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Is asking the etymology of the name of a town on-topic for EL&U?

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I disagree with MrHen: place names often preserve interesting meanings of words, or arise from surprising roots, mainly because of the English tendency to totally mangle change the pronunciation over time. Their etymology is part and parcel of the English language. (My favorite example: Strangeways. My sister could elaborate more accurately, but I believe it comes from Old English words meaning something like "place which is subject to strong flooding".)

Note that etymology is not the same as persona story, or "the amazing but true [read: completely made up and historically impossible] account of how our town got its name". The latter would indeed be grossly off-topic.

Note also that this really only applies to place names in England - place names in the US, for example, are often of Native American, Spanish, or Random-Made-Up origin, so their etymology is likely to be off-topic.

  • Or English place names with the "New" before it... But I agree with you: places names, be it towns, zones, valleys can be interesting under the language deveolping point of view. +1 from me. – Alenanno Apr 7 '11 at 21:24
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    Ah, okay, I can understand the argument for English towns. – MrHen Apr 8 '11 at 2:50
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    Strangeways is a place - now an area of Manchester, England, most famous for its prison (or perhaps the riots therein!). No idea if it frequently floods. – psmears Apr 8 '11 at 16:57
  • @psmears: serves me right for relying on memory. (Edited.) – Marthaª Apr 8 '11 at 16:58
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Asking the etymology of a place-name is absolutely on topic, no question! Place-name derivation is often much more à propos than mere word derivation: this history of a place-name might touch on history, folktale, anthropology, magic, genealogy, music, and much more. These things form the soul of a culture of which the language is just one part.

Yes, the name Tyler, TX, is at present unremarkable. But it might not be so in times to come. Perhaps most US place-names, except American Indian names, are unremarkable. But what about Truth Or Consequences, NM? Unremarkable?

Can one make the same claim of British and European place-names? What's the etymology of the name Saffron Walden? Of Paris? Of Danby? Of Londinium in pre-Roman times?

Place names? Bring 'em on, and the more the better.

  • Only problem with this is where to draw the line. Londinium is probably on-topic (as an intermediate stage in the derivation of 'London') but what about Rome? Athens? Shanghai? Nanking (extreme example because it's not even called that any more)? All of these are interesting, but which fit on English Language and Usage? – TimLymington Jul 29 '11 at 14:45
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I would vote that it is off-topic. The problem with names and towns is that you need a very specific history of that town. Deciphering that usually will not reveal any interesting tidbits about the English language.

For instance: I currently live in a town called Tyler. Tyler is a completely unremarkable word but I am sure there is a colorful history about how it got its name. That history has nothing to do with English and everything to do with politics, sociology and etc.

If you are asking about the meaning of the name of a town, I still vote it off-topic unless the word has already met the criteria for on-topic. In other words, it being a name of a town does not move it from off-topic to on-topic.

Likewise, names of companies are probably not on the list of valid questions. The history of Microsoft or Ikea are probably really interesting. But they have little to do with the English language.

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    @But 'why are there so many River Ouse or River Avon" or oddities like TorPenHow Hill would be on topic. – mgb Apr 8 '11 at 15:39

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