Friday, October 31, 2014

Origins of American city names and God-Awful Eponyms

Once again I must confess an affinity for origin tales of any sort. If I overhear someone telling the origin of the phrase 'Raining Cats and Dogs' or 'Throwing the baby out with the bath water' I lean in close to see if they are getting it right. And yes, I have inserted myself into their conversation to add color to their explanation or even in extreme cases, to correct them if they are wrong.

Soooo, our next foray into the land of origins is how some our most well known cities got their names. I will start with the ones closest to me and work out.

Denver - Colorado's capital was named after a 19th century man who only visited his namesake twice and was disgruntled when he left. James Denver served in Congress, fought in the army, and served as governor of the Kansas Territory. His dissatisfaction came after he arrived in the city in 1882 and no one gave him a hero's welcome.

 Phoenix- This name was a tossup between what the city's founder, Jack Swilling, wanted - Stonewall - and what the majority the rest of the area's settlers wanted. They wanted something to honor the memory of the departed Native Americans. They chose a name that indicated the new city would  'rise from the ruins of a former civilization'.

Portland - At first this little town was simply know as 'The Clearing', but obviously things couldn't go on like that. Then a dispute happened between two prominent settlers, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove. Both were from back east and wanted to name the burgeoning town after their own hometown. Lovejoy was from Boston. Pettygrove from Portland, Maine. The dispute was settled by the flipping of a coin - two out of three. The famous 'Portland Penny' is to this day on display at the Oregon Historical Society.

Cincinnati - Originally named Losantville, the name didn't sit well with territorial governor Arthur St. Clair (rumor had it that Losant was a rival of some sort). In 1790, Arthur changed the name to Cincinnati to honor the Society of Cincinnati of which he was a leading officer. No one knows what Losant thought of the change.

Atlanta - Originally called Marthasville after the Georgia governor's daughter Martha Lumpkin (it could be worse it could have called Lumpkinberg). How it became Atlanta is up for debate but who named it is not. J. Edgar Thomson, chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad was awarded the honor of the naming. There are three theories as to his inspiration. First Martha's middle name was Atlanta. Second it is a shortening of his original name: Atlanta-Pacifica. Third, Thomson was a fan of Greek mythology and named the city after the Greek Demigod Atlanta. I like the idea of it being named after Martha.

Chicago - Like many American cities Chicago got its name from an Indian word. In this case, shikaakwa, the word for 'Wild Onion' in the language of the Miami-Illinois tribe language. 

And now the dreaded eponyms and their origins.

Dunce - Here is an example of history crapping ( I'm reminded of John Crapper the supposed inventor of the flushing toilet) on folks who fall out of favor. John Duns Scotus was a brilliant 14th century man who synthesized the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian theology. Unfortunately, after his death a new crop of theologians took a dim view of Scotus's writings and labeled his followers, first Scotists, then Dunsmen, and eventually merely Dunces. So, a smart man's name gave rise to a word that means 'dumber than a box of claw hammers.'

Slipping a Mickey - This is a term for putting something in someones drink to knock them out and the person who the term is named after fits the bill. Mickey Finn owned a sleazy Chicago bar at the turn of the twentieth century. He was know for serving patrons what he called the 'Mickey Finn Special'. The mixture contained chloral hydrate, a heavy sedative. Once the patron was unconscious, he hauled them off to his 'operating room where he relieved them of their valuables including their shoes. 

Spoonerism - This term for switching the beginning letters of a pair of words - think "The Lord is a shoving leopard" - is named after the Reverend Archibald Spooner who was famous for muddling words in his sermons. I'm not sure if the reverend would be proud of his legacy but recently Spoonerisms was a category on the quiz show 'Jeopardy'.

Shrapnel - This word refers to the bits of destructive flotsam that explode out of bombs and do mayhem among the general populace. Again, this term is named after an individual, an English General Henry Shrapnel, who thought the killing power of cannonballs could vastly be improved if he fill his cannonballs with bullets and bits of metal that came flying out on impact. He called them 'Shrapnel Shells' or 'Shrapnel Barrages'. Pretty soon everyone was getting in on the act and in World War One shrapnel was all the rage when one wanted to up the pain and misery quotient. Thank you Henry.

Well, there you have it. Play around with Spoonerisms and have some fun. And as always, please visit the comment section below and enrich my life by sharing any info you might have on these or any other origin stories. Until next time, Bood Gy. 


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