Wednesday, June 21, 2017

American Names


I was on the road recently and posted on Facebook (Marianne was driving at the time):

What a country this is for names! Mud Turnpike. Clums Corner. Farm to Market Road. Cropseyville. Quakenkill (river). Dyken Pond. Pickleville Road. Little Hoosic River. Bee Hill. All within a few miles of each other.
Which was responsible not only for our visiting a friend who lived nearby and noticed we were driving through, but also for over fifty comments on Funny Names People Have Known.

All of which was good clean fun. (Though if you live in Pennsylvania you will, after a few decades, grow tired of hearing people snicker about Intercourse and Bird in Hand.) (Not that I kept myself from snickering when I was in Dildo, Newfoundland, so l'm not going to put on airs here.) But I really wasn't making fun of those names, or if I was only a little bit. There is an honest, plain-spoken beauty to old American names. Even a kind of poetry.

Here's an excerpt (with a couple of sentences cut off of the first paragraph) fro a story I wrote titled "Mother Grasshopper":

Our business entailed constant travel.  We went to Brinkerton with cholera and to Roxborough with typhus.  We passed through Denver and Venice and Saint Petersburg and left behind fleas, rats, and plague.  In Upper Black Eddy, it was ebola.  We never stayed long enough to see the results of our work, but I read the newspapers afterwards, and it was about what you would expect…
 We walked to Tylersburg, Rutledge, and Uniontown and took wagons to Shoemakersville, Confluence, and South Gibson.  Booked onto steam trains for Mount Lebanon, Mount Bethel, Mount Aetna, and Mount Nebo and diesel trains to McKeesport, Reinholds Station, and Broomall.  Boarded buses to Carbondale, Feasterville, June Bug, and Lincoln Falls.  Caught commuter flights to Paradise, Nickel Mines, Niantic, and Zion. The time passed quickly.

I hope you can hear the music there. I was trying to evoke the homely rhythms of the plains states, where you can get on an Interstate and drive all night, while periodically an exit sign drifts by for Berlin or Paris or Vienna or London, so that eventually you begin to hallucinate that you got onto the wrong road and are traveling one with off-tamps to all the major cities of the Earth.

That was the intent, anyway. It fit the story, which was a strange one. But I'm going to share a minor secret here: All those names are of places in Pennsylvania.

Why did I do that? Because I could, mostly. Because even though they were from a single state, they sounded like they were scattered across America. And because as long as you're writing a story, you might as well leave a few Easter eggs behind, to amuse those few who happen to notice.



Kevin Cheek said...

I did not know there was a Denver in Pennsylvania, but I did know that there is an Allentown in Arizona.

Forgive me for making this observation (you know I can't help myself), but you appear to have inherited Lafferty's love of the poetry of lists. That passage sounds beautiful when read aloud, even though it's listing a series of gruesome diseases.

Unknown said...

"There is an honest, plain-spoken beauty to old American names. Even a kind of poetry".

Oh, yeah... great! But let me show you one more possibe trip... starting with Boring, Oregon or Idiotville, Oregon or Last Chance, Idaho... going through Acccident, Maryland... and finishing in Hell, Michigan. A real treasure for those linguists who study toponymy.

And for God's sake, Michael, why America needs five Moscows: Moscow, Idaho; Moscow, Iowa; Moscow, Pennsylvania; Moscow, Vermont and Moscow, Wisconsin? May be they simply envy us?


Michael Swanwick said...

Well... having been to the real Moscow... and having been to the plains states... I can see why a lot of people would wish to have something approximating the city of the Kremlin and the Arbat in their state. Rather than what they have.

Unknown said...

By the way, sometimes Russian toponymy is so whimsical as well. Sometimes I'm sad that it's practically impossible to convey its meaning in English.