Labels and authenticity: How true is a true name?

Have you ever been walking on Wall Street and realized you were walking on Wall Street?

When I was in college, I spent a few touristic days in Bruges, Belgium. While strolling along the old cobblestones one night, I suddenly realized that the street name “Langestraat,” which sounded so exotic to my American ears, simply meant Long Street. The idea hit me with great force. I stopped walking and looked it up and down. Long Street. Everything about that town was so ancient and lovely, dripping with medieval ornament like some Flemish Disneyland. But this street name was a fraud… why there was nothing to it. The street was long so they called it Long Street. The church was old, so they called it Old Church. Plain old names! I had paid good tourist money for my exotic artifice, and here it was evaporating before my eyes.

We want from names two things: meaning and magic. The first is a consequence and the second is a sound, but it’s easy to forget how tangled together these two things are. This entanglement puts me in mind of Häagen-Dazs, the ice cream brand with the fanciful and fabricated name. To their credit, they tell you right on their web site that company founder Reuben Mattus “called his new brand Häagen-Dazs, to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship.” It doesn’t mean anything. Or rather, it means what it sounds. And it has an unbreakable code: you’ll never find out that it means old cheese in Dutch, or that Messrs. Häagen and Dazs were Nazi collaborators. The name is a pure confection. But stack it up next next to a utilitarian name like Langestraat and it doesn’t fare well. The beauty of Langestraat, as I came to appreciate, is in its tough old bones, whereas Häagen-Dazs simply melts away.

One of my favorite blogs, Strange Maps, has a post on the Atlas of True Names. Some researchers in Germany have put together an atlas that dwells on the “deep etymology” of place names. Dublin becomes Blackpool, London becomes Hillfort, and so on. Even if some of the etymology is dubious, as is so often the case, it’s good fun. Back in North America, I have often wondered why we kept the transliterations of Indian place names but translated the names of many Native Americans. So we say Mississippi, not “Great River”, but we say Sitting Bull, not Ta-Tanka I-Yotank. Which version has more magic?

One final note before closing: from Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, I learned about Anglish, the imagined modern language that might be spoken in England had William the Conqueror been merely William the Unsuccessful. Pluck out the Greek and Latin and you end up with a more “self-evident” language, or so goes the theory. Writer Poul Anderson even wrote a treatise on atomic theory in Anglish which he called Uncleftish Beholding. Unclefts are small motes that no knife can cut. Get it?

3 thoughts on “Labels and authenticity: How true is a true name?”

  1. Als ich in Deutschland wohnte….There was a street in town called ‘Barfuesserstrasse’ which translates roughly as ‘Bare Foot Street’. I never found out why….At the time there were also several bars and nightclubs luring me away from anything like researching the historical significance of a street name.

  2. My highschool German teacher took several students to Germany each year, often including classmates that didn’t speak German. The annual joke was on the student who would wonder at the number of cities with streets named ‘Einbahnstrasse’.

  3. On another note, I think the exoticism goes beyond the given names to even the descriptives. ‘Main Street’ and “High Street’ mean the same thing and describe the same thoroughfare, and yet evoke different images and feelings because of who and where each descriptive is used.

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