What in the world is a Toponym? According to Wikipedia (our only source to information since the Encyclopedia went the way of the dinosaur), Toponymy is the scientific study of place names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, use and typology. Toponymy is distinct from, though often confused with etymology, which is the study of the origins of words.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “toponymy” first appeared in English in 1876; since then, toponym has come to replace “place-name” in professional discourse among toponymists. It can be argued that the first toponymists were the storytellers and poets who explained the origin of specific place names as part of their tales; sometimes place-names served as the basis for the etiological legends. The process of folk etymology usually took over, however, whereby a false meaning was extracted from a name based on its structure or sounds.
Language has always been a great tool for learning human history. Human beings are natural story-tellers and communicators, and we have that ever present need to just point at something we see and call it something, if not for any other reason than to feel more comfortable (it’s the ‘unknown’ that scares us the most). Etymology and toponymy traces our language back, almost like family tree would, back to historical origins.
The following list is put together to showcase some of the more interesting words that you may or may not have known were derived from places.
- Armageddon — after “mount of Megiddo”, where the battle was to be fought according to myth.
- Bikini — two-piece bathing suit for women, after Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands where atomic bombs were tested in 1946; supposedly analogous to the “explosive” effect on the male libido.
- Bohemian — term referring to artists, writers, and other people who wished to live an unconventional, vagabond, or “gypsy” lifestyle; from Bohemia, where “gypsies” were erroneously thought to originate.
- Bronx cheer — a noise made by the mouth to signify derision; after The Bronx, a borough of New York City.
- Bungalow — a low building or house, from a Gujarati word meaning “Bengalese”, used elliptically to mean a house built in the style of Bengal.
- Canary — a small yellow bird, originating on and named after the Canary Islands, specifically the largest island, Gran Canaria, called in Latin Insula Canaria, “island of dogs”, after the wild native dogs found there.
- Caucasian — name for the “white race”, coined by anthropologist Johann Blumenbach after Caucasus Mountains, their supposed ancestral homeland.
- Cloud cuckoo land — an unrealistically idealistic state where everything is perfect, from The Birds by Aristophanes (Yes, this technically is not a real place, but it was interesting enough to put in this list).
- Coach — a type of carriage, ultimately from Hungarian kocsi (szekér) or “carriage of Kocs”, where this vehicle was first made.
- Denim — a coarse cotton fabric, from French serge de Nîmes, or “serge of Nîmes”, where the cloth originated.
- Dollar — a unit of currency, originally from the German taler, an abbreviation of Joachimstaler (“gulden of Joachimstal”), a coin minted (1519) from silver mined near Joachimsthal, Bohemia.
- Duffel or Duffle — heavy woollen cloth, hence duffel coat and duffel bag; after Duffel, a town in Belgium where it was first made.
- Jeans — denim trousers; Genoa.
- Lesbian (female homosexual) — Lesbos, island in Greece.
- Mausoleum (a large and impressive tomb) — Mausoleum of Maussollos in Turkey.
- Neanderthal man — Neanderthal, Germany, valley where the fossils were found.
- Rugby football — Rugby School, in Rugby, Warwickshire, central England.
- Skid Row — originally Skid Road of Seattle, now the rundown area of a U.S. city.
- Sodomy — Sodom, Biblical town on the plain of the Jordan River.