While not necessarily the case in NewrnYork—or in New Jersey—in the sticks, itrnseems, America remains “in tack.”rnJoyce Bennett writes from Leonardtown,rnMaryland.rnAmerican Namesrnby Larry TrittenrnI have fallen in love with Americanrnnames,rnThe sharp names that never getrnfat.rnThe snakeskin titles of miningrnclaims,rnThe plumed war-bonnet ofrnMedicine Hat,rnTucson and Deadwood and LostrnMule Flat.rn—Stephen Vincent Benet,rnAmerican NamesrnMy family used to live in a mountainrnvalley near a mining communityrnin the wilds of Northern Idaho, andrnour mailing address was Star Route,rnSmelterville, Idaho. Before that we livedrnin a town called Coeur d’Alene, whichrnindisputably is a sharp name, althoughrnSmelterville is anything but sharp andrnisn’t exactly a snakeskin title, either. Inrnany case, I became acquainted early inrnlife with the extreme possibility in thernlinguistic architecture of Americanrnnames, which can range from ugly folkrnmetaphor to foreign exoticism.rnYou cannot, I submit, have an addressrnsuch as Smelterville, Idaho, without havingrnyour stylistic sensibilities affected,rnand I remember how oddly self-consciousrnI used to feel as a boy when I orderedrnthings through the mail fromrnmythic metropolises such as Chicagornand New York City and was forced tornlocate myself in so unglamorous-soundingrna place as Smelterville, which is probablyrnonly one stylistic millimeter lessrngauche than the Mudville of ErnestrnLawrence Thayer’s Casey at the Bat—rnand Mudville was a parody name! I didrnnot know then that “Idaho” is an Indianrnword that means roughly “light on thernmountains” and consequently is as prettyrna name as Smelterville is viscid andrngloomy. The name Smelterville wouldrnseep from my pen with the same sluggishrnmorbidity with which the wastes fromrnthe mines in the area infiltrated and obfuscatedrnsome of the local streams andrnrivers.rnIn the meantime, I thought typicalrnAmericans (i.e., the typical Americanrnfamilies in all of the radio and televisionrnshows and movies and comic books)rnlived in towns with straightforward, idyllicrnnames that could be gotten by mixingrnup any of a couple of dozen nouns andrnadjectives—for example, oak, palm, sun,rnwood, lake, view, green, dale, glen, hill,rnfalls, grove, spring, and so forth. ArchiernAndrews lived in Riverdale, HenryrnAldrich lived in Centerville, PepperrnYoung’s family lived in Elmwood, etc.rnTypical Americans, it seemed, neverrnlived in places such as Key West orrnCouncil Bluffs.rnThese formulaic stereotypes aside,rnthere is, as Benet asserts, something specialrnabout American names, and I thinkrnthe reason for that is that they are madernup of words from so many differentrnlanguages. Thus we have names thatrncover an exotic spectrum—Angola onrnthe Lake, Ball Ground, Cinnaminson,rnDreamland Villa, Encino, Frostproof,rnGermantown, Ho-Ho-Kus, Isla Vista,rnKaawa, Lost Nation, Moscow, Neon,rnOblong, Pend Oreille, Quapaw, Rome,rnSanta Glaus, Tahitian Gardens, Urania,rnVermilion, West Babylon, Xenia, YoungrnAmerica, Zilwaukee. American namesrnfill the mouth with fascinating combinationsrnof vowels and consonants and arernfull of soft utterance and hard articulation,rnbird song and verbal grapeshot.rnThe language is a mongrel, and whilernit may lack the precise grace and purity ofrna thoroughbred language, it is full of oddrntricks and delightful quirks that give it arnunique class of its own. Nowhere is thisrnmore obvious than in our place-names.rnAnd they can be complicated. Siouxrn(which French traders and trappersrnlearned from the Dakotas and Lakotasrnand means “adders,” literally “littlernsnakes,” i.e., the enemy—the name givenrnthem by their enemies the Ojibwas),rnfor example, is a dulcet sound that mustrnbe altogether different for those whornknow what it really means. Consider therneffect this has on a pleasant song likern”Sioux City Sue.” And Coeur d’Alene,rnwhich sounds so lyrically romantic,rnmeans literally heart of the awl (a tool),rnan ungainly metaphor considering howmanyrndifferent things this French heartrnmight have been transplanted into—rnheart of the mountains, heart of thernwoods, and so on. Still, the sound is mellifluousrn—so if you can stash the translationrnin the back of your mind the namernstill shines.rnNames are, to begin with, utilitarian;rnthey are the labels that enable us to distinguishrnone person from another andrnone place from another. But beyondrnthat they are entities of aesthetic andrnstylistic substance. Consider the manyrnand varied moods and impressionsrnevoked by them: Red, Vanessa, CrazyrnHorse, Algernon, Blackie, Jove, SilverrnCity, Riverdale, Canal Street, LoonrnLake, Wounded Knee, Salt Lake City.rnPick a state, any state, take a close lookrnat the map of it and feast your eye andrnmind on the wealth of colorful, eccentric,rnand fascinating names your forefathersrndoled out to its streams, valleys,rnmeadows, hills, towns, mountains, rivers,rnroads, and the like. Then multiply thesernthousands of names by 50 and considerrnthat this heroic task of naming, hundredsrnof thousands of names, was for the mostrnpart performed in a few decades as menrnand women swarmed westward acrossrnthe plains and over the mountains,rnfilling the rivers of Colorado with bottlesrnfrom New York and the wilderness ofrnWyoming with product wrappers fromrnthe stores of Ohio. Hundreds of thousandsrnof names, summarily served up,rnladled out, tacked on—just as, no doubt,rnwill one day happen on Mars.rnAmerica is little more than 200 yearsrnold, and already much of the history ofrnits names has been lost in the headwatersrnof the Rio Tempora, untraceable in therndarkling reaches of the past. California,rnthe name of our most high-profile state,rnhas an uncertain etymology. One theoryrnhas it that the name can be traced backrnto the French epic Chanson de Roland,rnbut the record is incomplete, a matter ofrnspeculation. No one knows who namedrnCalifornia. And I’ve always wonderedrnhow Montana got a Spanish name so earlyrnwhen it took the taco and enchiladarnuntil just a few decades ago to migraternthere commercially from California. Apparentlyrnlanguage can predate cuisine byrna century or so. In Idaho, in 1955, whenrnDean Martin’s hit song “That’s Amore”rn(“When the moon hits your eye like arnbig pizza pie, that’s amorel”) reached ourrnjuke boxes, we thought the phrase wasrn”piece of pie.” There were no pizza parlorsrnin the panhandle of Idaho yet.rnSome archaeologists in the far distantrnMAY 1997/43rnrnrn