Why do we not know what some places mean?

Why do we not know what some places mean?

As I wrote about in this post, previously given place names may continue to be used even by those who have no knowledge of the naming language or the original meaning. George R. Stewart attributes this phenomenon to the fact that “the giving of new names is an act of labor” (1975, p. 53) and it is often easier to use names that are already in place than it is to create new ones.

Multiple groups of people using multiple languages may occupy or make use of a single geographic location at the same time. In such a situation, place namers may name a common space in a number of ways: for example, both groups may create a name with the same meaning in their own separate languages, or one group may create a name with other groups borrowing and using that name. There may also be waves of place name use over time, with different groups of people making use of the same space at different time periods.

These waves of use are reflected in what are called place naming strata. As people exist on and use a landscape, they give place names, often in their own language. When other people arrive within that same landscape, they may give names in a different language, name different elements of that landscape and may name for different reasons.

Each naming group names place using their own place naming convention, a pattern that reflects their language, the elements of the landscape that they find important enough to name and what they choose to name, such as, for example, for cultural activities, historical events, spiritual or religious reasons, etc. As people who speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds interact with each other on the land, these layers or “strata” may overlap with each other.

This is the case with Winchester, as outlined in the previous post, and also for place names throughout North America.

This is one of the central problems in place naming studies: when a place name is borrowed from one language into another, from one stratum (see footnote) into another, or when it is becomes a symbol rather than a literal meaning, much of the information contained within that place name, including its meaning, may become lost.

This is rather unfortunate, since, as Jett (2001) states, “Placenames reveal how particular cultures perceive and classify their environments: what they see as significant–economically, religiously, and so forth–about how they differentiate particular places from space in general. …[P]lacenames may also convey important information concerning cultural beliefs and values, folklore, ethnography, economics, and history. Placenames also function as mnemonic devices that may facilitate communication, travel, resource-finding, and mythological memory, and as such are highly charged linguistic symbols” (Jett, p.c.).

Waterman (1922) points out that many North American place names originate from North American Indigenous languages and that Indigenous place names are “likely to persist even through migrations…when the spoken language shifts and one tongue is replaced by another” (p. 176). This means that important information regarding aspects of life, language and culture, remain embedded within Indigenous place names.


Jett, S. (2001). Navajo placenames and trails of the Canyon de Chelly System, Arizona. New York, NY: Peter Lang, Inc.

Stewart, G. (1975). Names on the globe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waterman, T. T. (1922). “The geographical names used by the Indians of the Pacific Coast”. Geographical Review, 12(2) 175-194.

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