Voice of Truth

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Toponyms 3 January 2009

Filed under: Reading — Aly @ 2:22 am

There is a particular passage from The Light Fantastic that really tickled my fancy (pages 29-30 in my edition).

The Forest of Skund was indeed enchanted, which was nothing unusual on the Disc, and it was also the only forest in the whole universe to be called — in the local language — Your Finger You Fool, which was the literal meaning of the word Skund.

The reason for this is regrettably all too common. When the first explorers from the warm lands around the Circle Sea traveled into the chilly hinterland they filled in the blank spaces on their maps by grabbing the nearest native, pointing at some distant landmark, speaking very clearly in a loud voice, and writing down whatever the bemused man told them. Thus were immortalized in generations of atlases such geographical oddities as Just a Mountain, I Don’t Know, What? and, of course, Your Finger You Fool.

Rainclouds clustered around the bald heights of Mr. Oolskunrahod (“Who Is This Fool Who Does Not Know What a Mountain Is”) . . .

Is that not just the funniest thing? I read it maybe three times just to absorb the humor to its fullest extent. This is a great example of Terry Pratchett’s humor. It is so silly and off-the-wall. Anyway, this passage reminded me of several other things.

After I finished The Light Fantastic, I got started on reading The Last of the Mohicans, on which there will be more information in another post, once I get deeper into it and get a good feel for it. Anyway, there is an explanation both in the author’s forward and also in the text itself about the naming of the lake by which the story (so far) takes place.

The lengthened sheet of the Champlain stretched from the frontiers of Canada, deep within the borders of the neighboring province of New York, forming a natural passage across half the distance that the French were compelled to master in order to strike their enemies. Near its southern termination, it received the contributions of another lake, whose waters were so limpid as to have been exclusively selected by the Jesuit missionaries to perform the typical purification of baptism, and to obtain for it the title of lake “du Saint Sacrement.” The less zealous English thought they conferred a sufficient honor on its unsullied fountains, when they bestowed the name of their reigning prince, the second of the house of Hanover. The two united to rob the untutored possessors of its wooded scenery of their native right to perpetuate its original appellation of “Horican.”

(from Project Gutenberg, because I was too lazy to get my copy of the book from the other room)

Apparently, toponyms seem to be a common thread in my current readings. Reading about the naming of places in two different books written by two very different authors within the space of a few days caught my notice (Something else caught my notice: the gerund phrase that forms the subject of that sentence is so goddamn long. It contains like six prepositional phrases, not to mention verbals. Holy shit. That is so cool).

As I spent the subsequent day exploring the wonders that are the United States Interstate Highway System (i.e. driving from Toronto down to Pensacola in 20 or so hours straight), I noticed something that bugged me. The names of towns, counties, rivers, etc. were never really original. We passed a “Red River”, a “Salt River”, and another whose name I cannot remember exactly but had something to do with ducks. Seriously, ducks. What the fuck, right? I have to give the English and the French in the above paragraph some credit. At least their names weren’t entirely predictable or wacky (still thinking about the ducks thing). But even then, nothing really cool. Where are the successors of the Vikings (it was the Vikings, right?), who pulled something epic with their Greenland/Iceland switcheroo. It is positively saddening. These people have no originality. Just seeing the names of the towns convinced me of that. A large minority of the towns were named after existing locations (Sparta [lulz ensued with THIS IS SPARTA references], London, and several more).

I found it funny that we actually covered toponyms in the first chapter of the Human Geography book. See, kids? School is not totally worthless! ;)

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One Response to “Toponyms”

  1. Giouli Says:

    That first excerpt was indeed entertaining – your continued references to the Discworld series really make me want to read them…maybe I will have to take a trip to the bookstore sometime in the near future. ;)

    Two consecutive posts, for me and my writer’s block? :D They were certainly refreshing, a nice change from “…the effluvia arising from the putrid remains…” I’ll be moving on to the air-conditioning age now – I do think my roadblock was cleared.


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