May 29th, 2012 by Rob

The names of locations often survive in the original language well beyond that language’s influence in the location, meaning that the original meanings (and sometimes the entire language) are often forgotten.

The tree from which Palo Alto ('High Branch') gets it name, today and more than a century ago

My commute often takes me past the tree from which the city of Palo Alto gets it name, meaning ‘High Branch’, in Spanish. The giant redwood tree containing the high branch sits by Menlo Park creek, between the railway and cycle/walkway bridges. It is still there tall and healthy, having survived the transition from Spanish to English, and from Ramaytush to Spanish before that.

The Spanish naming influence remains, with much of the San Francisco peninsula taking its current names from when California was part of Mexico. This includes road alongside the Palo Alto redwood, which runs the length of the peninsula and is widely known as ‘the El Camino road’. The redundancy, obvious to Spanish speakers, is that ‘El Camino’ more or less means ‘the road’, so ‘the El Camino road’ literally translates to ‘the the road road’.

As it turns out, the world is full of places that are doubly-named. I have been working on computational methods for identifying locations in cross-linguistic text (don’t worry, I’m not going into the details of it) and came across many as an interesting aside. So I thought would share some of my favorites (with thanks to Chris Potts for pointing me towards a number of them):

The Gobi Desert ('Desert Desert') Once ruled by King Genghis Kahn

Sahara Desert (Large-Desert Desert), Arabic

Lake Michigan (Lake Large-Lake), Chippewa

Cuyahoga River (Crooked-River River), multiple Native American languages

Himalayan Mountains (Mountains Mountains), Sanskrit

Orkney Islands (Boar-Islands Islands), Gaelic

Labrea Tar Pits (The The-Tar Tar Pits), Spanish

The Rock of Gibraltar (The Rock of the-Rock-of-Tariq), Spanish/Arabic

Minnehaha Falls (Waterfall Falls), Dakota

Gobi Desert (Desert Desert), Mongolian

Jirisan Mountain (Jiri-Mountain Mountain), Korean

Mississippi River (Great-River River), Chippewa

Rio Grande River (Big River River), Spanish

Tiwai Island (Island Island), Mende

Lake Tahoe (Lake Lake), Washo

Shakespeare's the River Avon, literally meaning 'River River' (No bards were consulted)

Sometimes, the name survives beyond the language itself. Shakespeare’s ‘River Avon’ literally translates to ‘River River’, as ‘Avon’ literally means ‘river’ in a pre-English Celtic language now called Old Brythonic:

River Avon (River River)

Like so many languages, there are no surviving written documents in Old Brythonic, with place names providing the greatest insight into the structure and nature of the language. Other places with Old Brythonic names include ‘Kent’ meaning ‘border’, ‘Thames’ meaning ‘dark’, and ‘Britain’ translating as the mysterious ‘People of the Forms’.

But none of the names above compare to the magnificent Bredon Hill:

Bredon Hill (Hill-Hill Hill)

Yes, it trumps the others by being a triply named place. ‘Bre’ is Celtic, possibly also Old Brythonic, and ‘Don’ is Old English, which meant that sometime around 1000AD people were referring to this place as ‘Bre Don’. Despite modern English developing from Old English (no, really) somewhere along the way people forgot the ‘don’ part and decided that people needed to be aware that this ‘Bredon’ place was on a hill.

Bredon Hill, literally 'Hill-Hill Hill' (Known to Romans as 'Collis Hill')

After some research on my part (ok, a few Wikipedia articles) I found that Bredon Hill is 981ft high. It used to be that 1000ft was the cut-off between a ‘hill’ and a ‘mountain’. Do you remember the scene in ‘The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain’ where Hugh Grant plays a cartographer who discovers, much to dismay of the folksy villagers, that their ‘mountain’ was a few feet short of 1000ft and was therefore really a hill? And the later scene where they built up the hill to make it exactly 1000ft so that Hugh Grant would have to declare it a mountain? I don’t, because I haven’t seen the film — it looks terrible — but I’m sure that is what happened.

Now, see that tower behind the annoying dogs in the photograph on the right? It is called Parsons Folly and was built by John Parsons in the mid 1800’s. The tower is 19ft high, bringing the total height of Bredon Hill to exactly 1000ft.

Which means that ‘Hill-Hill Hill’, after more than 1000 years of insistent, repeated naming, stopped being a ‘hill’ and became a ‘mountain’ … making it the most wrongly named place on earth.

Rob Munro
May 28, 2012

One Response to “Doubly-named places”

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