What's in a place name?

by MARK BROADHEAD·
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Some of my favourite words started life as names of places.

Take, for example, 'Bohemian', which connotes a cavalier disregard for rules and conventions. You may be aware that the name comes from Bohemia, a region in the Czech Republic.

But that doesn't mean that Bohemia is populated entirely by beret-clad artists. Rather, the term comes from the alternative lifestyle of Roma travellers, whom the French assumed were from Bohemia. (Fascinatingly, the term 'Gypsy', often used for the Roma, itself comes from 'Egypt' - because Eastern Europeans wrongly believed that the dark-skinned nomads came from North Africa.)

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Image of a village in Bohemia by dorena-wm

Here are few more of my favourite toponyms:

  • Laconic: 'using very few words' (OED). Laconia was the homeland of the Spartans in Ancient Greece, who were famous for the brevity of their communications. The Dictionary of Word Origins gives a great example of their laconic sensibility in a reply to Philip of Macedon, who boasted: 'If I enter Laconia, I will level Lacedaemon to the ground.' The Spartans' reply was 'If '.
  • Ghetto: 'a part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group' (OED). Ghetto originated in VeniceGhetto is a part of the city where the Jewish population was forced to live.
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    Image by Zingaro. I am gipsy too.

  • Shanghaied: '1. force to join a ship's crew by underhand means. 2. coerce or trick into a place or action' (OED). Shanghaied originates in the shortage of crews in the 19th century for ships (including those bound for China) on the west coast of the USA. During the latter half of the 19th century many able bodied men sought their fortune in the gold fields of California, making it necessary for boarding masters to Shanghai those who remained.
  • Coventry: 'refuse to associate with or speak to someone' (OED). Being 'sent to Coventry' is an expression believed to originate in the 17th century during the English Civil War when Coventry had a prison for Royalist troops.
  • Doolally: 'temporarily insane' (OED). This term is derived from the British Army transit camp of Deolali, which was famous for driving troops to madness from boredom.
  • Jeans/Denim/Dungarees: 'Denim: hard-wearing cotton twill fabric, typically blue' (OED). The cloth that jeans are made from originated in Nîmes (de Nîmes means 'from Nîmes') and Dongari Killa in Mumbai. The blue colouring of denim was referred to as bleu de Gênes - that is, it came from Genoa.
  • Stockholm syndrome: 'The syndrome is named after the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken in Stockholm, in which the bank robbers held bank employees hostage. The victims became emotionally attached to their captors, and even defended them after they were freed from their six-day ordeal' (see Wikipedia).
  • Solecism: 'grammatical mistake' (OED). The citizens of the ancient city of Soli spoke differently from the Athenians of the day. The more influential Athenians viewed 'different' as 'ungrammatical', so the term solecism came into being to describe such 'mistakes'.
  • Neanderthal: 'an extinct human that was widely distributed in ice age Europe between c.120,000-35,000 years ago' (OED). The close relative of humans (Homo sapiens) was discovered in Neandertal (then Neanderthal) in Germany, near Düsseldorf.

The late great Douglas Adams - famous for writing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - also co-wrote The Meaning of Liff. This book took names of towns and cities around the world, like Liff, and used them to describe sensations or experiences that had no name yet.

So, for instance, Adlestrop is a town in Gloucestershire (known mainly for a poem written by Edward Thomas), but in The Meaning of Liff it also means 'That part of a suitcase which is designed to get snarled up on conveyor belts at airports. Some of the more modern adlestrop designs have a special "quick release" feature which enables the case to flip open at this point and fling your underclothes into the conveyor belt's gearing mechanism.'

Another travel related definition is Banff: 'Pertaining to, or descriptive of, that kind of facial expression which is impossible to achieve except when having a passport photograph taken.'

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Image of Adlestrop's bus shelter by Charles D P Miller

Even without Douglas Adams' additions there are plenty of toponyms to keep us intrigued and enlightened.

What are your favourites? Any used in languages other than English?