To quote rather a cliché, what’s in a name? Everything around us needs a name, from stars, continents and oceans down to hamsters, puppies and cookies.
Writers need names for their characters. Tolkien came up with so many names that encyclopaedias had to be produced to help avid readers of his books keep track. Every book ever written also needs a title.
People are unique but their names seldom are, as many a Facebook search can prove. Even those of us with rather unusual names will usually find a double, or several, somewhere on the planet. Not even to count those who aren’t on Facebook.
Quite often the folk who named new towns and suburbs seem to have been singularly lacking in imagination.
To prove my point, no less than four suburbs in South Africa rejoice in the ponderous British name of Kensington. Two of these are in the same city, maybe some fifteen kilometres apart as the grey loerie flies. One is some distance east of the city centre and the other to the north-west. The latter is usually referred to as Kensington “B” to avoid undue confusion, which is a pretty B-grade way of doing things. They could have asked someone like me to supply a name from my repertoire, if they asked nicely and with a chequebook in one hand…
We also have at least three suburbs each called Berea, Sydenham and Waverley. Two names the same I can still understand but three can lead to some confusion, which is probably why post codes were introduced. Too many postmen were taking time off to recover their sense of direction and many a grim postmistress was fed up with the pile of dusty post marked Return to Sender.
We have two each of Middelburg, Heidelberg and Richmond, among others.
Several towns have the “surname” North, East or West to distinguish it from another town with the same “first” name. These include Barkly West and East, Somerset East and West, Riebeek-Oos and Riebeek-Wes. Luckily these towns are all hundreds of kilometres from their namesakes, and in at least one case, Aliwal North, there is no Aliwal South so they might as well drop the North. The area around Mossel Bay used to be known as Aliwal South. The name Aliwal stems from a place and a battlefield in India.
Victoria West is named thus because there was a magisterial district called Victoria East. There is no Beaufort East, only Beaufort West though there is a Fort Beaufort as well as a Port Beaufort!
There’s a place called Hoopstad in the Free State which translates directly as Hopetown which is the name of another village in the Northern Cape, but they could easily be confused. There’s also a village called Hopefield, close to the West Coast.
There are Petrus Steyn, Petrusville and Petrusburg. Not to mention Ventersburg, Venterstad and Ventersdorp. Before Pietersburg became Polokwane it could have been mistaken for Paulpietersburg, KwaZulu-Natal.
Street names also lack imagination. In Springs, a mining city in Ekurheleni municipality east of Johannesburg, there are streets in the central business district called First Avenue, Second Avenue and so on. Just to the north in a suburb called Geduld (patience) we again find First Avenue, Second Avenue and so forth, crisscrossed by First Street, Second Street et al. Unless you know the city pretty well you’re likely to be in the wrong street at the wrong time and walk in to a dentist for your hairdressing appointment, sit down in the nearest chair, wondering at all the strange equipment when someone dressed in a latex face mask asks you to open your mouth, which has already dropped open in shock and amazement. She begins to fill it with a toothpaste-like liquid. Your tongue goes numb and you’re no longer in a position to find out if this is indeed Hair Waves. You were too distracted to notice the gold plaque on the wall outside.
Many of our towns have a pattern of numbered streets and avenues. One useful thing is that generally it is easy to find Twenty-second Avenue which should be the turnoff after Twenty-First. But occasionally another street name comes in between all the numbered ones.
In one coastal city I know, Main Road becomes Springfield Road but Main Road now suddenly runs one block parallel to Springfield Road.
I guess we have to bear in mind the thousands of streets throughout the country but there are literally thousands of names to choose from, many of which I’ve yet to see on a Google map.
I remember feeling a tinge of disappointment when they corrected the nameplate of a street in my hometown from Kitten Crescent to Kitton. The juvenile feline name sounded more fun to my young ears.
I used to have my own ideas about etymology as a kid. I always thought Kidd’s Beach was specially designed as a paradise for children and that they probably ruled the roost there. I imagined it was must always be cold in Winterton but warm in Walmer.
By those standards Germiston sounds pretty dodgy and best avoided, particularly since it’s an anagram of grim stone.
The KwaZulu-Natal village of Winterton, nestling in the foothills of the central Drakensberg on the banks of the Little Tugela was founded in 1905 as Springfield, but changed seasons a few years later to honour a former Minister of Agriculture who bore the rather inapt name of Winter. The main road through town is still named Springfield Road.
At least three South African suburbs bear the name of Springfield.
Walmer is one of numerous place names we inherited from the British, such as Margate and Ramsgate, Wellington and Worcester. Scotland too is well represented with Dundee, Aberdeen and Elgin as examples.
US states are represented by Virginia and Florida. There are suburbs called Denver, Cleveland and Marlboro.
Germany is represented by Hanover, Frankfort, Heidelberg and Berlin among others.
An important town in the eastern Free State shares with Israel the biblical name of Bethlehem.
Ceres honours the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. Valhalla is the feasting hall of the Nordic pantheon of god where slain warriors are taken by the Valkyries.
Some British names were fortunately kept there and didn’t find their way onto South African maps. These include Shitterton, Catbrain, Crackpot, Bitchfield and Crapstone.
Etymology is intellectually satisfying and always pretty interesting. Always seek to learn why things are called what they are. The strange expression love as used in tennis has nothing to do with romance or brotherly love, or even a plate of coconut biscuits next to the court. It doesn’t even have to do with courting. It comes from l’oeuf (an egg) referring to the shape of a zero.
Likewise the well known distress signal mayday has nothing to do with Worker’s Day or any other day of the calendar but originates from the expression m’aidez (help me!).
The South African name of spanspek (cantaloupe or honeydew melon) has an interesting origin. Lady Juana Smith, the Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith, a governor of the Cape Colony, liked having melon for breakfast (perhaps she was a health fanatic or worried about her weight since ladies wore corsets those days) and the Coloured servants began referring to it as that Spaanse spek (Spanish bacon).
To conclude, let’s visit New Zealand and Wales to find among the longest place names in the world. As you can imagine, the Kiwi one is heavy on vowels while the Welsh one has a superabundance of consonants.