Thursday, July 17, 2014

Toponyms #2

Toponyms #2

Because toponyms occur when we use a place name to refer to something other than the place, it’s logical to assume toponyms would all come from places that exist somewhere on the globe. Some toponyms, though, come from places that exist in our imaginations – from fiction.

Shangri La first entered our collective imagination in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, in which Shangri La referred to a mystical and harmonious settlement in a difficult-to-reach valley. By 1938 the term Shangri La had come to mean any earthly paradise, the sort of place English speakers after 1610 might have called a utopia. The term utopia was coined by Thomas More in 1516 to refer to a non-existent perfect place. He coined the word by connecting the Greek word parts topos, meaning place with ou-, meaning not. It appears he intended to make it clear that a perfect place could never exist. Ever optimistic, we humans didn’t notice that part, & utopia’s meaning morphed to refer to a perfect place that actually could exist, creating the need to later coin the word dystopia, meaning exactly what Thomas More intended utopia to mean in the first place. Another fictional work, Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is responsible for a word used since 1726 to mean tiny. Lilliputian comes from Swift’s creation of a place in which thumb-sized people lived. He called his region Lilliput.

Another group named after a place is the Neanderthal, named after a valley near Dusseldorf, Germany where fossilized humanoid remains were found in 1856. Worthy of remark is the origin of the place name. Before the valley called Neanderthal got its name it was a favorite haunt of German pastor & poet, Jaochim Neander, whose grandfather had Hellenized the family last name, Neumann (new man) to Neander years before. The German word for valley is thal, voila, Neanderthal! By all accounts Pastor Neander was quite civilized & exhibited none of the stereotyped proclivities we modern English speakers associate with the term neanderthal.

The German word thal, valley, is also the grandmother of our modern word dollar, which came onto the scene in the 1550s. A particular valley was the home of a silver mine from which coins were minted as early as 1519. The mine was in a valley named after a chap called Joachim, Joachimsthaler, which was also the name initially given to the coin. In time, poor Joachim got dropped and thaler became dollar. I suppose this would make Joachim the unappreciated grandfather of the dollar.

Good readers, what say you about all this toponym foolishness, or the probability of one blog post including two different Joachims?

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


  1. Dystopian and utopia have the same root meaning? Good heavens. I would never have guessed!

    I have heard of the thaler before, but I had no idea it was the ancestor of our dollar, or that it originally meant valley. Hmm...some economy puns are nudging the back of my brain...

  2. Rachel6 -- Anytime you feel the urge to "pun"ish Wordmonger viewers here in the comments section, feel free.

  3. More enlightenment from the Wordmonger! A dollar is a Valley-thing. OMG, totally. For sure. :-) Fascinating about the self-negating definition of "utopia."

  4. Hi Anne,
    I love the idea of a self-negating utopia -- it's somehow a triple negative! Thanks for popping by.