As a geographer, I’ve spent lots of time looking at various maps and atlases. Because I like to, not because it’s necessary. And one thing you realise if you do that is just how unimaginative people throughout history have been when it comes to naming things, particularly settlements. This is perhaps most obvious for British people when considering the bits of the world we colonised, where the general principle was ‘which bit of the UK does this area most remind us of and add “New”‘, giving us such gems as New York, New South Wales and, worst of all, Newport News. Or, if that was too complicated, the colonists just named it after where in the UK they came from, giving us Boston, London (Ontario) and Halifax. Or, if they weren’t a coherent body from one place, after some colonial administrator, the monarch or a bit of British culture, giving us Melbourne, Sydney, Georgia, Virginia, Charleston, Carolina, and various Victorias, St Georges and Georgetowns and Queens/Kingsto(w)ns. Sometimes, colonists even adapted a local name, probably not understanding what it meant and running it through the minefield of their own imperfect understanding and erratic grasp of English orthography. But, whatever it ended up as, in the original vernacular, it was probably bloody self-evident.
But, this is just the most obvious English manifestation of what seems to be a universal tendency. Pretty much all settlement names (and landscape toponyms – i.e. rivers, mountains, lakes, coasts, etc.) in Western Europe, at least, and, as far as I can tell with less knowledge of the relevant languages, pretty much everywhere else, fall into one of these categories:
- Personal toponyms – i.e. places named after a person or group of people. So, Paris, named after the tribe of the Parisii, Ulverston (the town of Wulfhere or Ulfarr), or Munich, named after a load of monks who set up shop nearby.
- Locational toponyms – i.e. places named after some feature of the local landscape. This could be the physical landscape, e.g., Dublin (Blackpool), Montreal (Royal Mountain), Bordeaux (Waterside), or Cambridge (you can work that one out); or it could be the human landscape, e.g. Newcastle or Minehead; or a combination of both, e.g. Lancaster (the fort on the river Lune).
- Mytho-religious toponyms – i.e. places named after a mytho-religious figure or object. Essentially often a subset of the first category, e.g. Santiago (St James), San Francisco or St Albans, or second category, e.g. Holy Island or Holyhead, but not always. For instance, Veracruz, in Mexico, just means ‘True Cross’ and Corpus Christi in Texas doesn’t have any obvious connection with the body of Christ. These are the least boring toponyms, because at least someone’s not just picked an obvious landscape feature or personal name.
- Abstract concepts and emotions – this is probably the least common category and is only really found in places where people were consciously settling or exploring with a pioneer spirit. So we get various places called ‘Hope’ in Canada and the US (and also a couple in the UK), several places called ‘Boring’ in the US (which is as close a you can get to not bothering to name the place at all, but is at least amusing), Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands and so on. Potentially one of the more imaginative and humorous categories.
- Any of the above again as a tribute to the original one, possibly with ‘New’ on the front just to make it clear they’re not the same place (see first paragraph).
- Some combination of the above. Of course, many places are named after people who are themselves named after places (e.g. Washington, D.C., is named after George Washington, whose surname presumably derives from the town of Washington in Northumbria, near Newcastle), so there are a lot of things in this category.
Throughout history, people settling a new environment have pretty much just turned up and gone ‘We need a name for the new place. Shall we name it after one of us? Or how about that big bit of rock there? Nowhere else has a big bit of rock and no one else has ever been or will ever be called Dave, so we should be unique either way’. In other words, people have evinced a profound lack of imagination for 10,000 years. Which is why, should I ever get the opportunity to name somewhere, I will call it ‘Gobanyonova’ and set several competing folk etymology theories going and see which one wins. I bet it will be the most prosaic one.
And it’s not a if we’re any better usually at naming natural features, as the existence of several River Avons shows. ‘What shall we call that river? How about “River”? Great idea – that won’t confuse anyone.’ And, from experience, the decision of the field team in Greenland to name a large moulin ‘Big Moulin’ was really depressingly dull. They could at least have gone for ‘Moulin Huge’, which is equally descriptive, but is at least a pun. People. Whose surnames, incidentally, are usually just as mundanely descriptive when you get down to it.
I realise this is a niche concern, but, if we do get round to colonising the Moon or Mars anytime soon, please can we try harder when we start naming features and settlements? If the first moonbase is just called ‘Moonbase 1’ or ‘New Beijing’ or ‘Regolith City’ or something equally dull, I’m going to be really fed up.
 Maybe it’s a corruption of ‘Carthago Nova’. Maybe it’s a portmanteau of ‘God’s Banjo Supernova’. Maybe it’s named after the daughter of a Russian called ‘Gobanyonov’. Maybe there’s a prominent banyan tree in the town square. Who knows?
 Also the title of my forthcoming breakout Christian-rock-folk-country-metal fusion album, featuring such tracks as:
- Enclosure Apocalypse – a 26-minute lament including extensive keyboard solos about how enclosure destroyed traditional British agriculture.
- Scarborough Fair Ultra Beatdown – the sequel to the folk song, where you actually go to Scarborough Fair and beat up everyone between your true love and you.
- Burning Lake of Fire – you know ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash? Basically that, but with more Revelation. And screaming.
- The Nightmare of the Rood – an adaption of the Old English poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ to be more about demons, death and eschatology
- The Morrissing of Hell – Jesus descends to the Underworld and saves the righteous by morris dancing, defeating Satan with a few well-aimed blows from his stick, accompanied by the most finger-shredding electric fiddle solo yet devised.
- And many many more….
 I feel that nesting footnotes is a dangerous new avenue for me to explore. Sooner or later, I will end up writing something where the footnotes are more involved and longer than the main text. But it is not this day, because I stopped myself after only positing the first five tracks on the album.