During the 1980s, my sister lived in the East Village in New York. When I visited, she would fill me in on cool Manhattan stuff like the names of the various neighborhoods. This is Chelsea, there’s Tribeca, and here’s SoHo. SoHo, she informed me, stands for South of Houston Street. Oh, and remember that Houston is pronounced more like the building where you live than the city in Texas. Good to know. But I also know that Americans have the habit of naming things after places in Europe. And Soho also happens to be a neighborhood in London. SoHo sounded suspiciously like a legitimizing back-construction.
Name recycling is rampant in the United States. Generally speaking it has two roots: homesickness and marketing.
Where I live in New England (New + “England”), recycled European place names are mostly due to straight up homesickness. Let’s imagine you were originally from Cambridge in England. So you called your squalid new colonial outpost Cambridge, even though there is no river Cam and no bridge over it. But you miss your old home terribly, and this nostalgic gesture was meant to cheer you up. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. It hardly matters. You’ll be dead from a fever in a week anyway.
The other kind of re-naming is lamer still. Let’s imagine that you were not originally from Athens, Greece. In fact, you’ve never even been there. You read about it in a book, and you think appropriating its name might help legitimize your otherwise dismal and insubstantial hamlet in, say, north Georgia. In marketing terms, this is simple brand theft, akin to calling your local fizzy wine “champagne.” Wikipedia tells me there are no fewer than 21 Athens in America. The phrase “the Athens of America,” while poetic, is alarmingly nonspecific.
Does any of this apply to SoHo? That is, SoHo, the neighborhood in New + “York”. Was it a genuinely new construction? Or a back reference to Soho in London? This topic is treated by the always entertaining 99 Percent Invisible: The SoHo Effect. It appears to be a new construction originating with an urban planner named Chester Rapkin. But I’d bet a lot of money that it caught on because people were familiar with the London neighborhood of the same name. Whether intentional or not, it looks like a case of incidental nominal legitimization.
This brings us to one of the more interesting things about word and phrase etymology. Naming is thermodynamic. It occurs, if it occurs at all, in many brains. And each brain has its own reason for swallowing and digesting the name it has been fed. For instance, in researching the many Berlins of America, I came across a marvelous example of ambiguous nomenclature. Of the two founders of Berlin, Ohio, one came from Berlin, Germany, and another came from Berlin, Pennsylvania. What city gave Berlin, Ohio its name? Depends on who you ask. Both are true. They probably only agreed because they disagreed. This sort of thing happens all the time.
Naming is a funny business. You can sometimes work out how a name got started, but you can never say for certain why it spread.