06 January 2015

What's in a (Place) Name?

by Jim Winter

Once upon a time, I had a friend from New York who insisted on pronouncing everything with a French name in French. Never mind that the closest she had come to Paris was growing up about 200 miles from the border with Quebec. When she lived in Cincinnati, it deeply offended her that nearby town of Versailles, Indiana was called "Ver-Sales."

"It's pronounced vayr-SIGH!"

"Yes," I said. "In France, it is. In Indiana, it's pronounced 'ver-sales."

"Well, that's ignorant. It should be pronounced in its native tongue."

"OK. From now on, you have to call the town in Clermont County 'Moskva.'"

She wasn't down with that. Russian, to her, was too ugly. So even the Russian capital, in her reckoning, was called "Moscow."

But this has long been on my mind since childhood. I grew up in a town called Lodi. Most people can pronounce it since we've all heard, sooner or later, the Creedence song "Lodi" at least once. This song ended up being massively overplayed on Cleveland's WMMS and even CKLW out of Windsor. All because there was a town in the Cleveland area called Lodi.

Growing up, we were told the town changed its name from the original Harrisville, named for the town's founder, to Lodi in honor of Napoleon's first battle. Why? Well, Americans hated the British and liked Napoleon. By the time yours truly emerged from Lodi Hospital, the town square had a fountain with the village mascot, Chief Lodi. Nobody ever told us there had been a real Chief Lodi. And yet for a time, the Wikipedia article stated that Chief Lodi was a real person. Never mind what tribe or where he lived. The reference is gone now, but methinks a local had a little fun with the article before it was corrected.

But what goes into those names? Why do we call them what we call them? A small industrial city near where I grew up is named "Wooster," as in Jeeves & Wooster. However, the settlers hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts. Only it's pronounced "Wooster." The Massachusetts town is named for Worcestershire. Yes, that's where the sauce was invented. In true English fashion, that town is called "Woostersher," a concept I still have trouble with these days.

But what of fictional towns? Ross MacDonald loved Santa Barbara so much that he modeled Santa Teresa on it instead of using the real Santa Barbara. Sue Grafton picked up on this and based her career on this fictionalized version of her home.

Ed McBain, in turning New York into his fictional five-borough city, named the main borough "Isola," Italian for "island." I even got in on the act with the city in my current work in process called "Monticello" after the city on Edge of Night. The original had the Cincinnati skyline in the credits. My version probably looks more like Cleveland with the bluffs over the Ohio River flanking it.

I've found when creating or reading about a fictional place, it's good to embed common family names to streets and neighborhoods, corrupt the names of European cities for the names of towns and sections of a city, and reference events in history. It's good if the writer knows that history and how everything came to be, but the reader does not need to know. Done properly, it gives a place that may have been invented only a couple of years before publication an illusion of reality.


  1. Versaillles, KY, is also pronounced ver-sales! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  2. Jim, a great article with good advice for naming fictional places. There are three examples here in Columbia, SC, that are frequently mispronounced and/or misspelled. Eau Claire High School is located on Monticello Road not too far from Huger Street. Eau Claire is usually correctly pronounced Oh-clair but is oten misspelled. Monticello is pronounced with the soft s sound for the c, but some folks call it Montichello. The funniest one is Huger which has been you-gee since before I was born. Every new radio DJ and tv newscaster called it hugger.

  3. Good advice for fictional places. Of course, names are so crucial. I never feel right about a character until I get just the right name and that goes to a lesser extent with places, too.

  4. Jim, what did your friend think of Note-er-dame University? At least she had Vincennes and Terre Haute, Indiana, not to mention the town of French Lick.

    I have to confess that Lima, Ohio drives me a little crazy, thinking of the bean, not the historic capital in Peru.

    And then there’s Peabody, Massachusetts, which pretty much sounds like ‘puberty’ in New England parlance.

    I give a lot of thought to names. My favorite thus far is Palmetto Beach, Florida. Besides being a palm tree, palmetto is also a kind of roach.

  5. Jim, it seems earlier English speaking Americans had a habit of anglicizing the pronunciation of foreign place names located in America. Thus the French word, Pierre, for the capital of South Dakota, became pier or peer instead of pea-air. And, you can find several slaughters of the Hispanic pronunciation of place names in the Southwest. For instance the city of Limon (meaning lemon), in Colorado becomes Lie-mon instead of Lee-mon. Don't know if all this came about because of ignorance or arrogance.

  6. Dennis Lehane, who uses Dorchester (pronouned Daw-chestah) in his Kenzie/Gennaro stories, made up a neighborhood for MYSTIC RIVER - but if you know Boston, you can situate it somewhere between the Ft. Point Channel and Chelsea, in other words, knee-deep in the harbor. I think it gave him greater freedom of action. The thing about using a real location is that you're constrained by the actual geography, which can be limiting or liberating, depending. I've used Berlin, Germany, more than once, and if you're familiar with it, you know I bent the rules somewhat. What counts, though, is making a place convincing. You can sometimes inhabit an imaginary landscape more authentically than a real one.

  7. My wife hails from Vincennes, Indiana, and -- as Leigh points out -- they got it right. I am not so lucky. I come from St. Louis where that major south-side thoroughfare, Gravois Avenue, has the pronunciation passed on to us by the original Germanic inhabitants (e.g., my mother's family). It is generally pronounced "Gra-voy." It is sometimes (oncoming shudder) pronounced "Gra-voyz."

  8. Try Goethe Street, Chicago. Or Houston Street, Atlanta. Up here, Sinai, SD is pronounced Seye-nee-eye. Where did it get the extra syllable? I don't know.

    My own fictional Laskin, South Dakota, could be found by natives, thanks to certain in-jokes, like Lake Howard. But I admit, the geography has been stretched around, so that the Flats are about 30 miles closer, and Sioux Falls varies in how close it is depending on the time of day or how far Grant wants to drive.

  9. Great piece, Jim. I love this kind of thing. More crazy pronunciations of place names can be found in one of my SS columns from three years ago: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/01/tricky-diction.html

  10. Oops. I think I screwed up that link. The column was called "Tricky Diction," at SleuthSayers on Jan. 21, 2012.

    I once heard a TV meteorologist say that the first thing new weather announcers are taught is how to pronounce the weird names of local towns, counties, and rivers.

  11. Great article! My late father, who came from Seattle, insisted on pronouncing every word of foreign origin in its original language. "I drove my Volkswagen up the boulevard to deliver my resume" ... LOL

  12. You've made think about how I do that without even thinking. Right now, while working on a space opera novella, I have incorporated many 'corrupted' European nationality names. Makes the future seem like not so far from home, when writing sci-fi.
    Great post.

  13. Here in California with many of the cities and towns being Spanish in origin, mispronunciations abound.
    Los Angeles (soft "g" instead of "h")
    Paso Robles (Silent "e")
    Carpinteria (accent on next to last syllable)
    Even a simple 4 letter town: Ojai
    (pronounced "O Hi")
    I can't begin to count the number of ways Sebastopol is pronounced.

  14. Have you listened to the English, Jim? They mispronounce almost all American words!

    I had a good time with location names in "The Thirteenth Child," and most of my short stories--insider jokes...for me, mainly.


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