Friday, June 4, 2010

on the street where you live...

I grew up in South Dakota in a town of about 400 people named Hecla.  I know not the reason for the name but in this pamphlet by James Freeman Clarke, published in 1880, the naming of towns and streets is given great thought (for the complete work, see here)

To Give a true name to a town or a street is not so easy a matter as it may seem. Mistakes are frequently made, because it is thought a thing of little consequence. I shall suggest, in this paper, the importance of care in selecting the proper designation, not only for a city or village, but even for a street. I shall also contend that such designations should not be selected merely as pretty sounds, but as memorials of the past.

Ought we not to regard these names as historic monuments, and choose such as will commemorate the. events and persons belonging to the history of the place ? This appears to be a matter of no small importance for a country like this. In a nation which grows with such unprecedented rapidity as ours, there is frequent need of giving names to new states, towns, streets, and public buildings. Thus far, these appellations have been bestowed almost by accident. It has been a happy accident when a state or town or a street has received a good name: as, for example, in states, Minnesota and Iowa; in towns, Canandaigua, Chicago, Milwaukee; in streets, Bowdoin Street, Federal Street, Chauncy Street. More commonly, the names given have been chosen at random, without any selection, by some hurried official, who took the first appellations which occurred to him, or which met his eye in a classical dictionary or on a map of Europe.

But we ought to consider that to give a name to a place is a very important act, involving no little responsibility; and should, therefore, be confided to judicious and enlightened persons; and that there are certain rules to be followed and objects to be secured in giving names.

Before naming an infant, we hesitate and consider, and very properly; for the name is one which is to designate him through life, and every time it is uttered will make an impression on the hearers corresponding to the character or association which belongs to it. When a child is called " Praise God Barebones," " Be Thankful Maynard," "Lament Willard," or "Search the Scriptures Moreton," is it not evident that he has been saddled with a burden which will weigh him down through life ? For such phrases were not, as Hume erroneously supposes, assumed by the parties themselves, but have been found by Mr. Lower (as he tells us in his work on English surnames) in the baptismal registers. Every time the man weighted with such a name is spoken to or spoken of, a slight sense of ridicule attaches to him in consequence thereof. But, finally, every man dies, and his name with him; but a city, a town, or a street may live a thousand years. During all its existence, if it have an insignificant appellation, or one suggesting unfavorable contrasts or disagreeable associations, the town or street is injured. It may be no great injury, not much each time; but multiply the slight injury its bad name inflicts on each occasion by the number of times the name is spoken, and you see that an inappropriate name may do a place a good deal of harm. If a little rural town is called Rome, Paris, or London, the word inevitably suggests unfavorable comparisons; whereas, if it were entitled Riverside or Greenfield, it would pleasantly suggest its true characteristics."


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