Meandering Through Town Names


What do the towns of Naples (Italy) and Novgorod (Russia) have in common? Both their names mean “New City.” Starting with that thought, I was led to wonder why so many town names end with town (or ton), ville, city, burg or polis. Did their inhabitants want the world to know that they lived in an important, big metropolis and not in some God-forsaken village?

We have Daly City, Sioux City, Rapid City and many others. The French ending “ville” shows up in Emeryville, Louisville, Fayetteville and others probably because people wanted to honor the city founder or some other important historical figure. The Greek equivalent “polis” appears in Indianapolis and Minneapolis, and town (or ton) in Hampton, Middleton, Charleston and Georgetown. Finally the German “burg” is found in Gettysburg and Pittsburgh among others. Ham which derives from “home “attaches itself to Gotham, Effingham, Birmingham and many more.

The ancient city of Jerusalem (In Hebrew Yerushalaim) is thought to derive from Ir Shalom which means City of Peace. Alas, it has never lived up to that noble name. For most of its existence it has been fought over by too many tribes, nations and religions.

In the Middle East beyt or beit means “house of” in both Hebrew and Arabic, hence Beyt Lehem (House of Bread) which we know as Bethlehem and Beyt Shemesh (House of the Sun).

Israel has quite a few interesting place names: Tel Aviv means “Mound of Spring”, Beer Sheva “Well of Seven”, the oldest town is Rishon Le Zion which means “First to Zion.” Herzliyah honors Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism and Caesaria, known for its Roman ruins, derives from Caesar.

Nowadays I live in the city of Oakland in California. Its older name was Encinal. In 1829 the land surrounding it was given to Luis Peralta by the Spanish governor to form a settlement. Later the land was divided among his four sons. Antonio Peralta received the portion which is now Oakland. It had a big grove of oak trees, hence the name.

As for our neighboring city, Berkeley, it was named for Bishop George Berkeley (pronounced Barklay) the eminent British philosopher who arrived in town in 1866. It was thought to be a fitting name for a University town.
Bishop Berkeley’s portrait hangs in California Hall on campus.

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  1. Thank you, AGAIN! Your blogs are never ever boring and always teach me to think/and or to learn something new.

    I also just took another look at your June 2014 essay on cartooning. Simone….such a world we live in.

  2. This comment came in to us. Ed.
    I’ve just read the blog about the names of towns. I was going to ask you this when I see you, but since you are into “words”, I would like to know where ” Hebdo” is from. In the New Yorker magazine, Adam Gopnik says “Charlie was both a tribute to Charlie Brown and a mockery of Charles de Gaulle”. But he doesn’t go into Hebdo.

    Enjoyed your blog.

  3. Always interesting, and so great how it shows America as the melting pot of things we are. We borrow city names and city endings from all sorts of language!

    I’m always amused that Portland was one of two names considered for my city, to be named after Portland Maine, the other was Boston!

    Luckily Portland Maine is a small town, so most people think of Portland as referring to the West Coast city. Imagine though if we had been named Boston, and two metropolitan regions of some size and influence had to be constantly confused with one another.

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