I have always been fascinated by the titles we Americans have bestowed on our towns and cities over time.
I feel as the poet Stephen Benet felt early in the last century when he wrote of his love affair with our evocative place names:
“I have fallen in love with American names
The sharp names that never go fat
The snakeskin titles of mining claims
The plumed war bonnet of Medicine Hat
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat…”
Those names seem to summon up a bit of history. By way of contrast, Auburn, which pioneer Irving Knickerbocker plucked from an Oliver Gold Smith Poem that mentioned “Auburn, fairest village of the plain,” seems downright pedestrian. But it sure beats Slaughter.
Others are so oddball that when I learned of them, my imagination ran wild and concocted entire histories. Almost always, however, my versions folded under scrutiny.
Here are a few of my favorites, followed by the actual sobersides explanations.
Scratch Ankle, Alabama: I immediately pictured a flea-infested stopping spot on the banks of a fetid river, where the town’s founding fathers and a variety of sisters, cousins and aunts hopped about like crazy loons as they scratched at their legs, hurling as they did strings of blue words and curses his sainted mother never taught him. I could not find an explanation, so as of this date, your guess is as good as mine.
Bugtussle, Kentucky: I imagined a cluster of coots in some wind-blown, God forsaken nowhere with nothing better to do than lay down bets as their favorite bug and insect champions fought for supremacy on what would one day be Main Street, as the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” played over the dust-covered landscape. Officially, the town got its name from farmworkers who were forced to sleep on critter-infested cots.
Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky: I hastily concluded that this town was first named Monkey’s Butt, but that name made it, ahem, the subject of too many jokes. So, in due course, according to my version of history, the exasperated townfolk tired of being laughed at and decided to choose something more palatable. In the end, the hotly-contested, nay brutal, contest came down to either Monkey’s Goiter or Monkey’s Eyebrow. Varying accounts have it that looking at the site on a map, one can see a monkey’s head with eyebrows just where they would be.
Booger Hole, West Virginia: I don’t believe I have to tell you what I thought. The truth, however, is that “booger” is the southern nickname for what we here call “Sasquatch.”
Colon, Michigan: Because the state also claims a “Brown City,” and a “Flushing,” I spun an unsavory origin story that I will not venture to describe further. The official version is that the town was named after a city in Panama.
All great names.
Humptulips, Washington, however, still puzzles me.
Maybe I don’t wanna know what happened there.
Robert Whale can be reached at email@example.com.