Ken Jennings, best known for his record-setting 2004 appearance on Jeopardy!—74 consecutive wins—has published a new book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. Jennings ranges over treasure maps, Google Maps, map collecting, highway numbering, and geocaching, and devotes a section of one chapter to toponyms—the names of places. Here’s an excerpt:
Names aren’t neutral; they come with agendas. In 1614, John Smith coined the name “New England” for the North American coast he was exploring; his map of the area pointedly left off any Native American settlements or place-names. Instead, every place got a cozy—and completely arbitrary—British name: Ipswich, Southampton, Cape Elizabeth. Most of Smith’s names never caught on, but one of his choices was adopted by the Mayflower pilgrims when they founded their colony there six years later: Plymouth, a spot that the Wampanoag Indians, then as now, actually called “Patuxet.” As late as 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay and returned to Washington bearing a map of Edo, with all the parts of the harbor given suspiciously un-Japanese names like “Mississippi Bay” and “Susquehanna Bay.” On the map, some islets in the Uraga Channel have even been labeled “Plymouth Rocks.” “Look!” the maps say, all wide-eyed and innocent-like. “These places must be ours! Why else would they have our names on them?”
Jennings’s own love of names and word play is evident in Maphead’s chapter titles, each of which carries multiple meanings: Eccentricity, Bearing, Fault, Benchmarks, Elevation, Legend, Reckoning, Meander, Transit, Overedge, Frontier, and Relief.
Image: Crumpled Paris city map, in polyethylene, from Uncommon Goods. Also available in San Francisco, Berlin, Tokyo, London, New York, Amsterdam, Chicago, and Barcelona.