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A Mouthful of American Names

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 From ``American Names''

MY family used to live in a mountain valley near a mining community in the wilds of north Idaho, and our mailing address was Star Route, Smelterville, Idaho. Before that we lived in a town in Idaho called Coeur d'Alene, which indisputably is a sharp name, although Smelterville is anything but sharp and isn't exactly a snakeskin title, either.

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In any case, I became acquainted early in life with the extremes of possibility in the linguistic architecture of American names, which can range from ugly folk metaphor to foreign exoticism.

You can't, 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.

I didn't know in those days that Idaho is an Indian word that means roughly light-on-the-mountains and consequently is a pretty name.

In the meantime, I thought that typical Americans (i.e., the typical American families in all of the radio and TV 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. 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, Kaaawa, Lost Nation, Moscow, Neon, Oblong, Pend Oreille, Quapaw, Rome, Santa Claus, Tahitian Gardens, Urania, Vermilion, West Babylon, Xenia, Young America, Zilwaukee.

Americans 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.

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The language is a mongrel, full of odd tricks and delightful quirks. And they can be complicated. Sioux (which is the French word for the Dakota or Lakota Indians) is a dulcet sound that must be altogether different for those who know that it means literally ``cut throat,'' and Coeur d'Alene, which sounds so lyrically romantic, means literally heart of the awl (a tool), an ungainly metaphor. Still, the sound is mellifluous; so if you can stash the translation in the back of your mind the name still shines.

NAMES are utilitarian - 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, and take a close look at the map of it and feast your eye and mind on the wealth of colorful, eccentric and fascinating names doled out for streams, valleys, meadows, hills, towns, 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. Hundreds of thousands of names, summarily ladled out, served up, tacked on - just as, no doubt, one day will happen on Mars.

America is little more than 200 years old, and already much of the history of its names has been lost. California 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.

I've always wondered how Montana got a Spanish name so early when it took the taco and enchilada until just a couple of decades ago to migrate there commercially from California. Apparently language can precede 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 distant future, digging up the ruins of our towns and cities, may reconstruct a record by the names they find: Nixon and Burger King, Coca Cola and Playboy. And perhaps the sounds will seem exotic and colorful. But of course such names will be all Greek to them, no matter how long forgotten moussaka and Plato's Retreat may be.

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