The regrettable opacity of toponymy

Illustration of a buffalo leaning down to sip water from the Niagara River, with the Niagara Falls in the distance
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

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The Bills football team of Buffalo, New York, had a very easy decision when it came to picking a mascot. The buffalo, once so numerous on the American plains, is emblazoned on team paraphernalia and stands testament to the animal’s contribution to American history and culture. The only problem is that the city was not named for the American buffalo or any other animal. The name is likely an Americanized version of the French term “beau fleuve,” meaning “beautiful river” in reference to the Niagara River. Rather than celebrating the native wildlife, the name hearkens back to the first explorers who called New York home.

Indeed, many places can teach more with their names than is immediately evident. While language may seem to change rather quickly, toponyms, or place names, tend to last. People often care deeply about them, making them so entrenched in the culture of a place that they can outlive whole civilizations. This means that, as in the case of Buffalo, toponyms may take on a degree of opacity — it may cease to be clear to us what they signify. Only by seeking out the history may we learn the lessons that names have to teach us.

In California, it is clear to most that many of our names have Spanish origins. While California itself traces its origins to the Arabic “caliph,” the name was presumably used because of its association with a mythical island in a 16th-century Spanish novel. Our largest cities all take Spanish names, and it is mostly the Spanish we have to thank for initially exposing this area to European interests. 

Interestingly, while many Californians see themselves as being more connected historically to the American story of British colonialism, our modern origins bear much more similarity to those territories occupied by Spain. Notably, the Mexican state of Baja California even shares our name. This is not to say that the cultural intervention of American imperialism following the Mexican War was insignificant. Rather, the longevity of toponymy in this case illuminates the fact that our history and our cultural ties are complex, resulting in a naturally complex Californian identity.

California is far from the only place to have its name tied to colonialism. The name Vietnam, for instance, comprises the terms “viet” and “nam,” the latter of which means “south.” The name likely comes from the Chinese term “annam,” referring to Vietnam as the “pacified south.” Similarly, Australia’s name comes from the Latin “australis,” meaning “south,” indicative of its location being south to the explorers who named it. The various opacities of these names are likely part of why these holdovers from colonialism have represented the countries for so many years.

While toponyms may be hard to change, there are many exceptions to the pattern of colonial names’ longevity. Perhaps most well known is the renaming of Istanbul from Constantinople. Turkey decided that the Roman name was not fitting for the great city, replacing it with the etymologically Turkish alternative in 1930.

In a somewhat mirrored situation, New Orleans’s leaders and residents have often wondered if it would be possible to keep the city and its name intact in the event of it moving to another geographical location. The southern cultural hub lies in one of the most dangerous areas of the country due to recurring severe hurricane damage. Despite these conversations, most people acknowledge that, aside from logistical difficulties in relocating such a developed city, New Orleans’s character is largely built upon the history and precariousness of its specific location. To move it would be to destroy the city.

Toponyms are important because they shape our perceptions of place and are reflective of both history and values. Generally, a place’s name is integral to its culture, even if its origins are to a large extent unknown. Because it requires so much effort, renaming a prominent location signifies a transfer of power and suggests a cultural transformation. This means that in the cases of names that we no longer find appropriate as designations of our identity, we should be open to the idea of choosing a more fitting name. However, the reality suggests that most places would rather keep their names, even if they are allusions to past proprietorship. Because toponyms are often so deeply entrenched, if we aim to learn from them, we may understand not only a great deal about the history that we value but also the identities of the locations themselves.

Contact Jonathan Dombro [email protected].