Peter T. Coyne
When you enter "Boston" on weather.com you may be in for a surprise. At least I was. Besides Boston, Massachusetts you'll find the weather for Boston, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, New York and Virginia as well as Boston, Sweden, United Kingdom and South Africa. Enter "Portland" and you'll get more than the expected Maine and Oregon. There's also Portland, Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, New York and Ohio. Maybe there are even a few Bostons and Portlands that weather.com missed?
Although he was born in a small town in northeast Tennessee, Dave Loggins was not thinking small town when he sang "Please Come to Boston" back in 1974. You can be sure it was Boston, Massachusetts he was talking about when he wrote the song. (The lyrics also mention big cities like Denver and LA in other verses.) But what would he have written if there had been a Boston, Oregon to consider? In 2012, Portland, Oregon's population was over 600,000 people, only about 33,000 less than Boston, Massachusetts.
"Names on the Land, a Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States" by George Stewart (1895 - 1980) was originally published in 1945. Mr. Stewart was a sociologist, toponymist and a founding member of the American Name Society. (Never heard of a "toponymist" or of this society before.) My soft-cover edition was published in 2008 by the New York Review of Books. The author states on page 313 that "only a rash prophet would venture to predict that the number of states, even within the continental limits, will remain perpetually at 48". This comment was prophetic. On page 386 we're told that "here ends the book as originally written; the supplemental material follows." The last 3 chapters cover Alaska, Hawaii and Current Affairs 1944 - 1958. The first edition to include these chapters was printed in 1967.
So how did Portland, Oregon almost become named Boston, Oregon? On page 253 of my 2008 edition it reads:
"When more people arrived in Oregon, Amos Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove laid out a little town, four streets each way , in 1845. Lovejoy was from Massachusetts and wanted it to be Boston, but Pettygrove was from Maine and wanted Portland. Being good Americans they flipped a coin. The name of a great city went spinning into the air. It fell for Portland." That's one of my favorite anecdotes from this book, but there is much more in its 438 pages.
Although many names in this country are of Indian origin, the Indians themselves left no written records. The Spaniards were among the first to name the land, mostly in Florida and California. Not all names survived. The English gave some of these places new names. Butt kissing was sometimes a factor, names bestowed to honor or curry favor with a king or other influential party.
Some other tidbits:
Explorers with the most names bestowed upon the land: Marquette & Jolliet who were responsible for naming Wisconsin, Peoria, Des Moines, Missouri, Osage, Omaha, Iowa, Wabash and Arkansas.
Dallas was named after a Vice President under Polk, George Dallas.
Maine is the only state with a one-syllable name.
I would recommend this book to those interested in American history or this subject matter in particular - how our cities, states, rivers, mountains, roads, etc got named. Is "Names on the Land" an exciting read? Uh, No! Some parts may be even dull - strike that - are dull, but then occasionally you'll find something to peak your interest.
I suppose you could almost regard Names as a reference book. Whenever you want to know the origin of a name, you could just go to the book's index. It provides some guidance at its beginning, e.g., you won't find variants such as "Ouisconsin" listed separately. It will me mentioned under its final form as Wisconsin.
This is not the first time that I've sort of recommended a reference work. In my post of October 21, 2010 titled "Bierce", I mentioned Bierce's cynical and at times hilarious "Devil's Dictionary". A writer named LaValle suggested that the Devil's Dictionary reads like a collection of great Twitter posts. I don't Twitter so I'll take his word for it 'til some expert on twittering refutes his claim. There's actually a website, www.thedevilsdictionary.com. Here are some examples to whet your twittering appetite:
Corporation - "An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility". (Wonder if Ambrose would be surprised to find out that a corporation is now a person. Probably not.)
Lawyer - "One skilled in circumvention of the law".
Politics - "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage".
Impartial - "Unable to perceive any promise of personal advantage from espousing either side of a controversy or adopting either of two conflicting opinions".
"Education" - "That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding".
Happiness - "an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another".
Finally, something unrelated but I can't resist mentioning:
I don't often read book reviews, but this one from Bierce is one of my all-time favorites:
"The covers of this book are too far apart." (Wish I knew which book he was talking about.)