Thursday, July 10, 2014

Toponyms #1

Toponyms #1

English abounds with toponyms – place names we use to refer to things other than the original place. I hope you enjoy considering this smattering of toponyms.

Paisley – now a distinctive shape we print onto fabric, but originally a town in Scotland where such fabric was first made. Interestingly, the word paisley comes through Middle Irish from the word baslec, which came from the Latin word basilica, which means that the town was originally identified by its church.

Today, the word babel refers to a confused medley of sounds, but originally it referred to Babhel, the capital of Babylon. Babhel is a Hebrew word that started out as Bab-ilu, an Accadian word meaning the gate of God, which causes those of my generation to wonder what Ricky Riccardo was really singing about.

Our modern colors burgundy & magenta are both toponyms. Burgundy was originally a region in France named in Late Latin with the term Burgundiones, which translates to highlanders. In time, the wine of the area picked up the name, and the deep hue of the wine gave us the word burgundy as it refers to color.  On the other hand, the town of Magenta was where the Sardinians & French teamed up to fight the Austrians during the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859. The town was originally named after Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius. It wasn’t until a few short years after the battle that a deep reddish purple dye was discovered in that region, and voila, magenta.

Even in the 13th century some folks (well, royalty, anyway) enjoyed relaxing at the spa. Our modern word spa is a toponym taken from Spa, Belgium, a town blessed with mineral hot springs. The town’s name came from the Walloon word espa, which meant spring or fountain.

Because many of New York’s financial institutions ended up situated along the wall that once offered defense to the struggling Dutch town of New York, the adjacent street was named Wall Street. That struggling little town has done all right for itself to the point that we now use this toponym to refer to the entire American financial world.

My niece & nephew refer to those lovely plastic playgrounds some fast food restaurants offer as king cities. Any of you here in California will easily fill in the etymology on that one. In the meantime I’m hoping you’ll use the comments section to suggest new toponyms we should insert into the language.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Fact Index, Wordnik, & Etymonline


  1. Paisley surprised me, as did spa and magenta. Paisley, down from basilica...huh.

    I had always thought babel descended from the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, when God created different languages. From the Babylonian capitol? There's another shock!

  2. LOL the Ricky Ricardo joke. Babeloo indeed. I've always thought it was hilarious that there's an Earl of Paisley. I imagined him as a hippie in paisley shirt and love beads.

    Actually the Biblical Tower of Babel is same as the Tower of Babylon--different versions of the same word--which was a ziggurat (I took Egyptian and Mesopotamian archaeology in college) where people spoke many languages. So you're both right.

    Lots of fun stuff here, as usual.

  3. Howdy Rachel6 & Anne -- I love the basilica/paisley transition. I suppose Anne's Earl of paisley in his love beads was worshiping at the church of the day (after a fashion), & thanks Anne for clarifying the Babhel/Babel situation.