Word Nerd: How 8 Cities Got Their Famous Names

30 Jan


Ever wondered how a city or town gets its name?

Places get their names from histories, geographies, and relentless change. For example, several Indian towns and cities have frequently changed names in order to reflect different perspectives. And in the UK, place-names are how invading armies – Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen & Vikings left their indelible mark on the country.

Place-names, or toponyms, tell us about who lived there, how they lived, and whom they followed and worshipped. So, Reading in the UK comes from Reada, a man whose name suggests that he had red hair, and the “-casters” (like Doncaster) or “-chesters” (like Ilchester) are cities which were once Roman camps. In New Zealand, Dunedin is an ancient form of Edinburgh, while place names like Rotorua and Ruapehu come from the Maori language.

Interested in how cities like Los Angeles, London & Delhi got their names? Read on to find out more.

1.  Cambridge
In the eighth-century, Grontabricc was a settlement by the bridge near the river Granta. The Normans found the name hard to pronounce, so Grontabricc became Cantebrigie. Then, as Caroline Taggart writes, “someone realised that it was daft to have a town called Cambridge sitting on the Granta, so they changed the name of the river to match.” No prizes for guessing what the river is called now.

2.  Chicago

One of the most populous and famous cities in the US, Chicago gets its name from – wild garlic. Yes, you read that right. In the Miami-Illinois language, ‘shikaakwa’ was the name for a type of wild garlic that grew abundantly in the area. ‘Shikaakwa’ became Checagou, which evolved into Chicago .

3.  Kabul
Historians argue that the city’s name originates from the ancient Kamboja tribe. The name could also be derived from Sanskrit “kambuja” meaning “hump-backed” or “crooked,” perhaps a reference to the serrated outline of the mountains surrounding the city.

4.  London
If you have read Asterix in Britain, you know that London was, at some point in the past, called Londinium. This was a thriving Roman settlement. An account written in the 12th century claims that the city was named after a King Lud, but it is just one theory out of many.

5.  Los Angeles
The home of Hollywood was once the City of Angels. The first Franciscan mission in the city named the settlement El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula, or “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion” – rather a mouthful for a place-name. People probably reached before they could tell someone where they were going. So, the name was shortened to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, and eventually became Los Angeles.

6.  Minneapolis
Minneapolis means “Waterfall City”. The name has two parts – minne, from the Dakota Sioux word for water, and polis, from the Ancient Greek for city. As a city with 22 lakes, it is only fair that its name honours its geography.
The credit for coining the name goes to Andrew Hoag, reportedly the city’s first schoolteacher.

7.  New Delhi
Not surprisingly, as with most points in Indian history, there is a multiplicity of theories about the origin of the name. One view is that a Raja Dhilu, who reigned in the 1st century BCE, named the city after himself, as kings do. Another view is that Dilli comes from the Hindustani word for threshold because Delhi is seen as a gateway to India’s great northern plains.

8.  Ouagadougou
Originally called “Kumbee-Tenga”, by the Ninsi tribe, the city was renamed “Wogodogo”, meaning “where people get honor and respect,” by a local hero in the 15th century.
After the French colonized Burkina Faso, Wogodogo became Ouagadougou. In conventional English spelling, the word would be Wagadugu.

Any interesting place-names you would like to share with us? Email us or leave a comment below.

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