This posting was written by me some 5 years ago whilst we were living in Italy but it still holds up I think.
I’ve always been intrigued by weird or at least unusual place names. It must be because I was brought up in a place called Poulton-le-Fylde or, as my old friend Colin calls it, somewhere unpronounceable up North.
Did you know that in the UK there are something like 30,000 place names and one of the things that makes the British so distinctive I feel is their capacity to dream up the most ridiculous names for their fair towns and villages. I know that 2500 years of invasions and language evolution are involved in the process but at the end of the day the Brits live where they live, seemingly content to reside in Lower Peover or Great Snoring.
I know the US relies heavily on incredible-sounding native American for some of its place names like Chappaquiddick which I love but the name usually translates as something mundane like ‘the place where we cross the river’, which is a little ironic in the case of Cappaquiddick of course. Mostly the Americans being as lazy as hell just use names from the old country like Richmond or Dorset or borrow heavily from the Hispanic influence especially in the Southern states so that every other town is Santa this or San that. Australia follows suit with places called Woolongoollaburra or something similar from the native Aborigine but mostly it seems they just borrow bloke’s names from the poms – Sydney, Darwin etc. But nobody does place names as peculiar, quixotic and extraordinary as the British. Who else would call their town Gussage All Saints or Husbands Bosworth or Auchtermuchty?
Often British place names are succinct and unflattering like Pill, Pant, Slack and even Trumpet. Other times it seems like the place was named after a really uncomfortable medical condition such as Quabbs, Esprick and Butt’s Green. I have a particular hankering for place names that sound like lads you knew at school eg Rodney Stoke, Leonard Stanley, Patrick Brompton or Thomas Chapel. Then there are the unlikely characters from a PG Wodehouse novel – Sibdon Carwood, Yardley Gobion, Yealand Conyers or Kingston Bagpuize. Some just defy categorisation like Sixpenny Handley, Puttock End, Cricket St Thomas, Curry Rivel, Six Mile Bottom, Friday Street and the incomparable Frithelstock Stone. But the gold medal for wackiness must go the village of Cronk y Voddy in the Isle of Man which sounds like something you get after eating a very hot curry.
Over here sur le continent it’s a mixed story. In Italy every place just sounds, well, delightful to be honest. They even christen every bridge and tunnel quite lyrically. They do have their idiosyncrasies though; for example the road that we live on is called one name on the left hand side and another on the right. It can prove tricky when people come to visit. In Switzerland they have a talent for making cuckoo clocks, watches, money but despite such creativity some of their place name sound as appealing as root canal treatment eg Worb, Belp, Zug, Weggis and my particular favourite, Frick.
The Germany landscape is rich in horrible-sounding names largely because the language is so hard-edged and guttural. Every place we pass in German-influenced Alsace is called something like Grossfahrtschniffenheim. So poetic. However I always enjoy passing the sign for Pfaffenhoffen. It sounds like a song that Danny Kaye should have recorded in the 50′s and one day I’ll stop over and pfaff around in the place.
But it’s in France and Belgium that we come across the most interesting place names. I dread driving through Bitche in the N Vosges as my wife always has a right moan at me about my driving (only joking). Nearby Bischwiller (there’s that German influence again) is surely the inspiration for that line in Bohemian Rhapsody. But as the miles roll by I get much pleasure from catching the names of Ath (the rest of the sign post must be missing), Carvin, Rust, Bury, Spy, Gooik and near neighbour Doornik. And just as we board the ferry at Dunkirk there’s a sign for Loon Plage. As Roy Walker would say it’s good, but it’s not right!
On those long journies back to the UK I need something to keep me amused.
If you’ve got any favourite odd-ball place names I’d be delighted to hear them