Mighty Red Pen

April 21, 2008

He wrote the book on it

Filed under: Lit review — mighty red pen @ 7:27 pm
Tags: , ,

So check out Donald Orth, who wrote a book called Dictionary of Alaska Place Names about forty years ago. And well, as it turns out, Alaska has some pretty interesting place names, to be sure:

Mishap Creek, aka Big Loss Creek, is Unimak Island stream named for a lighthouse keeper who stripped naked to cross the water, then tried to throw his clothes to the other side, only to watch helplessly as they landed downstream and disappeared.

There’s Chicken, an old mining town established during the Klondike Gold Rush. A detailed history of the name is not in Orth’s dictionary, but according to oft-told lore, miners wanted to call the community Ptarmigan after a bird common to the area, but no one knew how to spell it. So they settled on Chicken, since miners also called ptarmigans “tundra chickens.”

Atlasta Creek was inspired by a remark uttered by the wife of the owner of a nearby roadhouse after the first building was completed: “At last a house.”

Lost Temper Creek, an Arctic Slope stream, was named over a “camp incident.” Eek, a western Alaska village, was derived from an Eskimo word that means “two eyes.” Big Bones Ridge, in the Talkeetna Mountains, came from the large fossil mammoth or mastodon bones found at the site.

Orth wrote the original book in 1967 (there are plans for an updated version in 2009) but still finds the topic compelling:

The subject holds no end of fascination for the former executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

“Language, history, geography, all of those things come together,” he said during a phone interview from his Falls Church, Va., home. “Place names are part of the language, part of our psyche.”

The town where MRP grew up was rather unremarkably named for a white guy who owned a lot of land there. Exciting stuff. Surely, your town’s name is much more interesting — do share.


Update 4/22: Be sure to check out Notes from the Copy Editor, who has taken this topic to a whole new level, and also Fritinancy, who has some more to add about geographical names.



  1. My home town (Mount Ayr) was named such because it’s the home of Iowa’s only volcano. And some Scottish people settled there.

    Actually, it *is* the highest spot in the county, even if it isn’t volcanic, and the people who settled there *wished* they were Scottish. They named the town after Ayre, Scotland. i’m not sure why; I think they thought it was pretty. Or maybe ONE person who helped found it was Scottish.

    So now they have “Ayr Days,” a Scottish festival–even though only 3% of the people in town have any Scottish in their roots.

    Comment by TootsNYC — April 22, 2008 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

  2. I once lived in a place named for the man who was killed during the battle of Resaca de la Palma. Legend had it that Major Brown died in the first shot. In any case, when the smoke cleared, he was dead and they named the fort he died defending Fort Brown, giving the inevitable name of Brownsville to the surrounding town.

    I argued that it would have been more in the spirit of the think to name the town “Duck!”.

    Comment by David — April 22, 2008 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

  3. My teeny hometown in Montana is named after the French word for chilled or cold, Froid. A few French settlers lived there in 1910. The kicker is, though, it’s pronounced Freud.

    Comment by rpmason — April 23, 2008 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

  4. Oh, and my country was named for Samuel Ringgold, a hero of the Mexican-American war. When we had a centennial, they scrounged up some of his descendants to come visit.

    Comment by TootsNYC — July 25, 2008 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

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