Monday, September 24, 2012

What's in a name?

TOPONYM : Place-name  

It turns out the GNIS doesn't allow hyperlinks to their site. Though none of the links in this post work, you can get to them by searching the domestic names at the GNIS site yourself.

“There are only five thousand Deer Creeks in the country. Let’s keep the America’s only Wet Ass Creek” - Norman Maclean, USFS 1919

      Ever been to Mud Lake, Montana? Don't worry if your answer is no, or if you have multiple answers, because there are 14 Mud Lakes in Montana alone.  When I tell you I shot a bull up Bear Gulch in 2008, it should come as no surprise that my telling you is almost meaningless, because there are 15 Bear Gulches in Montana.
   The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is the Federal and national standard for all the geographic nomenclature and toponyms we find across our state and country. This database is overseen by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. Created in 1890, this board serves the Federal Government and the public as a central authority to which name problems, inquiries, changes, and new name proposals can be directed. In Montana, our state is represented in this realm of geography by a State Names Authority that is responsible for making recommendations to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names on behalf of the State of Montana on all name changes or new names. Maybe it's time to hit them up.
     Now there hasn't always been an accessible database of all the names across our state and country. So it should come as no surprise that duplicate toponyms exist, and that there are 13 Long Coulees in Montana. But that is no reason why so damn many should exist now. One of the necessary criterion for a space to become a place, is a name. A name that individuals can associate with the landforms and regions they use, have been, and often love. Names are important in Geography. 
      In Montana, the toponyms we see today often reflect the name of the first white person to map or claim a place as their own, which is why there are half a dozen Mikes Creeks in Montana. Even more often, the toponyms we use describe what the first namer saw while occupying the space, that after given a name, becomes a place. This can be a good way to declare a title. I think Big Bull Elk Ridge is a fine thing to call a landform.  But often, the labels we have assigned are far too simple and uncreative. Deer occupy  pretty much all of Montana, so it should come as no surprise that there are 11 Deer Creeks across our state. The same goes for coyotes, and there are 11 Coyote Coulees in Montana.  Often though, toponyms can be descriptive of the physical nature of the place. Hence, it is not a surprise that there are there are Nine Sand Coulees in Montana. But sand is not a very unique thing to find in a coulee, nor is Mud in a lake. The more repetitive a toponym becomes, the less useful that toponym is as a descriptive tool, not only to convey an image, but also to separate those places which truly are distinct from one another. Some of the best names are descriptions of the way that a specific place made the namer feel, like Never Laughs Mountain, or Lonely Night Reservoir.  It seems that sometimes the alias of a place is a reflection of what the namer was thinking of when naming a place, like Dancing Lady Mountain. Toponyms can reference the characters that existed within a location or existed around the time of name designation, like Slippery Bill Mountain. Some of my favorites are the names that evoke laughter and crass jokes from middle school children, as I am a pretty immature guy. How can you not love names like Gobblers Knob, Boner Knob, or Bloody Dick Peak?
     When toponyms become duplicate, and often repetitive, they not only lose their function as descriptive tools, they quite simply become boring. What follows from this is the potential for a place to lose the enthusiastic support and feelings from individuals that can help a place, through the conservation that comes from awareness, or some other instance, that may have otherwise been felt strongly about by many. For a while I lived in an awesome place called Lump Gulch, and I feel that some of the strength of my feelings toward it are derived in the kick-ass nature of its toponym. One of the things about humans, that is most universally recognized and appreciated by humans, is our potential to be wonderfully creative. Why not exploit this when it comes to what we call the places we occupy on this earth?

    For us, it would be mostly fair to say that things typically only will get named once. It is quite a privilege to decide what people will call a place for the indefinite future - to decide the order and specific letters the mind's eye will see when a place is thought about or spoke of, and to decide the sounds that vibrating atoms will make when a place is referred to. Our ability to hold dominion over the designation of places should not be understated.
     So what do we do? When it comes to duplicate toponyms, I say we decide upon a criteria of which one to keep. Whether it be the oldest, the most well known, or the most significant(size, elevation, flow, etc.) Then, we rename the rest. Maybe, we should turn a bunch of children loose to play in a gulch or on a mountain or at a lake, and never tell them the name of the place they are exploring and enjoying. At the end of the day, we should ask them what they would name the place. I'd bet the names would often be more descriptive, more unique, and more creative than the countless boring names we have for tens of thousands of features across Montana.
      We live in perhaps the most beautiful and varied landscape this side of anywhere. Our names should reflect that. I want to explore the Bald Mountain of Shonborn a lot more than I want to explore one of Montana's multiple Elk Peaks. I want to check out Fountain of Youth Coulee and Daughter of the Sun Mountain more than I want to see one of Montana's 11 Crystal Lakes. How could you not want to visit the Lake of the Stars, or  The Angel's Bathing Pool.
     Maclean once wrote, "One of the chief privileges of man is to speak up for the universe." In doing so though, we mustn't forsake what has given us this privilege - our creativity and understanding. We shouldn't be lazy. There are over 100,000 words in the English Language. There's no reason for there to be 10 Red Mountains.