What's in a name?

In Romeo and Juliet, [Act II, Scene ii], Juliet asks Romeo: "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet (and her creator, William Shakespeare) knew very well the importance of names, particularly whether her new friend was a Montague or a Capulet, those feuding families who caused themselves and others such grief. In this play, the characters' entire world and their fates turned on a name.

Names on maps are important for many reasons, not the least of which is that they, too, mark territorial boundaries. The feud between the Montagues and the Capulets could easily have been a metaphor for the ongoing clashes between England and France in their overseas empire in North America. And this is only one example. Many others could be cited: Spain and Portugal squabbling over boundaries in South America; within Europe the territorial conflicts between Sweden and Denmark; boundary disputes among the independent states in Germany and Italy.

Maps played a role in these conflicts and names on maps were crucial to the claims of the contestants. Uncertainties about ownership and names led to fighting and wars. Boundaries are established by people and governments. Who puts names on maps, and how are the names selected?

Names are put on maps for many reasons, for example because of feelings (Sweet Home, Oregon; What Cheer, Iowa); physical features (Shallow Water, Maple Ridge, Hot Springs); people associated with places (Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; Boonesboro, Kentucky); to honor someone (Tolstoy, South Dakota; Napoleon, North Dakota). Names relate to products (Potato Creek, South Dakota; Sugar Camp, Wisconsin) and tools (Bad Axe, Michigan; Broken Bow, Nebraska). Names like Last Chance, Idaho; Hell, Michigan, and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, raise our curiosity. Often names were given to places by the people who lived there such a long time ago that the origins of the names are forgotten.


Click on "America" to learn how Waldseemüller arrived at the name.

Young Navigator link


©1999-2001 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. University Libraries. All rights reserved. Please credit the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota if you copy or reproduce material from this page.
URL: http://www.bell.lib.umn.edu/index.html