On English Names

WHEN my friends and relatives tell me that they wish to see their own country first, I never quite know what to say to them. As often as they start out for the Mammoth Cave or Arizona, they perpetrate this piety upon me afresh, knowing that I am taking the cheaper trip to some tumbledown portion of our mother country. But the next time I see any of them I shall reply that, while one may be justified in desiring to see his own country first, it is much pleasanter to delicate nerves to hear the old country first, last, and all the time. Only gradually has it stolen over me how much England is a matter of names, or how insufficient is the most perfect photograph for conveying its full delights.

Wick and Cropthorne drew me, as I supposed, because they were said to be most typical of hamlets ; but I now realize that I would have gone anywhere if it had been named Cropthorne. Coxwold attached to any group of houses would be almost enough, without Laurence Sterne thrown in. I have gone ten shillings out of my way for the sake of such a delicious name as Moreton-in-the-Marsh, though stoutly opposed by the innkeeper of Little Compton, who insisted that “there was nothink there.” No photograph can ever make you feel the way it does to say Middleton-on-the-Wolds. ’T is a sweet morsel to be rolled under the tongue. That the dullest place on earth ever looked even for a few minutes so that a man felt like calling it Chipperfield would make it endurable forever. Among all the beauties of the Forest of Dean there could not, in the nature of things, be any which surpassed the name itself. Lindisfarne makes me feel as if I were solid poetry, while the mere mention of Caerleon upon Usk gives me a Puvis de Chavannes feeling which I cannot analyze and do not need to. But there is one place whose name suggests the character of the whole country, and that is Watermouth, for there is hardly a district which might not be called Mouthwater because of its delicious terminology.

In saying this I do not forget the ribald poetry with which an American retorted upon Matthew Arnold because of his criticisms on our “dreary nomenclature of Briggsvilles and Higginsvilles and Jacksonvilles.” Admitting that Yelling, Clack, and Wrangle have a sound even fiercer than Briggsville, we may retort upon this good brother that “his hundred ’s soon hit,” and ’t was well he made the most of it while he could, for it is safe to say that if he really came to Yelling, he would find the name but a pleasant foil to a state of perfect rural peace, and that Wrangle itself would have a peaceful inn such as Higginsville will never boast. Or if we drop over the border into what they are now trying to spoil by calling it North Britain, it is just the same. In my drier passages nothing refreshes me like saying over to myself, “The Kyles of Bute.” I do not justly know what Kyles are, nor where Bute is, but I have perfect trust they are as good as they sound. What a thrill went through me once when at a Scotch lake-landing I saw directions posted for Arrochar, which I had always thought a name Bliss Carman had made up for his own use, and too good to be true.

Auchterarder! What a very bagpipes of a name! Is it any wonder that the Presbytery of Auchterarder has come to words, and worse, over and over again ? Would not the very announcement that the Presbytery of Auchterarder was to come to order be enough to stir up all the ginger and old Adam there was in a man, and make him inwardly determine that it should never come to order if he could do anything to prevent it ? Give any neighborhood a name like that, and you could never hold it down were it not for contrasted influences like Lochaber No More, or Lochaber, alone, which would most melt any one into tears though he were casting up accounts in an office.

But in the presence of Welsh names my enthusiasm dies. As far as terminology is concerned I would as soon go to the Mammoth Cave. Of course there are downright and firm-footed names like Bangor, upon which you can get a good purchase with the ordinary organs of speech, and names beautiful and appealing, like St. David’s and St. Asaph ; but on the whole the Welsh names always leave one much in doubt as to whether he has said them or not. They too much resemble the noise made by a bellows with a slit in it. Welsh nomenclature always seems open to the complaint which an old lady in Kenduskeag made against the naming of her grandchild Gladys, when she said she saw no sense in giving a child such a rickety-sounding name as that. If the Welsh are, as they are reported to be, great preachers, a rare degree of heroism must attach to their undertaking, for even after they have done their best they must ever be subject to a painful suspicion that they have not said much of anything.

If we have some growing sense of a desire to touch with poetry the terminology of our American towns, we have succeeded so far only in securing a slightly picnic-grove atmosphere such as is given off by Lakewood or Riverside. The rich sentimentalism of the real-estate dealer has done what it could considering the hurry he is in. If we have a new manufacturing suburb the chances are we shall be too lazily and flatly patriotic, and call it Lincoln and be done with it; or too crudely romantic, in which case the secretary of the company will report to the directors that he has had the place incorporated as Ivanhoe. With the slightest dash of poetry in his soul he might keep true to the strenuous character of the place, with all its prospective labor agitations, and at the same time give a tinge of beauty to the situation forever, by calling it Fretley. Or if it is a place where hammers are to ring from morning to night, why not call it Stroke, instead of naming it Smithville after the present chief stockholder in the concern ?

Very beautiful also is that frank English habit of naming a place Something cum Somebody. Would not Derby cum Birmingham much improve both those places as well as the whole Naugatuck Valley? Cheadles and Gatley we should probably call Unionville, we do love the Union so and are so lazy. Jewett City, by giving itself so metropolitan a title, thereby lost forever the priceless distinction which would have come to it by christening itself Little Jewett. Nobody would ever have asked where Big Jewett was, any more than they ask where Little Barrington is. There does not need to be any. I like, too, those richly protective and sheltered names like Newcastle-underLyme, of which Netherwood contains a slight flavor. And if for some reason he wishes to use a name like Chipping half a dozen times, the Englishman, instead of bleaching it out with the points of the compass, will heighten it at each repetition by calling it Chipping Camden or Chipping Norton. Or if he has a name like Plainfield, not a highly colored word to begin with, he will not dilute it by calling the extension thereof North Plainfield, but will probably designate it as High Plainfield, which will not increase the taxes any, but introduce a pleasant distinction into the life of two boroughs. If some of our western boom-towns should desire to improve their ways, they could many times say exactly what they mean to say, and at the same time secure a delightful classical flavor, simply by choosing such a name as Magna-cum-Laude. For the sake of our real-estate agents I would suggest that, when they have a slightly rheumatic,malarial, and swampy tract to put upon the market, the whole thing might be done in a trice by calling it Fenny Something, like Fenny Stratford.

No, my English cousin is a poet, and that I will hold to through any amount of contradictory outward behavior. He deserves to hold empire because when he gets hold of anything he knows how to name it. Henceforth he may crowd me on steamers, and occupy three times his share of space in cars, but this shall no more conceal from me that down deep he is a poet. Though with “wooden countenance and codfish eye” he may coolly assure me that he has never bothered to visit any of these places, or that he has never observed this naming habit of his race, I shall know that after all he is inwardly glowing with a true passion for the places God has given him to dwell in. And when poverty prevents my visiting them, I can enjoy half their flavor by reading their names in the Atlas.