I have fallen in love with American names,

The sharp names that never get fat.

The snakeskin titles of mining claims,

The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,

Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

—Stephen Vincent Benet, American Names

My family used to live in a mountain valley near a mining community in the wilds of Northern Idaho, and our mailing address was Star Route, Smelterville, Idaho. Before that we lived in a town called Coeur d’Alene, which indisputably is a sharp name, although Smelterville is anything but sharp and isn’t exactly a snakeskin title, either. In any case, I became acquainted early in life with the extreme possibility in the linguistic architecture of American names, which can range from ugly folk metaphor to foreign exoticism.

You cannot, I submit, have an address such as Smelterville, Idaho, without having your stylistic sensibilities affected, and I remember how oddly self-conscious I used to feel as a boy when I ordered things through the mail from mythic metropolises such as Chicago and New York City and was forced to locate myself in so unglamorous-sounding a place as Smelterville, which is probably only one stylistic millimeter less gauche than the Mudville of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s Casey at the Bat—and Mudville was a parody name! I did not know then that “Idaho” is an Indian word that means roughly “light on the mountains” and consequently is as pretty a name as Smelterville is viscid and gloomy. The name Smelterville would seep from my pen with the same sluggish morbidity with which the wastes from the mines in the area infiltrated and obfuscated some of the local streams and rivers.

In the meantime, I thought typical Americans (i.e., the typical American families in all of the radio and television shows and movies and comic books) lived in towns with straightforward, idyllic names that could be gotten by mixing up any of a couple of dozen nouns and adjectives—for example, oak, palm, sun, wood, lake, view, green, dale, glen, hill, falls, grove, spring, and so forth. Archie Andrews lived in Riverdale, Henry Aldrich lived in Centerville, Pepper Young’s family lived in Elmwood, etc. Typical Americans, it seemed, never lived in places such as Key West or Council Bluffs.

These formulaic stereotypes aside, there is, as Benet asserts, something special about American names, and I think the reason for that is that they are made up of words from so many different languages. Thus we have names that cover an exotic spectrum—Angola on the Lake, Ball Ground, Cinnaminson, Dreamland Villa, Encino, Frostproof, Germantown, Ho-Ho-Kus, Isla Vista, Kaawa, Lost Nation, Moscow, Neon, Oblong, Pend Oreille, Quapaw, Rome, Santa Claus, Tahitian Gardens, Urania, Vermilion, West Babylon, Xenia, Young America, Zilwaukee. American names fill the mouth with fascinating combinations of vowels and consonants and are full of soft utterance and hard articulation, bird song and verbal grapeshot.

The language is a mongrel, and while it may lack the precise grace and purity of a thoroughbred language, it is full of odd tricks and delightful quirks that give it a unique class of its own. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our place-names. And they can be complicated. Sioux (which French traders and trappers learned from the Dakotas and Lakotas and means “adders,” literally “little snakes,” i.e., the enemy—the name given them by their enemies the Ojibwas), for example, is a dulcet sound that must be altogether different for those who know what it really means. Consider the effect this has on a pleasant song like “Sioux City Sue.” And Coeur d’Alene, which sounds so lyrically romantic, means literally heart of the awl (a tool), an ungainly metaphor considering how many different things this French heart might have been transplanted into—heart of the mountains, heart of the woods, and so on. Still, the sound is mellifluous—so if you can stash the translation in the back of your mind the name still shines.

Names are, to begin with, utilitarian; they are the labels that enable us to distinguish one person from another and one place from another. But beyond that they are entities of aesthetic and stylistic substance. Consider the many and varied moods and impressions evoked by them: Red, Vanessa, Crazy Horse, Algernon, Blackie, Jove, Silver City, Riverdale, Canal Street, Loon Lake, Wounded Knee, Salt Lake City.

Pick a state, any state, take a close look at the map of it and feast your eye and mind on the wealth of colorful, eccentric, and fascinating names your forefathers doled out to its streams, valleys, meadows, hills, towns, mountains, rivers, roads, and the like. Then multiply these thousands of names by 50 and consider that this heroic task of naming, hundreds of thousands of names, was for the most part performed in a few decades as men and women swarmed westward across the plains and over the mountains, filling the rivers of Colorado with bottles from New York and the wilderness of Wyoming with product wrappers from the stores of Ohio. Hundreds of thousands of names, summarily served up, ladled out, tacked on—just as, no doubt, will one day happen on Mars.

America is little more than 200 years old, and already much of the history of its names has been lost in the headwaters of the Rio Tempora, untraceable in the darkling reaches of the past. California, the name of our most high-profile state, has an uncertain etymology. One theory has it that the name can be traced back to the French epic Chanson de Roland, but the record is incomplete, a matter of speculation. No one knows who named California. And I’ve always wondered how Montana got a Spanish name so early when it took the taco and enchilada until just a few decades ago to migrate there commercially from California. Apparently language can predate cuisine by a century or so. In Idaho, in 1955, when Dean Martin’s hit song “That’s Amore” (“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!”) reached our juke boxes, we thought the phrase was “piece of pie.” There were no pizza parlors in the panhandle of Idaho yet.

Some archaeologists in the far distant future, digging up the ruins of our towns and cities, may reconstruct a record by which they believe these same had names such as Nixon and Burger King, Radio City, Tinseltown, Coca Cola, Freeway, and Playboy. And perhaps the names will sound as exotic and colorful to them as the Indian names do to us.