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Does Tristan da Cunha have the world's weirdest place names?

The world's most isolated inhabited island also has some of the world's strangest toponyms.

Tristan da Cunha, spotted by NASA's Terra ASTER satellite in 2006.

Image: NASA ASTER Volcano Archive, JPL
  • Tristan da Cunha is the world's most isolated inhabited island.
  • It also has some of the world's weirdest place names.
  • Is there a link? Maybe, if we stretch Darwin's theory from biology to topography.

Thriving in isolation

Bird's eye view on Edinburgh-of-the-seven-seas, the capital of Tristan da Cunha.

Bird's eye view on Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the capital of Tristan da Cunha.

Image: The Official CTBTO Photostream, CC BY 2.0

As Darwin predicted, islands have more species. That's because isolation can help preserve biodiversity. Could it be that place names also thrive on islands, and for the same reason?

Tristan da Cunha certainly seems to offer excellent support for that theory. Located roughly halfway between South Africa and Uruguay, the tiny, volcanic island is the most isolated inhabited place on the planet. It's only reachable by ship, sailing about 10 times a year from Cape Town.

The British island in the South Atlantic also boasts some of the world's weirdest toponyms. Since there are only about 250 Tristanites on the island, that means the island must have the highest weird-place-name-per-capita ratio in the world.

Almost blank

Google Maps image of Tristan da Cunha

Almost-blank map of Tristan da Cunha.

Image: Google Maps

But it's not easy to sample Tristan da Cunha's toponymic delights, at least not on Google Maps. All you'll find are a pin for Queen Mary's Peak, the usually dormant volcano rising at the island's center; and the label for the island's capital, and indeed only settlement, delightfully named 'Edinburgh of the Seven Seas'. (Although the locals just refer to it as 'the settlement').

Zooming in further will reveal two churches (St Mary's, Anglican; and St Joseph's, Catholic), one cemetery, one bar (The Albatross), one shop, and a small museum called the Thatched House. All of which is squeezed in between the harbor and a lava field, and connected by the island's only road, somewhat ambitiously called the M1. No street view. No other place names.

Local weirdness

Coming across a more detailed map of the island, British historian Dan Snow was taken aback by some of the local weirdness. He poured his findings into a Twitter thread titled We need to talk about Tristan da Cunha's place names. Here's what you won't find on Google Maps.

Mount Minor Royal

Excerpt from a map of Tristan da Cunha

Mary and Olav, together forever on Tristan.

Image: Dan Snow (Twitter @thehistoryguy)

Conventional Mt minor royal. So far so good, Mr Snow starts. Queen Mary's Peak (2,062 m, 6,765 ft) was named after Mary of Teck (1867-1953), the wife of King George V (r. 1910-1936). Just south is Mount Olav (1,969 m, 6,460 ft), named after Olav V, king of Norway (r. 1957-1991). Intriguing though: both are fairly recent royals, so the mountains must have been named rather late. More on that in a minute.

'Flat' names

Excerpt from a map of Tristan da Cunha

'Big Green Hill', really?

Image: Dan Snow (Twitter @thehistoryguy)

As remarkable as some toponyms on Tristan are, many others are remarkably 'flat' – merely descriptive, in the most generic way possible. Mr. Snow zooms in on Big Point, in between Little Beach and Big Beach, and shows Big Green Hill just to the south – although the place in between, Pig Bite, can't but stimulate the reader's curiosity.

Best capital name in the world

Excerpt from a map of Tristan da Cunha

The island's capital is its only settlement. Nothing much to do there. Pretty name, though.

Image: Dan Snow (Twitter @thehistoryguy)

That would have been enough mappery for most, but Mr. Snow is reeled in by the settlement's name. Best capital name in the world. By far, he proclaims.

Trump level crazy

Excerpts from a map of Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha's east coast is weird name central.

Image: Dan Snow (Twitter @thehistoryguy)

Looking further east, here are the two killer toponyms that cement Tristan's reputation as the capital of weird place names:

  • Ridge-where-the-goat-jump-off, and
  • Down-where-the-minister-land(ed)-his-things

These two ultra-descriptive place names are apparently used in full by the locals. They actually do roll off the tongue quite well.

So how, when and – most of all – why did those names come to be associated with places on Tristan? Incredibly, Mr. Snow's thread elicited a response from the grandson of the man who surveyed those names.

"A meaningful chart"

Tristan da Cunha from the survey by Allan Crawford, 1937-38.

Caption for this map from Allan Crawford's memoir: "Tristan da Cunha as surveyed by Allan Crawford in 1937-8. The place names were collected from islanders who helped with the survey; no deliberate names had ever been given to places; they were either natural descriptions such as Stony Beach, or they recalled events – Anchorstock was the spot where the wooden stock of an anchor was once washed ashore."

Image: Bryant Crawford (Twitter @BryantCrawford)

Blame my grandfather for using the real, day-to-day names the islanders used when he mapped it, wrote Bryant Crawford. Mr. Crawford (Jr.) published a few excerpts from 'North, South, East & West', his grandad Allan B. Crawford's memoirs, which reveal the special link between Tristan and Queen Mary, and why the heck the minister landed his things on that particular beach.

"When I landed on Tristan Island for the first time in 1937, as the Surveyor of the Norwegian Scientific Exhibition, I noticed that not many of the names on the Admiralty chart corresponded with the names used by the local islander population. It was at once evident that I should record the actual names used by the inhabitants for all topographical features in order to produce a meaningful chart."

Loyal to the Royals

Tristan da Cunha from the sea, with Queen Mary's head in the clouds.

Tristan from the sea, with Queen Mary's head in the clouds.

Image: Michael Clarke, CC-BY 2.0

"I was impressed by the islanders' loyalty towards the Royal Family, for many of the island cottages displayed their photographs, especially King George V and his consort. In fact, Queen Mary had taken a great interest in the islanders' welfare and had presented the community with a harmonium for their Church."

"In 1906, when Rev. and Mrs. Barrow arrived for a three-year chaplaincy, the weather was too rough to land at the Settlement, so they chose a beach landing in the lee. To this day, the beach is still known as 'Down where the minister land his things'. It is because the name goes with a swing that it is still in general use."

"There is already a Goat Ridge on the west side of the village, so a ridge on the south of the island is known as the 'Ridge-where-the-goat-jump-off', the sentence being used ungrammatically in full (they seldom used the past tense in speech)."

In all, Mr. Crawford noted down about 80 new toponyms for the island. A few (Hottentot Point, East Jew's Point, West Jew's Point) would today be considered insensitive – showing how much time has elapsed since the 1930s.

On and off the map

German research vessel Maria S. Merian, just off Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.\u200b

German research vessel Maria S. Merian, just off Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.

Image: Mison, CC BY-SA 3.0

Some of Tristan's other more notable place names:

  • Not on this map: The Hill-with-a-cone-in-it-on-the-east-side-of-the-gulch-come-down-by-the-Ridge-where-the-goat-jump-off.
  • Blineye: a crater where a bullock was injured in one eye ('Blideye'). and hid afterwards. The area was earlier called 'Ridge-where-the-Blindeye-stop'.
  • Bugsby Hole: asteep mountain slope, possibly a reference to a Bugsby Hole in London's East End).
  • Frank's Hill: a crater where Frank Monk, a Belgian castaway from the American bark Mabel Clark was overtaken by night in 1878.
  • Nellie's Hump is a secondary crater of the main volcano. Its name commemorates a dog chasing a goat.
  • Pigbite, finally, is a ridge where over a century ago a pig chased and bit one of the islanders.

It's a long way to Fografiddle

Map of strange toponyms on Shetland and Orkney Islands

The Shetland and Orkney Islands also have their fair share of topographic weirdness.

Image: Mapfodder

But Tristan is not the only island with weird place names. A few years ago, Strange Maps zoomed in on the strange place names of Scotland's Shetland and Orkney Islands.

On second thought, we may have overstepped the mark by handing the weird place name World Cup to Tristan da Cunha. Those two Scottish archipelagoes are quite far out too. But the same observation holds: strange place names seem to thrive in isolation. We're lucky to have Mr. Crawford's first-person account of their genesis on Tristan. How cool would it be to find a Viking scroll describing how the Orkney and Shetland Islands were named...

Strange Maps #1010

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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