What’s in a name? When it comes to place names, it turns out there’s a whole lot!

Naming a place is an honour; but it can also be a minefield. Names usually stick around for a long time, centuries or even millennia. There’s a lot of responsibility and a lot that can go wrong.

Commonly, places are named for a geographic feature or the person or tribe who settled there. Oxford is a spot in the river shallow enough for an ox to cross, for example. Other place names come from Latin or other languages – Australia is named for Terra Australis, or Great Southern Land, which was long rumoured to exist before it was discovered by Europeans. But sometimes the name of a town or region becomes corrupted, either through bad translation or misunderstanding.

For example, the entire country of Canada is named after the Huron-Iroquois word for ‘village’. In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier applied the word ‘kanata’ to the whole region under the control of Chief Donnacona, after a misunderstanding with two young men. They had actually been talking about a nearby village, but from that moment on, maps showed everything north of St Lawrence River as Canada.

Staying in North America, the Alaskan city of Nome was also named by a misunderstanding. There are three different theories for this curiously named mining town. One is that a cartographer marked it on the map as ‘? name’ as he didn’t know what it was called. Later map-makers copied it as C. Nome, or Cape Nome, and the city took its name from that. Another is that it comes from the Inupiaq word for ‘where at?’ The third theory is courtesy of Mary Lee Davis in Uncle Sam’s Attic. In her 1930 book, Davis claims the word comes from the Eskimo ‘Ka-no-me’ meaning ‘I don’t know.’ What’s certain is that it doesn’t have anything to do with small garden statues.

The African country Angola is taken from the Portuguese colonial name Reino de Angola, or Kingdom of Angols. They incorrectly believed that this was the name the local people gave themselves. However, ngola a kiluanje, from which they derived angola, is actually the name of the chief or king. Essentially, Angola is the Kingdom of Kings.

These sorts of misunderstandings are quite common. A mistranslation caused by not understanding how a language works or how its words are formed can lead to a kind of doubling up of the name. These are known as tautological place names. The River Avon in England is named after the Welsh word ‘afon’ – which means river – so it is the River River! New Zealand’s Mount Maunganui is the same, taking the Maori word for the mountain to give us Mountain Mountain, while Connecticut River translates as Long Tidal River River. Egypt’s Gezira Island literally means Island Island.

There are many other stories about misinterpretations which actually are not true. But the fact that these stories persist shows how we understand the importance of translation and how it can all go wrong.

One of these is the folk etymology for the word for ‘kangaroo,’ the Australian animal. Legend has it that Captain James Cook asked a local Aboriginal the name of the animal, who replied kangooroo. But when Cook’s party later applied that word to the same animal in other regions, they were met with bewildered stares. A story then sprung up suggesting that the original word actually meant ‘I don’t know.’ However, the reality is that Australian Aboriginal peoples have many languages, and the animal has a different name in different regions. No doubt, the white man’s pronunciation of the word caused confusion too!

Another popular mistranslation story relates to the city of Yucatan. The story is that the name comes from Tectatan, which means ‘I don’t know!’ in the indigenous Mayan language. The theory has been around for a long time; since 1536, in fact! However, these days, language scholars believe the name actually comes from Yokot’an, meaning ‘the speakers of Yoko ochoco’.

Even Roman numerals can cause confusion. The town of Novi in Michigan is supposed to be named for its stop on the railroad – No. VI after Detroit. However, the town was actually named before either the toll road or the railway were opened, meaning we can safely call this one a myth, too.

What’s obvious from these examples – both the true and contested ones – is that we too often take translation for granted. When we read or hear words that we don’t know, we make assumptions; and frequently those assumptions are flat out wrong. Early explorers didn’t take the time to understand the native peoples and mangled the names of their places and people. Often, they didn’t grasp that a word ending or a sentence formation changed the meaning completely. It is these subtle things which can cause long-lasting mistakes. The myths surrounding the origins of Kangaroo and Yucatan will always remain popular because we understand that we’re all prone to make errors in language.

So if you’re ever in a position where you need to name a place, make sure you understand exactly what it is that you’re calling it. Otherwise, you may find yourself committing your error to history!