The Two Kinds of Place Names

Nov 9th 2017


Here's a curious fact about two geographical baby names, Bridger and Boston. Bridger is most popular near the places named for mountain man Jim Bridger, in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. Boston, meanwhile, is most popular in...exactly the same places. In the region around Boston, Massachusetts, the name Boston is almost never heard.

That's a fundamental divide among place names. Some are emblems of local pride, most popular near the place itself, while others are chosen only from a distance. Here's a sampling of the two categories:

HOME SWEET HOME                ANYWHERE BUT HERE
Acadia Boston
Aspen Brooklyn
Bridger Cairo
Charleston Ireland
Denali London
Georgia Madison
Memphis Paris
Raleigh Salem
Virginia Trenton

 


Paris and Denali. Images: Wikipedia Commons

Foreign locales like London and Cairo obviously can't be "local flavor" in the U.S., but they aren't trendy in their homelands, either. (Last year, there were 20 times as many girls named London in the U.S. state of Georgia as in all of England.) U.S. places like Boston and Brooklyn show that the two types of place name occur closer to home, too. What's more, the name Ireland isn't popular in the parts of the U.S. with the largest Irish-American populations. In short, geographic names break down into "here" and "there" varieties.

While the place names themselves vary, one simple explanation for the difference is regional style. Some communities love contemporary place names for babies, while others seldom touch them. I live near Boston myself, and I almost never meet local kids with place-based names—not even Madison. So it's not surprising that the name Boston is most used elsewhere. It's not that Bostonians don't love Boston, it's that their baby name taste runs to Benjamin and Thomas instead.

PARIS OR DENALI?

Even within a community that loves to take names from a map, a local place name feels like a different impulse from a globetrotting choice. Local flavor is often described as "authenticity," but I don't think that's the right concept here. It's not as if parents from Georgia who who name their daughters London are pretending they're from London, England. They just like the essence that place names lend to a baby name, and a glamorous global capital has a special spark. (The name Paris is a hot choice in Georgia, too.)

Perhaps it's more like the difference between naming a baby after a great-grandfather vs. naming him after a cultural hero or celebrity. Surely the name Martin is equally "authentic" whether it's in honor of Grandpa Martin or Martin Luther King, Jr. But the impulse and familial meaning are different.

For parents who are drawn to place names, there's a final factor to consider: popularity. The cosmopolitan romance of a Paris or London is unbeatable, but there is only one London, England; only one Paris, France. That means a lot of sharing when it comes to baby names. In the past decade, more than 40,000 American girls have been named London/Londyn. Meanwhile, there are countless towns, neighborhoods, natural attractions and local landmarks in every corner of the world. Somewhere in your neck of the woods is an attractive and little-used place name.

Choosing such a local name does sacrifice the universality of the message. Wherever you go, you can feel confident that the name Paris will summon images of the City of Light. A Tennessee native who names a son Burgess, in contrast, has to accept that the homage to the beauties of Burgess Falls State Park will be lost on most audiences. Yet just as with naming after grandpa, you're giving a lasting personal message to your child. And with the name Burgess not even registering on America's baby name stats last year, it's a gift he'll have all to himself.

 

Comments

1
November 9, 2017 11:18 PM

Great article, but I do wonder whether Paris really counts as a place name. Maybe I'm just weird, but as a person name, I think of Romeo and Juliet, The Iliad, and even Ms. Hilton before I think of France.

2
November 10, 2017 11:39 AM

@Quiara, Paris definitely has multiple origins, as a lot of place names do. (E.g. Aspen is as much a nature name as a place name.) I know a couple of Greek men named Paris, and I agree that in their cases I don't think of it as a place name per se.

But I think the city of Paris is by far the biggest influence on the style of the American name Paris, especially for girls. The fact that its popularity tracks closely with the popularity of the name London is a sign of that.

It's interesting to compare the style of Paris to other mythological/classical + Shakespearean names like Theseus, Silvia, Portia, Claudius, Titus, Hermione, etc. Each one has its own balance of dominant associations, sometimes literary, sometimes historical, sometimes something else altogether!

3
November 10, 2017 8:41 PM

We had a discussion about place names not too long ago re: Alberta here on the forum. 

4
By ejh
November 13, 2017 7:02 PM

I also live near Boston... I used to be somewhat tempted by the names Chelsea, Lynn, and Beverly, (and I'd joke about then having a fourth named Swampscott) after my work commute right after college...  Given the traditional local rhyme, I'd be particularly surprised to meet any young Lynn's around here. (Lynn, Lynn, city of sin...)