The Secrets Behind Names

i-5b4e1cf1da77c52bd92b354040ea4304-svenskt ortnamnslexikon.jpgI have become increasingly fascinated with place names. The other day I bought my second copy of Svenskt ortnamnslexikon, “Swedish place-name encyclopedia” (ed. Mats Wahlberg 2003). One often-consulted copy is in my office, and I’ve missed it many times — at home while reading or conversing, and particularly in the car when passing intriguing signposts.

Names are hardly ever nonsensical collections of sounds. We may not know what they mean any more, or if we know we don’t give it much thought. (In my family, we’re named He of the War God, Senior Imperial Concubine from Space, Name of God and New Victory. Our surname means Round Twig.) But all those myriad names that dot the landscape once meant something about those places. And few are unique: they’re part of an onomasticon, a special vocabulary of place names. Most Scandy place names are old, some dating to the Roman era or even farther back.

A good thing about Svenskt ortnamnslexikon is that not only does it cover innumerable individual names: it also has longer articles about their most common building blocks, allowing you to interpret a name at least in part even if it hasn’t got an entry of its own. This is an essential book for anyone trying to make sense of the Swedish landscape.

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10 thoughts on “The Secrets Behind Names

  1. Australia’s capital city, Canberra also has an onomasticon. Every suburb is named after an Australian Prime Minister or similarly prominent person (more recently indigenous titles such as Ngunnawal), and every street is named after a particular person who can be linked to the person for whom the suburb is named. For example, I grew up on Beaurepaire Cr, in the suburb of Holt. Harold Holt was a PM who was very much enamoured of sports, and so all of the streets in Holt were named after sportsmen (unfortunately due to the times, very few were named after sports women). Frank Beaurepaire was a champion swimmer in 1907 and 1908, winning bronze and silver at the London Olympics in 1908. More recently I lived at Hannam Pl, Mawson. Mawson was named for the Antarctic exporer Sir Douglas Mawson, and Walter Hannam was the first person who sent a wireless (radio) message from Antarctica to the mainland. Searchable site here.

    Browsing an onomasticon is a fascinating source of historical information about a region, even for such a young place as Canberra.


  2. I’ve also always been fascinated with toponomy (the scientific study of place names). And there’s good news for US folks who find this interesting; George R. Stewart’s 1945 classic The Names on the Land is being reprinted in paperback and will be available July 1st.

    Now if they’d only also reprint his American Place-Names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary for the Continental United States of America I’d be a very happy camper.


  3. I learned about anthropomorphic maps from the linguist Dan Moonhawk Alford (deceased) and the anthropologist Stan Knowlton. They described the maps of Napi, the creator of the Blackfoot Indians (aka The Old Man) and his wife (The Old Woman) in Alberta, Canada. I “found” similar maps of a male body (Hermes ?) in the Middle East and a female body (Aphrodite) in north Africa.

    Anthropomorphic Maps

    Anthropomorphic maps were generated by configuring the body of a god or goddess over the area to be mapped. The name of each part of that body became the name of the area under that part. This produced a scale 1:1 map-without-paper on which each place name automatically indicated its approximate location and direction with respect to every other place on the same map whose name was produced in this way.

    You are cordially invited to join the BPMaps discussion group on this topic, a very quiet list that averages about 2 messages per month. The URL is:

    The Challenge: To produce computer software that will find additional body-part maps elsewhere in the world. Available inputs:
    (1) geographic databases with ancient place names (e.g., the Perseus project).
    (2) body-part names on Swadesh lists. Unfortunately, the navel is not included.

    Attributes of Anthropomorphic Maps

    (1) The navel is the center of the body, the center of the map, and usually the center of the map’s language community.

    (2) Place names (toponyms) may be reversed, metathesized, misspelled or euphemized for various reasons:

    (a) The same part in the same language exists on another map of a different body. Cranium > Mo[n]rocco because Ukraine existed? Aphrodite is looking backwards over her right shoulder. She is bent at her waist (Misr/Mitzraim = MoSNaiM).

    (b) The left (sinister) part is altered in names for left-right pairs (arms, legs, eyes, ears). DoFeN = side reversed to Nafud in north Arabia. SHvK = thigh with a T-sound for the letter shin = TvK reversed to Kuwait. BeReKH = knee metathesized to Bahrain.

    (c) Names that represent taboo body parts or funcitons are reversed or euphemized:
    Semitic PoS (female pudenda) reverses to yam SooF = sea of reeds (Red Sea).
    Mare Rubrum (Latin for Red Sea) represented Aphrodite’s menstruation
    CaNa3an (3 = aiyin with a G-sound as in 3aZa = Gaza) is a reversal of Greek gyneco-.
    Sinai = “snatch” is spelled SiNi in Hebrew. The aleph=CHS is intentionally missing.
    ZaYiN = weapon (a euphemism for his male member) is in Sinai as the desert of Zin.

    (3) Names may be loan-translated due to conquest or language-change.

    (a) Roxolania (Semitic Ro[chs]SH = head) => Rus *( Ro@SH) => Ukraine (Greek kranion)
    * Caused by a change in the sound of the aleph from CHS to a glottal stop.

    (b) Libya (Semitic LeB = heart) => Cyrenaica (Latin cor = heart, compare coronary) => Libya

    (4) Rivers and bodies of water may be named after bodily excretions:

    (a) Milk River in Alberta.
    (b) Red Sea (Latin Mare Rubrum) is Aphrodite’s menstruation.
    (c) Gulf of Aqaba (Semitic QaVaH = digestion/defecation)

    (5) Internal body parts may represent subdivisions of external parts.

    (a) Arabic Misr / Hebrew Mitzraim (< TSaR = narrow) = waist (Hebrew MoSNaim). Egypt (< Greek hepato- = liver). Goshen (with a T-sound shin Latin Gossypium (English gossamer = cotton-like)

    (b) Atlas mountains < atlas = first cervical vertebra that supports the cranium.

    (6) Islands near a body's hands may be named for weapons.

    (a) Trinacria = trident ( Sicily (< VL *sicila < Latin secula = sickle to harvest wheat; compare Semitic SaKiN = knife). The trident was in Neptune / Poseidon's right hand (Italy, like Anatolia < N'TiLas yad = arm being washed by the seas).

    (b) Greece = reversal of Semitic S'RoG = (weighted) net, held in his left hand.

    (c) Crete = reversal of targe = small shield (compare English target) also in his left hand.


    The map of Aphrodite is in north Africa. Her face [PaNim] was lost during the 3rd Punic war. The rest of her is still there. She is looking backwards over her right shoulder, so her CRaniuM is reversed at Morocco. It still has a Fez. Her chin [SaNTir] is reversed at Tunisia. The Atlas (anatomy: first cervical vertebra) mountains support her head. Her hair [Sa3aRa] is the Sahara desert. Her backbone [amood SHiDRa] is the Gulf of Sidra. Her heart [LeB] is Libya. Her breast [SHaD] is Chad. Her narrow [TZaR] waist is Misr / Mitzraim. Her liver (Greek hepato-) is Egypt. Cotton (Arabic QuTN, Latin Gossypium) was exported from Goshen, her [QiTNit = bean]-shaped kidney. Her side [TZaD] is Sudan. Her other side [DoFeN] is Dafur. Her left [SMoL] leg is Somalia.

    [NeGeV] is a reversal of vagina and may be related to [NeKeV] = aperture. [CaNa3aN] was her Latin cunnus (and a reversal of Greek gyneco-). Its name changed to [YiSRa@eL] at the time when [Ya3aKoV] / Jacob “fought with god and men” [Gen 32:29]. This represented a change in sovereignty from Africa to Asia minor. [ YiSRa@eL] is that body part that gives [@oSHeR] = delight to [@eL] = god when it is [YaSHaR] = straight, upright. Changing Jacob’s name from [Ya3aKoV] = “ankle; curved, bent” to [YiSRa@eL] = “straight, upright + god” represents an interesting physiological process.


    The body-part map of Hermes is in Asia minor. kHermes [kHoR = hole + MoSnaim = waist] lived at Mt. kHermon before he moved Mt. Olympus (Greek omphalos = navel). Later his name was reversed to become Latin Mercury. Compare Amerigo Vespucci and America.

    His head [Ro@SH] was at Roxolania/Rus, south of Belarus. Its name changed to the Ukraine (Gk kranion = cranium, *not *Slavic u kraina = to/at the border). His throat [GaRGeret] is Georgia. His left shoulder [KaSaF] is the Caspian sea. His right shoulder [@aTZiL] was Euxinus, now the Black Sea. His right arm/hand is being washed [NaTiLat] at Anatolia. His upper arm (Sanskrit irma) at Armenia, biceps (Greek pontiki = muscle) at Pontus, elbow [KiFooF yaD] at Cappadocia, wrist [m’FaReK] at Phrygia, and thumb [BoHeN] at Bithynia were in Anatolia. His heart (Greek cardia) became Kurdistan. His narrow [TZaR] waist is Syria and his navel (Sanskrit nabhila) reverses to LeBaNon.

    South of Lebanon is the male member (Greek phallus) named Philistina. See [CaNa3aN / YiSRa@eL] above. His buttocks [YeReKH] is Iraq. His thigh [shin-vav-kuf] sounded like TvK and reversed to Kuwait. His knee [BeReKH] is partially reversed in Bahrain. His right [Y’MiN] foot is at Yemen.

    These two bodies are connected, literally, at Sinai (with an aleph that is not written in Hebrew, compare “snatch”, a reversal of [K’NiSah] = entrance), a part of her body that contains the desert of Zin, his “zaiyin”.

    Aphrodite as an Anthropomorphic Map

    The goddess we call Aphrodite
    Is not just an old Grecian deity.
    The Phoenicians did make
    Her a map. It’s not fake.
    Her body is cartograffiti.

    The Punic war destroyed her face,
    The Romans left nary a trace.
    But her hair is still there,
    In Sahara, that’s where.
    And her chin’s a Tunisian place.

    Mt. Atlas is her first verTebra.
    Her backbone is now Gulf of Sidra.
    Her heart is in Libya,
    Her left leg, Somalia.
    Her breast is in Chad wearing no bra.

    The Greeks called her liver Egypt, an’
    Her kidney was Biblical Goshen.
    She’s bent at her waist,
    Now Misr-ably placed.
    The Red Sea was her menstruation.

    As a kid I did think the Red Sea
    Was an English map typo: lost E,
    From Reed Sea in Hebrew.
    But that could not be true,
    Mare Rubrum ’twas Latin, B.C.

    Aphrodite with Hermes did sin,
    We know this is true ’cause within
    Her “snatch” we call Sinai
    His “zaiyin” does still lie.
    It’s known as the desert of Zin.

    Best regards,
    Israel “izzy” Cohen


  4. B. Nerd, my wife is Chinese and her given name consists of the characters for “space” and “senior imperial concubine”. There are not many languages that can offer a monosyllabic word and an ideogram for that particular concept…


  5. Yea, I love toponyms too, but you gots to take the modern interpretations with a peck or so of salt.

    My schoolmate Keith Baca has a new book on Mississippi’s placenames of Indian deriviation–I was looking at it for the first time a few days ago and noted many places where he gives multiple posssible interpretations, not always solid, and doesn’t always say which he prefers. And, last I knew, he didn’t speak Choctaw or chickasaw, much less the dead languages the colonial era names might have been based on. He did go so far as to trach down variant forms on various source maps to try to recondstruct early pronunciations.

    But like the idea of an elements index, build your own. Lately, I’ve been wondering about the cluster of places with the X-thwait name in NW England/Scottish border. Somehow, I suspect you Vikings had a hand in that one.


  6. Israel: Sorry, but I think your theory is a huge stretch. Too many of the names are supposedly scrambled, or reversed, etc., for no discernable reason.
    Also, how often have we seen widely disparate places named according to such a common system? Not many.
    And some of the places already have etymologies that make sense and conform to the current form of the word (for instance, if Bahrain means “two seas” in Arabic, isn’t it simpler to conclude that the name of the place refers to two seas and not “knee” because it sounds vaguely like the a word for knee?
    And, not to pile on, but why would the Phoenicians have made an elaborate place-name system based on Aphrodite — they had their own religion and were one of the less-Hellenized cultures running around the Mediterranean (and some of these names probably predate Hellenism anyway)
    So, I think the theory could take some reexamination.


  7. I hope this theory gets a lot of reconsideration.

    Of course Aphrodite is a Greek name, not a Phoenician one. It replaced whatever name the Phoenicians used, possible Astarte, just as Ukraine replaced Roxolania/Rus and Roman Cyrenaica temporarily replaced Lybia.

    Best regards,


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