[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]
On the wall of my office, I have a very large laminated poster of this map. That isn’t a very big image of it, so unless you squint, it’s probably going to just look like a map of the world, with the planets down below. The only thing all that odd-looking about it is the sheer amount of text.
This image gives you a better sense of what makes the map interesting, and this site will explain it to you (as well as sell you one, if you like). This is the Atlas of True Names: the world labeled in our best guesses at the etymological meanings underlying all those monikers.
Fantasy often get mocked for its silly-sounding place names, the ones that are descriptive English phrases. (The made-up linguistic stuff is a different ball game.) But is it that odd for Tolkien to call a place “Midgewater” when there’s a real place in Europe whose name means “Swirlwater”? There’s a range north of India that is actually called “the Celestial Mountains,” and the Caribbean Sea is “the Sea of Heroes.” Or how about Cape Look Out!, on the Horn of Africa? It’s not quite as poetic as “Mount Doom,” but for sheer pointedness of meaning, there’s not much to choose between them. Not long ago I was rolling my eyes at “Hightown” being a district of Kirkwall in the video game Dragon Age 2 — until it occurred to me that the Acropolis of Athens, in English, is essentially Hightown.
It sounds different when it isn’t in English. Sure, maybe “Mexico” ultimately means “Navel of the Moon,” but we don’t think about that when we say it. Even when the derivation comes from your own language, a lot of the time it becomes invisible to you: how often does the “land” part of Oakland really register on you as an independent word, let alone part about the tree? You can turn into Tolkien if you like, inventing a naming language so that you can tell everybody the kingdom’s name means “land by the narrow water” (that’s England, by the way) — but you don’t have to. This is what’s hiding behind all those names anyway.
And yet, we still don’t go far enough. We laugh at the forest of Your Finger, You Fool in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, but assume that’s over-the-top humour. Yet here’s the Yucatan peninsula, whose name apparently translates to “I Don’t Understand You!” Here in the real world, we have the City of Many Fish (Panama City), Holy Little-Strong-Bear (San Bernardino), and Land of the People With Tall Caps (a region between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, but I can’t quite figure out what it’s supposed to be translating). I want to write about the Land of the Brave Ones (Mongolia), the End of the World (Madagascar), and the Area Where There Is Nothing (Namibia, ouch).