Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On the Naming of Names

One of the most enduring controversies that a mapmaker has to put up with is the question of names. Place names: town names, farm names, mountain names, river names, all sorts of names on a map cause concern, sometimes rightly so, often because the objector confuses the role of the map and the mapmaker as far as names are concerned.
   Where do place names come from? Most of the time they just seem to "be there", and we don't have to think much about them. Some might strike us as odd ["Douse the Glim"] or funny ["Hotazel"] or even almost rude ["Pisgoedkraal"], others are ... well, just names.
   Most of the oldest names in the world are simply descriptive. Hence you find a name like "Karoo", an ancient San word meaning "Flat, dry place". Some come from legends that arose in the mists of the past: Rome, from the legend of Romulus and Remus. Others simply arise from geography: Cape Town. Colonisers annoyed the colonised by importing their favourite names from the home country, and these soon got thrown out when decolonization took place: Salisbury in Rhodesia became Harare in Zimbabwe.
   Powerful political figures named towns after themselves or their family members: scores of Cape villages were so named by long-forgotten Dutch and British governors and other apparatchiks: Clanwilliam, Malmesbury, Simon's Town, Somerset West [and East], Barkly East [and West], Riebeeks West and East, Stellenbosch, Oudtshoorn, Cathcart, Swellendam, Tulbagh, Wolseley, Wellington ... or local dominees, like Moorreesburg or Robertson or Sutherland. How many people know that Hopefield is named after two very ornery civil servants: Mr Hope and Mr Field?
    All of this ignores the traditional and ancient role of mapmakers in naming places on the earth, often whose shapes and contours and relationships they first deliminated. The Americas, the Pacific Ocean, Australia, Ethiopia, India, the West Indies are just a few examples of some of the places you may have heard of whose contemporary names first appeared on maps, named by the mapmaker.
    Which is where the controversy comes in. I have put names on maps and later been asked, "How dare you give that place that name?" I've always replied, "Well, what is its name, then?" Reply: "It has no name, but you have no right to give it a name!"
    Many years ago I knew a ranger named Dick, who was in charge of a well-known nature reserve. Dick named a rock formation "Lizzie's Leap" after his wife, and a waterfall "Fryth's Falls" after a daughter. What Dick hadn't reckoned on was that this display of family loyalty inevitably led his colleagues to rename a local, particularly tumescent rock pinnacle [known boringly as "The Pinnacle"] after Dick himself ... I'll say no more.
   So, who should be allowed to name a place: a river, a mountain, a funny-looking rock, a street, a campsite? There is not one among you who does not assume the right to name her or his own house or farm or factory or business enterprise with the name of your choice - and rightly so. But if you had named your farm Bloemfontein or Mitchell's Plain or Constantia, or named your favorite holiday campsite after yourself [Hermanus or Herold or Camp's Bay], what gave your choice the right to be enshrined as the place name of a dorp, a town, or even a city?
    Sadly, lots of these "given" names eventually disappear with their owners; one of the things we try to do is to enshrine old farm names on our maps, so that they do not die. Here's a part of the Swartberg with a couple of just-such, intriguing names ... I assume that "Kabooka" and "Kookooboo" are derived from old Khoi names.

    Some would say: a name has to evolve, it has to come from what Afrikaners rather well-describe as "die volksmond" [the voice of the people]. That's a funny idea to me; the excellent Afrikaans descriptive sadly leaves a trail of hundreds of Grootriviere ["big river"], Kleinriviere ["small river"], Rietfonteins ["reed fountain"], Spitskoppe ["pointy peak"] etc etc in its wake. My favorite farm name is that of a wheat farm near Moorreesburg. Its name? "Koringplaas" [wheat farm], proudly carried on a sign at the side of the N7 highway. Not far away is a sheep farm named "Skaapkraal". The voice of the people is not always, shall we say, the most creative or illuminating voice around ...
    Others say, we need a democratic decision. Well, it has taken the City of Cape Town more than ten years to rename three streets in a "democratic" process, so maybe we should laugh that one off right away. They say a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and the same process seems to true for placenames. That said, one wonders at the sheer arrogance of the Nationalist Government's "Place Names Commission" that decreed, without a moment's reference to the wishes of the towns' inhabitants, that Simon's Town should be Simonstown, Wupperthal should be Wuppertal, and Onrust should be Onrus ... they later caved in on Simon's Town because the SA Navy wanted it so, but the other two are still "officially" known by the names that their inhabitants reject. What arrant nonsense!  Sadly this "commission" still seems to exist somewhere, and it's just as arrogant as ever.
    The other recent form of "democratic" naming seems to be that applied to informal settlements, many of which sport highly descriptive if uncomplimentary names. But I always wonder how our worthy struggle heroes must feel about some of the poverty-stricken places named after them ...
    Every noteworthy place deserves a name. Names provide us with a geographic framework so that we can put places into their correct relationships with each other. We don't each have a built in GPS and, if you think about it, it would be pretty awful if we identified places by their long/lat coords! "Where are you off to on holiday this year?" "Oh, we thought we'd go to -32.001894S 22.319672E for a change - lovely beaches!" 
    The mapmaker, though, often has a problem - he needs to identify a landmark to help the traveller, whether a motorist or a hiker. It has no name that he can find ... so he gives it one! 
    Recently in the Cederberg we identified a few such places - the purists will be shocked. But if they have better names for Seven Waterfalls, Black Falls, Squat Rock and several other noteworthy features, we'll be glad to hear from them!
    There's a powerful safety angle involved here. A hiker's map with a dearth of names is a dangerous map, because the verbal description of a locality, especially in an emergency, becomes very problematic. "My injured friend is about 500 metres from the path near a big rock that looks like an apple, but from the other side it looks like an upside-down banana" is so not-gonna-make-it compared to "My friend is ten metres from Apple Rock - there, on the map."
    And if you prefer to call it "upside down Banana Rock", well, that's your democratic right, and we hope you'll soon publish your own map too!
-  Kaartman, 5 October 2011

1 comment:

  1. Well you named the 3 of us and we're very happy with the names given so go forth and name away!