly with its big stick name.
KENTUCKY—Another Native American origin name, probably from the Iroquois term for “meadow” or “prairie.”
Bowling Green’s name origin is uncertain, so choose your favorite: Similarity with an existing green sward also named the same in Virginia; a place in New York where lead bullets for the American Revolution were smelted from a statue of King George III; or the lawn bowling game.
LOUISIANA—La Louisiane was named by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, French explorer, for his king, Louis XIV.
So many ways to interpret the name “Cut Off,” but the name came about, as did the town, from the building of a canal’s short cut. Who knows why Grosse Tete (French for “Big Head”) was so named, but you’ve got to figure egos were involved in the naming of Uneedus.
MARYLAND—Queen Henrietta Marie, wife to King Charles I of England, is Maryland’s namesake. George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, named the colony in 1632.
The Marquis de Lafayette, who was of such great assistance to the American Revolution, left his stamp all over the South, including inspiring the renaming of Harmer’s Town to Havre de Grace. The original town name in France meant “Haven of Grace.” Over time, the Maryland name has come to mean “Harbor of Grace” by some accounts. In some circles, “Baltimore” has come to mean “The Wire.”
MISSISSIPPI—Many people learn how to spell this Ojibwa name meaning “Great River” with this sing-song rhyme: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I, floatin’ down the river to New Orleans.”
The Federal Writers Project of 1938 uncovered the early Scottish settlers’ family feud history behind the name Merry Hell. Some names just nail it.
MISSOURI—We have the Europeans to thank for using an Illini word for the Missouri people’s name meaning “those who have dugout canoes.”
The Show Me state puts its place names where its attitude is with monikers like Enough, Only, and Peculiar. So of course, no-nonsense, the-buck-stops-here President Harry Truman came from Missouri—Lamar, in the southwestern part of the state.
NORTH CAROLINA—King Charles I and King Charles II are the name sakes for my home state and for South Carolina.
Driving from Murphy (in the mountains—named for a politician, Archibald Murphey, and yes, they changed the spelling) to Manteo (on the coast—also named for a leading individual of his time and people), you might be glad to find yourself going through Trust and Luck rather than Boogertown.
OKLAHOMA—The name for “red” and “people” comes from the Choctaw language.
If you like mysteries and the paranormal and don’t mind graphic violence, research the town of Dead Women’s Crossing. Surely Scraper, Slapout, and Smacker are more congenial places to live.
SOUTH CAROLINA—Like I said, just as with North Carolina, this state is named for English kings Charles I and II.
Is Ninety Six Welsh for dry gulch or a statement of measurement using (English) Parish linear measurements marked in “chains?” Whichever, it’s got more name history than Nine Times or No Man’s Land and makes more sense than North, South Carolina, which is ninety miles southeast of Due West.
TENNESSEE—This is a Native origin place name but that origin is murky. Its meaning is also unclear—“meeting place,” “river of the great bend,” and “winding river” are those interpretations most often mentioned.
Other states just have hamlet or village place names. Tennessee has the remnants of a would-be state—Franklin. Created by cession out of the northwestern part of North Carolina, it later seceded when Congress chose not to create it as the fourteenth state—and now what once was an independent republic is now several counties of northeastern Tennessee.
TEXAS—Tejas was a Caddo (Native) word for “friends” or “allies” used by the Spanish.
When it seems like every other community in your state names itself Cottonwood like your town did, it just makes sense to change the name to Ben Hur.
VIRGINIA—One of the earliest places successfully settled by Europeans, Virginia was named to honor Queen Elizabeth, known as the Virgin Queen.
For as long as I can remember my father’s paternal family (rooted in Virginia) told us that Horsepasture got its name when the Moravians who settled Salem in North Carolina (now Winston-Salem), trekking down from Pennsylvania in search of new land, found it to be a wonderful resting stop and feeding grounds for their horses.
WEST VIRGINIA—This breakaway state from Virginia made up of Unionist counties was, with Nevada (from Utah), one of two states formed during the Civil War.
Here’s a name with character: Black Betsy. Named either for a woman who sold moonshine, the ’shine itself, or the coal mined by those who drank the booze, this place has got a past and no one seems to agree about it.