Toponymy is the scientific term for the branch of linguistics that studies place-names of a region and the etymological study of them.
Place-names are a reflection of the history, culture and language of a people and are proof of the imprint left by former generations of inhabitants.
To prevent confusion as to where people had to go or what places they were talking about and where they were located, man started early naming places, probably at the same time that he began to develop language. In search of accuracy and convenience all was named: Mountains, hills, plains, valleys, caves, settlements, hamlets, villages, towns… which now provide important insights on the geographical past of regions and countries.
I propose we take an astral trip in the Spanish and English-speaking worlds to a few places with odd, weird names.
First let us visit three small towns in Murcia, Spain: Purgatorio, Limbo and Los infiernos. They are real, and we will find there a woman who says that she was born in Purgatory, went on to live in Limbo and now makes her home in Hell. We are to believe that the inhabitants of Los infiernos are demonios or devils. “Se vende casa en Los infiernos” a sign in the town tells us. It would certainly be a living hell to make one’s abode in such a place.
Let us continue on our astral trip to Pennsylvania, to Lancaster County, where we can visit the village of Bird-in-Hand, with an important Amish and Mennonite community, which was founded by Quakers. Legend has it that someone uttered the proverb “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush”—”más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando”—which was adopted as the village’s name, official since 1873.
As long as we are here in Pennsylvania Dutch country, we might as well visit other villages and towns, like Intercourse, which because of its suggestive sexual name has become a tourist attraction. Several erotic publications sought, and obtained, postal privileges from the town. The word, of course, also means the peaceful connection and dealings between persons or groups. Shall we go to Blue Ball, 10 miles northeast of Intercourse? The name belonged to an inn, later hotel, which was torn down in 1997. Of course we all know that the slang term “blue balls” refers to a testicular problem resulting from unsatisfied sexual arousal in men.
All this might be an excuse to rush to Entrepenes, Asturias, Spain. Entrepeñas is the official name but in the local dialect, Entrepenes is the usual term used by all. How could we translate it? Will “among penises” do? No wonder jokes abound about the inhabitants of the town, both male and female. In Lugo, Galicia, we will visit a kindred town, Villapene, which we can translate as Penis Village, the butt of jokes and jests.
Some place names are eerie, like La matanza, in Alicante, which acquired its name from the many battles and killings that took place around there during the Muslim occupation of Spain (711-1492). Matanza, slaughter.
But let us return to Pennsylvania, the State of my youth and early manhood, to Paradise, an enchanting village which is very appropriately named, I can assure you, and not far from Mount Joy, another wonderful place. It was named after a person, a certain Mountjoy, and not after a mountain.
We are running out of space so we cannot deal with “Baños de agua hedionda,” Stinking water baths, in Jaén, Spain, or Muck City, Alabama, or Hooker, California, or tell you about the “Pozo de las mujeres muertas,” Dead women well or Pocilgas, Pigsties… and many more that would surprise you.
Perhaps you know of funny place-names we could talk about in a later installment.