'Atlas Of True Names' Maps The U.S. With Literal Translations Of State Names

06/20/2013 03:10 pm ET

If someone told you they hailed from the "Farm of the Elf Counsel's People," you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd grown up in Middle-earth, not Arlington, Texas. Yet according to a very special new atlas, that's precisely what "Arlington" means.

The Atlas of True Names has been compiled by Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust, two cartographers who aspire to uncover the "original" meaning of place names, as determined by their etymological roots. The results are highly amusing: Pensacola, Fla., becomes the land of "Hair People"; Chicago is simply "Stink Onion"; what appears to be Kermit, a small town in West Texas, transforms into "Son of the Envyless."

Hormes and Peust are aware their "True Names" in the atlas are far from definitive. In any translation, there's plenty of wiggle room, particularly once the lens of history becomes a factor. Thus they've amended their map with an acknowledgement and a suggestion readers accept the atlas only "as an invitation to the world as a strange, romantic continent."

Nevertheless, the project is not without skeptics. Notes Daniel Brownstein, formerly a post-doctoral fellow in the history of cartography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: "There’s a child-like naiveté we get from reading the maps’ place-names, which mystify even the locations that we know all too well." Brownstein continues:

The claim to be “true” seems particularly questionable in its flattening of the historical richness of the thick descriptions any map recapitulates. While I don’t want to question or assail the attempt to “re-enchant” a space whose meanings mutated over time, the problem of viewing the layers of history as a matter of direct translation forgets that the past of any place is itself another country.

SEE the map, below: (Hat tip, Slate)

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