Sunday, June 16, 2019

'A Chorus of Sweet and Most Romantic Vocables'

“None can care for literature in itself who do not take a special pleasure in the sound of names; and there is no part of the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous, and picturesque as the United States of America. All times, races, and languages have brought their contribution.”

The owner of so musically appreciative an ear is Robert Louis Stevenson in Across the Plains (1892), as cited by H.L. Mencken in The American Language (1919; fourth edition, “corrected, enlarged, and rewritten,” 1936). Stevenson adds, “Pekin is in the same State with Euclid, with Bellefontaine, and with Sandusky.” That would be Ohio, my home state, and I have visited all four communities and lived for several years as a young newspaper reporter in Sandusky County. I know Bellefontaine well enough to know locals pronounce it BELL-fountain. Stevenson wasn’t the first to celebrate the poetry of American place names, but he may be the most appreciative non-American to do so:

“The names of the States and Territories themselves form a chorus of sweet and most romantic vocables: Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, Minnesota, and the Carolinas; there are few poems with a nobler music for the ear: a songful, tuneful land; and if the new Homer shall arise from the Western continent, his verse will be enriched, his pages sing spontaneously, with the names of states and cities that would strike the fancy in a business circular.”

I lived in Ohio until I was thirty, when I moved to Indiana for another newspaper job. Here’s a chronological list of the cities and towns in which I lived: Maple Heights, Parma Heights, Bowling Green, Cleveland, Boardman, Youngstown, Montpelier, Bellevue. That last town, which is parceled out among four counties (including Sandusky), is about seven miles southeast of Clyde, where Sherwood Anderson lived as a boy and renamed, for fictional purposes, Winesburg. Other place names in the Buckeye State I fondly recall:

Ada, Bucyrus, Chillicothe, Defiance, Eaton, Fostoria, Gahanna, Huron, Independence, Jerusalem, Kettering, Lima, Martins Ferry, Napoleon, Oberlin,  Pataskala, Quaker City, Rocky River, Seven Hills, Tiffin, Urbana, Van Wert, Wauseon, Xenia, Yellow Springs, Zanesville.


Montez said...

While I still envy the U. K. for what seems to me their richer names in English, this post did help me appreciate some of our American entities: much of the best are Native American.

rgfrim said...

Thank you, Patrick, for your tribute to the music that is the map of Ohio. Having attended college in central Ohio (Kenyon, an intellectual contradiction to its surroundings) I developed the following view of a tripartite state: southern Ohio around Cincinnati, that’s “Kentucky”; central Ohio with its cows and colleges is “ Ohio”; and the north up through Cleveland to the lake : “ New Jersey”.

slr in tx said...

When Ohio place names are the topic, Chagrin Falls is a necessary inclusion.

I would say that at first blush, U.K. place names are richer by far in impermeability, though the code may be cracked by the diligent scholar.

Faze said...

I know for a fact that Anecdotal Evidence is well-appreciated in Chagrin Falls.

Cal Gough said...

Thanks for the litany of Ohio place names. Georgia (where I live) is full of similarly arresting town names, and as a frequent critic of my adopted state's shortcomings (I was born in Arkansas), I should appreciate more the imaginations of those who named Georgia's towns, many of which, if not beautiful-sounding, are at least extremely ironic, given their hifalutin' allusions vs. their actual history. ("Rome, Georgia," anyone?)