Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 344

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Page 344

it rolls with venison richness upon the palate.’’ No other country can match our geographical names for interest and variety. When there arises among us a philologist who will study them as thoroughly and intelligently as the Swiss, Johann Jakob Egli, studied the place names of Central Europe, his work will be an invaluable contribution to the history of the nation, and no less to an understanding of the psychology of its people.  54
  The original English settlers, it would appear, displayed little imagination in naming the new settlements and natural features of the land that they came to. Their almost invariable tendency, at the start, was to make use of names familiar at home, or to invent banal compounds. Plymouth Rock at the North and Jamestown at the South are examples of their poverty of fancy; they filled the narrow tract along the coast with new Bostons, Cambridges, Bristols and Londons, and often used the adjective as a prefix. But this was only in the days of beginning. Once they had begun to move back from the coast and to come into contact with the aborigines and with the widely dispersed settlers of other races, they encountered rivers, mountains, lakes and even towns that bore far more engaging names, and these, after some resistance, they perforce adopted. The native names of such rivers as the James, the York and the Charles succumbed, but those of the Potomac, the Patapsco, the Merrimac and the Penobscot survived, and they were gradually reinforced as the country was penetrated. Most of these Indian names, in getting upon the early maps, suffered somewhat severe simplifications. Potowanmeac was reduced to Potomack and then to Potomac; Unéaukara became Niagara; Reckawackes, by the law of Hobson-Jobson, was turned into Rockaway, and Pentapang into Port Tobacco.  55 But, despite such elisions and transformations, the charm of thousands of them remained, and today they are responsible for much of the characteristic color of American geographical nomenclature. Such names as Tallahassee, Susquehanna, Mississippi, Allegheny,