TT: Long and Winding Names

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back to where I’m announcing why Legends Walking is now Changer’s Daughter.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we wander into the realm of the unspellable.  Oh?  Wonder why the picture of Saint Francis?   Take a look at last Thursday’s tangent.  The good saint gave his name to a lot of places.  (It’s also my favorite statue in Santa Fe.)

Saint Francis Talks With a Prairie Dog

ALAN: We were talking about long place names. Here in New Zealand we have a hill called:


which is (probably) the longest place name in the world.  The English translation of this Maori name is “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one” which also makes my mind boggle a little bit! Big knees?

JANE: I have a feeling the blog program is going to have trouble spacing a word that long.

I wonder if this man got his big knees from climbing mountains?  Maybe it’s a reference to swollen joints and he was consuming edible clay as a cure?  That would cover “land swallowing.”

ALAN: I bet he had a tummy ache as big as the name after he swallowed it all!

There was a little snippet about this hill on the TV a few years ago. A reporter wrote the name down on a piece of paper and went round a group of people in a pub asking them to pronounce it. Everybody made a complete mess of it of course. Finally he approached a cool looking Maori guy who was hunched over his beer and paying no attention to what was going on. The reporter presented his piece of paper and asked the man to pronounce the name. The man glanced casually at the paper and said, “You spelled it wrong.” Then he returned to his beer and ignored the reporter again.

JANE: And had he spelled it wrong?

ALAN: Only the man with the big knees knows, and he’s not telling.

JANE: I’ve got a Spanish hill name for you that’s almost as good: Nuestra Senora del la Luz de las Lagunitas.”   The name translates as “Our Lady of the Light of the Little Lakes.”  This is the name of a volcanic plug in the valley of the Rio Puerco of the East (that is the Dirty or Muddy River of the East; there’s one in the west as well).

A now-deserted village in the area had the even more pretentious name of Nuestro Senora de la Luz San Fernando y San Blas.  Despite this appeal to the lights of both Saint Ferdinand and Saint Blais, the settlement failed.  Today even its precise location is uncertain.

ALAN: Of course, not all place names are necessarily exotic or full of hints about mysterious pasts and legends.

I was actually born and brought up in a small village in Yorkshire called Southowram. The suffix “Owram” (I was told at school) is Anglo-Saxon for “on the top of a hill” – so Southowram is the “village on the top of the hill to the south of the town” (the town being Halifax, of course). North of the town was another hill and it boasted a village called Northowram, that is  “the village on the top of the hill to the north of the town.”  Fortunately there were no hills to the East or West of the town…

This unimaginative naming scheme stood me in very good stead when I came to New Zealand which has the aptly named North Island to the North and the even more aptly named South Island to the South. In the north of the North Island, there’s a cape called North Cape. To the West and the East, New Zealand also has both a West Cape and an East Cape. It was clear to me that the European names of the various geographical features had all been assigned by a Yorkshireman – as indeed they had. The famous explorer Captain James Cook came from Whitby, which is a small suburb to the North of Wellington, so he didn’t have to travel very far to start naming things.

JANE: We have our share of practical names here, but sometimes even the practical hints at something fascinating that happened in the past. And that helps to give a sense of continuity, of roots that anchor the place into the world. It’s one of the techniques that an author can use to bring their fictional  places alive and it ties in quite neatly to my current fascination with world building, so let’s continue next time!


7 Responses to “TT: Long and Winding Names”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Got to love how names changed with the times. Where earlier explorers celebrated the holiday nearest the day when they discovered an island (e.g. Christmas Island), later ones found other names, like the Star Mountains of central New Guinea, named after constellations, or Astrolabe Bay. Now planets have naming conventions for craters, and such.

    Exploration marches on!

  2. janelindskold Says:

    Certainly, naming conventions do change. I’d be curious to know how the Star Mountains were named. Do you know?

  3. Paul Says:

    Here in Virginia, we have the so-called New River — which proports to be one of the oldest in the world. But it seems it may have been named for someone whose last name was New. That’s the guess but historians don’t seem to know for sure. There’s a community a couple counties over called Burke’s Garden, so named because the original inhabited planted — you guessed it — his garden, found by others who followed. I’m not sure he survived, but his garden did.

  4. heteromeles Says:

    All I know about the Star Mountains came from Tim Flannery’s Throwim Way Leg (which I highly recommend). They were “named from afar by the Dutch explorers who first saw them in 1910. Perhaps they chose the names of stars and constellations because the jumbled peaks seemed as profuse and remote as the heavens themselves.” (that’s from a chapter entitled “Expedition to the Stars.”) They have names like Mt. Capella, and Scorpion (or Scopio) and Antares are the names of the tallest peaks. Flannery is an Australian mammologist, and he was trapping new species in a tropical alpine place called the Neon Basin.

    Looking to Wikipedia, that (*cough*) infallible fount of knowledge, there’s an account of the trip at It’s in dutch, but Google translates it. The mountain range was the last bit of dutch colonial property to be mapped. In 1959. It’s a bit remote, even by New Guinea standards.

  5. Roger Ritter Says:

    The American state of Massachusetts has a lake named Chargoggagoggmanchaugagoggchaubunagungamaugg. I wonder if any Maoris ever lived in the area…

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