What’s in a Name?

Everything, according to an amazing book about America.

A longer version of this essay appears as the introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue of Names on the Land.

On frozen winter nights in Minneapolis, I used to lie in the dark and listen to the high-school hockey scores. They were read out on the radio—hockey is always news in Minnesota—but I didn’t much care who won. I was 10 or 11 years old, a little bit lonely and a little bit bored, and for some reason I found comfort and distraction listening to the names of towns and cities around the state. Hibbing, Cloquet, Eveleth: the pinch and chap of the Iron Range, with traces of the Finns and French who settled there. Crookston, Warroad, Thief River Falls: the dark romance of the forested northwest. Moorhead, Brainerd, Saint Cloud: the dull thud of the flat and unlovely middle and its Norwegian bachelor farmers. Pipestone, Owatonna, Blue Earth: the dreamy vowels of the riverine south. Did I want to go to these places? No more than I wanted to go to Narnia or Middle-Earth. But I found in their names a kind of secular liturgy, beautiful and full of promise. Only later, reading George Rippey Stewart’s Names on the Land, did I discover that I wasn’t alone. “Some are born great and some with a gift for laughter,” Stewart wrote, trying to account for the origins of his own passion. “Others are born with a love of names.”

Even those lucky in laughter or destined for greatness will recognize Names on the Land as a masterpiece of American writing and American history. First published in 1945 and about to be reissued in the NYRB Classics series, it is an epic account of how just about everything in America—creeks and valleys, rivers and mountains, streets and schools, towns and cities, counties and states, the country and continent itself—came to be named. Like other broad-minded and big-hearted works of American culture from the first half of the 20th century—H.L. Mencken’s American Language, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.trilogy of novels, the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide series, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk MusicNames on the Land reflects a glorious union of two primal forces in the American mind. On one hand, Americanism: the inclination toward the large-scale and industrial, toward manifest destiny and the farthest shore, toward what a French critic a century ago called the American “worship of size, mass, quantity and numbers.” On the other, Americana: the craving for the local and the lo-fi, for the inward heart of things, for the handcrafted and the homemade.

Stewart was born the same year as Lewis Mumford, 1895, and he shared Mumford’s restless curiosity and the ease with which he wrote across different disciplines and genres. A scholar, novelist, travel writer, journalist, biographer, popular sociologist and ecologist, he may be best known for three other books: Ordeal by Hunger (1936), an account of the doomed Donner Party; Storm (1941), a novel about a horrific Pacific Ocean storm and its effects on man and environment, which is also the source of the lasting tradition of giving female names to major storms; and Earth Abides (1949), a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel in which nearly the entire human race is destroyed by a virus. It is said to be the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Stand.

But Stewart’s grandest achievement is Names on the Land, a disguised wartime plea for the triumph of cardinal American virtues: buoyancy and tolerance, curiosity and confidence, love of the land and faith in the future. It is organized chronologically, from the land’s earliest settlement by what we clumsily call Native Americans to the coming of European explorers, the creation of the United States, the closing of the frontier and finally World War II, the time of the book’s composition.

This is no dry encyclopedia: Stewart writes with great narrative force. Take his account of the beginning of the Revolutionary War, when British soldiers fired on British colonialist militiamen—Americans!—at Lexington:

Then the firing came, and men lay dead upon the grass. The line wavered and broke, and perhaps some British officer thought: “Well, that’s over!” Yet all day that news and that name spread outward from the village where women sat with their dead. Reuben Brown took the alarm west to Concord. It went east to meet the men of Salem and Marblehead, marching already. “They fired—our men are dead—Lexington! A new name in the land!” … Still farther it went, the name of that little village. What riders carried it, no one knows. By the waters of Clinch and Holston men listened. It took the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap. There at last in that western land, a thousand miles from the village green, it came in June to a camp of hunters. They heard the name and said, “Let us call this place Lexington.” And so they did. … That was only the first of many. For now there was a new name in the land, and children learned it with their first words. At last the people had a symbol—not a stupid king across the ocean, but a name red with their own blood.

Throughout, Stewart is a great evangelist for the poetry that comes from keeping close to the land, that inscribes into it some of the experience of those who passed by: Cape Fear, Golden Gate, Deadman Creek. “The deepest poetry of a name and its first glory lie, not in liquid sounds, but in all that shines through that name—the hope or terror, or passion or wit, of those who named it. The second glory of a name, as with Marathon or Valley Forge, springs later from the deeds done there.”

The image of the melting pot has come to seem hackneyed as it’s become clear how stubborn segregation remains and how complicated patterns of assimilation can be. But Names on the Land is a convincing reminder that the metaphor holds much truth, revealing how early the process of Americanization began, how swiftly it advanced, and how resilient it proved to be. Time and again newcomers adopted and adapted local names, and names survived the end of empires. The French ebbed away, but Detroit remained; the Spaniards sailed from the Western shores, but San Diego endured; the Dutch sold up, and though New Amsterdam naturally became New York, the Dutch name for the village of Breukelyn lived on.

Like all great epics, Names on the Land has moments of comedy and of pathos. Chicago may first have meant “onion-place” or “skunk-town.” The word podunk, now routinely used to indicate any place comically unworthy of note, originates with poodic, an Indian word for a point of land; settlers along the Maine coast used to say “Go to Poodic!” the way we might say “Get out of here!” Texas originates with the word that a Spanish expedition in 1689 heard from the Indians they encountered there: “Techas! Techas!” or “Friends! Friends!” The original name proposed for the state that became New Jersey was Albania.

Always a great and plain democrat, Stewart evinces a strong sympathy for the persecution of Native Americans, and he decries the presence on the land of so many names belonging to “periwigged lords of London. … What most of them ever did for the colonies to deserve so much as the naming of an out-house would be difficult to discover.” But he is no cheap patriot: He derides our national name itself, the United States of America, as too long, too vague, too ugly on the page, too clumsy to say. It is, he says, “the worst misfortune in our whole naming-history,” explaining that the abbreviation USA only became popular once it was branded into the stocks of American muskets during the Revolutionary War.

Stewart cites some enticing alternatives: In 1775, newspaperman Philip Freneau banged the drum for Columbia; a generation later, some freedom-loving citizen proposed Fredonia; novelist Washington Irving suggested Alleghania. But as pretty as it may be to imagine a bright and shiny new name, there is something fitting about leaving our cacophonous, patchwork nation saddled with one so graceless and unmusical. And there is something perfectly American about sticking with it despite its imperfections. Stewart, after all, notes that of the four American places named Tokio at the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing, none changed its name. “The state of mind seems to be more strongly than ever that the names now belong to us—to alter them would be repudiation of our own history, weakness rather than strength.”