What’s In a Name?

     We all know the line from Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”  But I’m not sure that’s always true.  For example, I noticed recently that I have a different feeling about rivers with names like the James or the Charles than I have about rivers called the Shenandoah or the Nishnabotna. 


     I realized that, at an unconscious level, I had imagined rivers with English names as tame, and rivers with Indian names as more wild and unspoiled.  How could a river with a name like the St. John’s be akin to the Ichetucknee, even though both rivers flow through north Florida, not far from one another?


     Once I noticed my unconscious assumption that rivers with Indian names had to be more wild and scenic than those with Anglo-Saxon men’s names, I began to think about names for waterways from other languages.  What about the Rio Grande?  It is a much, well, grander name for the giant, riparian border between Texas and Mexico than would be its English translation, the ‘Big River.’  After all, ‘Rio Grande’ implies a foreign culture on the river’s far banks.


     But in fact, not all English river names connote blandness for me.  On my cross-country bicycle trip many years ago, for example, I remember crossing Whitewoman Creek in Kansas.  There must be a story behind that name, I thought as I pedaled across the stream.  Had it been called Jones Creek, I certainly would not still remember it 35 years later.


     I guess I’m not the only one who feels that the name of a natural formation matters.  Many, many people loved it when Alaskans replaced the name Mount McKinley with its earlier name, Denali, meaning ‘the high one.’  How much more evocative is that Indian name than that of a U.S. president.


     Maybe the point is that names really do affect how we experience things, such as natural places.  Depending on the type of name, we may conjure up an image of great natural beauty, of wildness.  Or we may come up with an image of domestication, a result of our own culture’s efforts to establish dominion over the natural world.  


     But, in fact, whether we call North America’s tallest mountain Denali or McKinley, it is still the same wondrous earth formation, home to an entire life system of plants and animals.


     And, similarly with the river named James, after an English king.  Driving across it recently, I saw birds swooping close to its dark surface, diving for insects.  The banks looked green and full of life.  Despite its stuffy-sounding name, the river that runs through Virginia’s heartland is a glory.—April Moore









5 Responses to “What’s In a Name?”

  1. Jan Elvin Says:

    I so agree with you on this. The house we’re moving to is on Radcliffe Creek, which flows into the Chester River. Both nice names, but I found myself wistfully looking at the Sassafras River, just a few miles to the north, and wishing I could trade names.

  2. Jonah Says:

    I like your thoughts on this and it brought up lots of river names for me – starting with the Northeast Branch which is the local river where I live. Of course there’s also a Northwest Branch, but neither of them have that evocative sound that songwriters are after. And from the names you can’t tell which one is the main branch of the downstream body called the Anacostia.

    The story about how the Colorado River was named is interesting. Apparently it was considered a tributary of the Green River which has a much larger drainage basin but an act of Congress switched the names . Actually it’s more complicated than that because part of what is now the Colorado was once called the Grand River, not to be confused with the Rio Grande. But Colorado became the name for the main trunk that flows through the Grand Canyon and supplies water to Las Vegas and Los Angeles and continues (if it still has any water by the time it reaches the mouth) all the way to the Gulf of California .

  3. Gila Says:

    If you like Whitewoman River, how about Assawoman Bay??

    I once loved living on Sweet Acres Drive. And now that I live on Szold Drive, I kind of identify with dear old Henrietta (Szold).

    But doesn’t this name topic bring up an even bigger one, which is the subtle yet fundamental impact associations can have on our thoughts and feelings about others, for instance the nicknames people give to people from other cultures to make them seem unworthy of our compassion? I don’t think I need to give examples of this phenomenon.

  4. April Says:

    Good point, Gail! Yes, the subject of names and the feelings they evoke goes very deep!

  5. Elizabeth H. Cottrell Says:

    This is a wonderful and thought-provoking piece, April, and I appreciate the comments from Jan, Jona, and Gila. I wonder if someone from another culture would have the same feeling of blandness from the English names the way we do for foreign (and more exotic-sounding) names.

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