334 - The Atlas of True Names
From a young age, Frank was fascinated by maps and atlases, and the stories they contained. Finding his birthplace on the map in the endpapers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings only increased his interest in the mystery and message of maps.
While pursuing a career in journalism, Frank started a blog called Strange Maps, as a repository for the weird and wonderful cartography he found hidden in books, posing as everyday objects and (of course) floating around the Internet.
"Each map tells a story, but the stories told by your standard atlas for school or reference are limited and literal: they show only the most practical side of the world, its geography and its political divisions. Strange Maps aims to collect and comment on maps that do everything but that - maps that show the world from a different angle".
A remit that wide allows for a steady, varied diet of maps: Frank has been writing about strange maps since 2006, published a book on the subject in 2009 and joined Big Think in 2010. Readers send in new material daily, and he keeps bumping in to cartography that is delightfully obscure, amazingly beautiful, shockingly partisan, and more.
Travellers, discoverers and cartographers have named the world around us so that we might find our way in it. The purpose of a place name, therefore, is to be as distinguishing as possible. But there is another, opposite force at work in toponymy: geographical and other similarities often lead to different places receiving similar names — even if these names are then modified by differences in language.The English city of Oxford and the Dutch city of Coevoorden (*) were named after river segments shallow enough to facilitate bovine transport.
This phenomenon becomes apparent when one digs up the ‘deep etymology’ of place names, as is done in The Atlas of True Names. The Atlas substitutes the original meanings of the world’s place names for the better-known, ossified toponyms. The authors of the Atlas, German cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Preust, have said their clever technique was inspired by the place names in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, some (but not all) of which are indeed quite direct. (‘Mount Doom’ is grimly descriptive, but a name like ‘Lothlorien’ means diddly squat — unless you speak Elvish, of course).
The Atlas was first published in German as Der Atlas der wahren Namen, and in that version all the original etymologies are of course rendered in German. If like most people you are at least mildly conditioned by movies, literature and other media dealing with World War II to associate the German language with fascism, this ‘germanified’ version of the world is a bit disconcerting. London, for example, transmogrifies into ‘Hügelfest’, and nearby Norfolk is still recognisable but considerably more ominous as ‘Nordvolk’. Ethiopia becomes ‘Land der Brandgesichter’ and its capital Addis Abeba ‘Neue Blume’.
The more recently published English version of the Atlas presents us with an equally disorienting and sometimes revealing array of ‘original’ place names. Across the Irish Sea (or ‘West Land Sea’) from Blackpool lies another ‘Blackpool’, more commonly referred to as Dublin. ‘Trading Folks’ is none other than the Canadian capital of Toronto Ottawa. The British port of Plymouth is literally ‘Mouth of the Plum’, Brussels is ‘Marsh Cell’, and London’s ‘Hügelfest’ translates as ‘Hillfort’. Nicaragua is ‘Here are people’ and Newfoundland… remains ‘Newfoundland’, one of remarkably few place names with an etymology recent enough for us to take the toponym literally.
But etymology is not an exact science, and some derivations are too funny or elegant to be true. Consequently, some of the etymologies used by Hormes and Preust have been disputed. One example is the word-origin of the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan, which is rendered in the Atlas as “I don’t understand you!” — supposedly uttered by the Maya when addressed by the first Spanish conquistadores (a similar folk etymology traces the origin of the word kangaroo to a miscommunication between aboriginals and British explorers). Other examples abound, but the authors themselves include a caveat lector, stating that they think their work is not scientific, approximately 80% correct and should primarily be seen as an invitation to look at the world through fresh eyes.
Thanks to the dozens of people who sent in this map. A few excerpts of the Atlas can be found here on Kalimedia, which also publishes the German version of the book (here). For a critical discussion of the book, see this entry on Languagelog.
*: and, by derivation, the Canadian city of Vancouver, named after a British captain of Dutch descent whose surname originally was van Coevoorden.
Scientists have developed new ways of understanding how the biological forces of death drive important life processes.
- Researchers have found new ways on how decomposing plants and animals contribute to the life cycle.
- After a freak mass herd death of 300 reindeer, scientists were able to study a wide range of the decomposition processes.
- Promoting the necrobiome research will open up new areas of inquiry and even commerce.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.