I Love New Wild Boar City: The Atlas of True Names

By Laurel Sutton

February 11, 2009

I’m fresh from the American Name Society meeting in San Francisco, so placenames are on my mind. A friend of mine sent me a link to this fabulous publication. Here’s a nice summary from news coverage in Der Spiegel:

Called the “Atlas of True Names,” the new map traces the etymological roots of European and global place names and then translates them into English. The “City of Boatmen” is also known as Paris. Should you travel to the Land of the Fire Keepers, you’d find yourself in Azerbaijan. And Italy comes from the Latin word vitulus, which means “calf.”

“We wanted to let the Earth tells its own story,” Stephan Hormes, who produced the maps together with his wife Silke Peust, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “The names give you an insight into what the people saw when they first looked at a place, almost with the eyes of children. Through the maps, we wanted to show what they saw.”

I think this concept is fascinating. As (mostly) monolingual English speakers, Americans often wonder what a place name from, say, a Native American language might mean. We usually fail to consider those that are derived from Old English (I once wrote a paper about that in college), and we certainly overlook names that have become “just names”. Who stops to think that “Mexico” might actually mean “Navel of the Moon”?

Looking at the map from this perspective is like trying to wrap your mind around the maps of the world from an Antipodean POV (Australia and NZ on top). But it does read, delightfully, like a fairy tale or science fiction story. I can’t quite believe I live in the “Land of the Chaste One.”

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