If you?ve ever wondered how the places around you — from the Bronx and the Bowery to Appalachia and Oregon — got their names, then you?ll delight in this smart and witty history of place-naming in the United States, a key to many of the roadside mysteries that cover the American landscape. First published in 1945 and revised a few times since, Stewart?s classic study relies on a wealth of literary and archival sources, from contemporary accounts of the great European explorers to 19th-century court records. Stewart?s often poetic celebration of American ingenuity and resilience reflects the historical contours of discovery and expansion. And it begins with the Spanish, Dutch, and English colonizers who brought with them a desire to put their mark on the new lands. They commemorated their royal sponsors, their native towns and cities, and their religious beliefs. If the Spanish in Florida and California honored saints and sailors, the Puritans in New England avoided any hint of papistry or royalty. New Yorkers will find in every name ending with ?kill? or ?rack? the ghosts of their Dutch ancestors. But the real surprise is how often the newcomers let the places name themselves, or so they thought, since their understanding of the native Indian languages was marginal at best. But a good-faith effort resulted in Arizona, Connecticut, Seattle, Des Moines, Niagara, and Potomac, to name a few. Each frontier allowed for new naming opportunities, though the average miner or trapper often lacked imagination and settled for mere description: thus the many ?flats? and ?forks? and ?hills? of the West. The folk etymologies, the orthographic mistakes, the flurries of ?good taste? revisionism: all these add to a uniquely American story. Readers of Stewart?s charming narrative will never look at a map or roadside sign the same way again.
About the Author
Thomas DePietro, a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews, has also published in Commonweal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited Conversations with Don DeLillo, and his book on Kingsley Amis is forthcoming.