Nasty toponyms

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Below is a guest post by Corey Miller:

In the third volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, la duchesse de Guermantes mentions she fortunately doesn’t know any Jews. It’s the middle of the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the nineteenth century. She goes on to mention some tedious ladies who put the words “Mort aux Juifs” (death to the Jews) on their parasols. Mortified by this concept, I searched the internet, curious to see a picture of such an ombrelle.

Instead, I ran across a French village until 2014 called La Mort aux Juifs, which had been involved in name-changing scuffles since the 1970s. On that subject, Pierre-Henri Billy, author of Dictionnaire des noms de lieux de la France (Dictionary of French Place Names) and Thesaurus linguae Gallicae (Gaulish Thesaurus) wrote an article entitled “La Mort-aux-Juifs: histoire d’un nom propre” (La Mort aux Juifs: history of a proper name) in Le Monde in 2014.

He establishes that the name has been in use since the 17th century. He mentions that a local pig farm was named La Mare aux Geais (Jay Pond) in 1982—the fruit of the first “ethnico-onomastic cleansing”. He provides evidence how mare (pond) has become mort (homonymous with the word for ‘death’) in several place names in both the Loire and Normandy. He says mort is a (standard) French spelling of the dialectal word maure.

He says in the Orleans dialect there is a word juin (< Latin suinus ‘swine’) that means manure. This word evolved into jui by denasalization. It then got its final “non etymological and unpronounced” f in a “frequent graphical recourse”. He says juif (unclear whether the one meaning Jew or manure or both) was pronounced jui in Old French as well as the dialects of central France. He then mentions another dirty pond called La Noue-de-Juin.

In sum, he says, the town’s name had nothing to do with death, Jews or the slogan mort aux juifs, which he notes is not preceded by the definite article la, nor does it contain hyphens in between its component words.

Even if one buys the etymology, which I see no reason not to, I don’t think the definite article or the hyphens lessen the impact of the “conventional” nasty contemporary reading. And I don’t really see why this etymology should necessarily be good insurance against the town’s name causing harm whether or not one is an etymologist.

Billy concludes by saying if we allow this name to be changed, we’ll have to deal with a slippery slope of other Mort place names, including La Mort-aux-Femmes (women), La Mort-des-Hommes (men), La Mort del Turc (Turk), La Mort-aux-Bêtes (animals), La Mort-au-Moine (monk) and even Morocon (sounds like Moor + c-word).

Maybe some or all of those names should go—let each one be decided on its own merits. There are place names that connote pleasant, beautiful things, and there are others that connote the opposite. There are mellifluous place names and there are those that are less so. Just as people can change their names, places can and do change theirs for all manner of reasons.

Spanish has some etymologically violent place names like Matamoros, Mexico (kill the Moors) and from 1627-2015, Matajudíos (kill the Jews), Spain. Interestingly, the latter had been and has reverted to Mota (hill) de Judíos.

I have asked native speakers about words in their languages whose etymology seems clear as day to me and they have claimed that it never occurred to them. Such seems to be the “excuse” of some of those defending nasty place names. Maybe that’s true, but the fact is many others are going to take the names literally and it may cause similar trauma as that caused by confederate statues.

But I’m also curious whether there are other examples of non-nasty words becoming nasty through sound change and whether that has affected their usage.

Above is a guest post by Corey Miller.

A link to the Wikisource version of the cited passage (from the 1919 French edition of À la recherche du temps perdu) can be found here, as a facsimile and corrected OCR. The crucial passage (emphasis added):

Elle ne peut pas avoir de conséquence pour moi au point de vue des Juifs pour la bonne raison que je n’en ai pas dans mes relations et compte toujours rester dans cette bienheureuse ignorance. Mais, d’autre part, je trouve insupportable que, sous prétexte qu’elles sont bien pensantes, qu’elles n’achètent rien aux marchands juifs ou qu’elles ont « Mort aux Juifs » écrit sur leur ombrelle, une quantité de dames Durand ou Dubois, que nous n’aurions jamais connues, nous soient imposées par Marie-Aynard ou par Victurnienne. Je suis allée chez Marie-Aynard avant-hier. C’était charmant autrefois. Maintenant on y trouve toutes les personnes qu’on a passé sa vie à éviter, sous prétexte qu’elles sont contre Dreyfus, et d’autres dont on n’a pas idée qui c’est.

If I'm reading this correctly in context, la duchesse's objection to anti-semitism is that its overt manifestation is a bourgeois characteristic, too vulgar for her social status.

For some background, see Robert Siegel, "A Jewish Outsider in Paris", Moment 2019.


  1. Thomas Lee Hutcheson said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 10:04 am

    I ran across an even better (worse!) example of anit-Muslim place name in Spain: Despeñamoros, a high cliff suitable for (who knows if it were ever used for) throwing Moors of the cliff.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 10:41 am

    One obvious example of guilt-by-homophony in modern English is the word "niggard" (and derivatives like "niggardly"), which has no semantic or etymological relation to a certain well-known taboo word that it resembles in pronunciation. But I don't know if a shift in pronunciation of either of the two words has exacerbated the problem.

    As to the French example, if you have two phrases (one innocent, one "nasty") that have become homophonous, disambiguation by spelling is one way to minimize the problem.* But respelling the "innocent" one in a way that makes it look just like the "nasty" one and obscures its separate "innocent" etymology, which is what apparently happened there, seems … unhelpful?

    *Obviously this doesn't help in purely oral contexts, but toponyms will be spelled out on maps and road signs etc. There's a scene in an old Woody Allen movie playing on the fact that a sufficiently clipped pronunciation of "did you" in a relevant character's variety of English is approximately homophonous with "Jew," causing another character to take offense.

  3. Matt Juge said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 10:51 am

    The words Matamoros and Matajudíos don't mean "kill the Moors" and "kill the Jews", but rather "Moor killer" and "Jew killer". They are examples of a productive V + N = N compound structure where the first element is a third person present indicative verb and the second part is a mass noun or a plural noun, as in pasatiempo "pastime, hobby" < pasar "pass, spend" + tiempo "time" and
    abrebotellas "bottle opener" < abrir "open" + botella-s "bottle-PL".

  4. Scott P. said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 10:57 am

    And in the case of Matamoros, that was an epithet applied to Saint James, for his supposed appearance at the Battle of Clavijo on the side of the Christians.

  5. Y said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 11:13 am

    Montana has Choke-To-Death Butte, Froze-to-Death Mountain (and Froze-to-Death Creek, etc.), and Starved to Death Creek

  6. pfb said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 12:36 pm

    There are many "-kill" names in NY, NJ, and PA (Fresh Kills, Fishkill, etc.), from the Dutch word for creek (or stream, or brook, or run, or …)

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 1:18 pm

    @pfb: and down into Delaware (briefly controlled by the Dutch in between the New Sweden era and the English-rule era), which features the toponymic overkill, as it were, of the rather intimidating-sounding Murderkill River, which in turn gave its name to Upper and Lower Murderkill Hundreds, as semi-obsolete subdivisions of Kent County.

    At least according to wikipedia, the folk etymology of a 17th century massacre of European visitors by the indigenes has been debunked, so the hypotheses are that Murderkill is either an eggcornish reanalysis of "moederkill" (= mother river) or of "modderkill" (= mud[dy] river).

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 1:23 pm

    I should have added to my prior comment this link, which quotes a fellow not ony rather defensively giving a non-grisly account of the Murderkill etymology but has the same fellow go on to give benign etymologies for other local streams, viz. Whore-Kill and Slaughter Creek.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 1:24 pm

    Oops. Third time's hopefully the charm … This link:

  10. Cuconnacht said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 2:07 pm

    @Matt Juge: Comparable to English pickpocket, killjoy, breakwater, spoilsport, etc except that in English if the second part is a count noun it is singular.

    At one time preferring water to other beverages was apparently unusual enough that it could become a nickname and then a family name of that form: Drinkwater, Trinkwasser, Bevilacqua, Boileau.

  11. stephen said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 9:18 pm

    I always wondered about the resemblance of the African country name of Niger to a certain English word, but according to Wikipedia there is apparently no connection. When Niger become independent, did no English speakers point out the possible problem, or were their concerns brushed aside? A similar problem with Nigeria, Fukien in Thailand, a few other places.
    I read a small town in Austria called F***ing recently changed its name because they got sick and tired of the tourists…
    I can imagine that if the right wing in the US gets even more influential they will demand that that famous city in the Netherlands change its name to Amsterdarn.

  12. Terry Hunt said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 2:35 am

    @ stephen — I recall reading (and/or hearing) about an instance a good many years ago (I think perhaps around 70) when a BBC newsreader whose script included a reference to "the land of the Niger" accidentally pronounced the last of those words with a short "i". I believe he or a colleague made an on-air apology immediately after the report in question.

  13. Chris Partridge said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 2:55 am

    The legendary cricket commentator Brian Johnson was a continuity announcer at the BBC on the eve of Nigerian independence. The Beeb was broadcasting a major documentary called "Land of the Niger". Johnners did not have his brain in gear and announced, live to the nation, that the next programme would be "Land of the (even then a very bad racial slur)" There were questions in Parliament.
    We don't tend to have racially offensive place names in the UK, though there are occasional attempts to get Whiteladies Road in Bristol renamed. The White Ladies were nuns.
    Rude names tend to be regarded with robust tolerance. Recently, the residents of a road in the Midlands called Bell End voted to keep it just as it is.

  14. languagehat said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 8:10 am

    I always wondered about the resemblance of the African country name of Niger to a certain English word, but according to Wikipedia there is apparently no connection. When Niger become independent, did no English speakers point out the possible problem, or were their concerns brushed aside?

    Are you seriously suggesting that everyone else in the world should submit their toponyms to English speakers to make sure they have no concerns about them? How would the inhabitants of England feel if speakers of, say, a West African language said "In our language that means something offensive, so please change it forthwith"?

  15. chris said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 1:03 pm

    Does anyone else find it kind of amusing that "pool of manure" is the LESS nasty interpretation?

    Or rather, a different kind of nasty…

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 3:15 pm

    "We don't tend to have racially offensive place names in the UK" — ooh, I don't know — I'm sure the good burghers of Woking would find something to complain about were a town to be called "Blackburn", for example …

  17. stephen said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 6:02 pm

    No, it would not be reasonable to demand no placename is offensive in any English dialect…or in any dialect of any language….but some people are not reasonable. And I have no idea how widely known that particular ethnic slur was, in Africa, at the time of Niger's independence. But I wonder if anybody noticed and commented on it at the time.

  18. Trogluddite said,

    May 29, 2022 @ 9:22 am

    @Philip Taylor: "I'm sure the good burghers of Woking would find something to complain about…"
    …as Britain's leading brass band discovered when they were arranging a concert at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall in 1993. Reports of the event aren't clear whether the venue's intent was to protect minority groups or to reassure bigoted patrons; in any case, the venue got cold feet over the band's traditional toponymic title – the Black Dyke Band.

  19. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 2, 2022 @ 9:16 pm

    Re- and mis-analysis is of course common in placenames. Relevant to the current discussion is the Cornish town of Marazion which was for many years known as Market Jew, the "Jew" in this case being a mangling of the local word for Thursday (yow, cf. French jeudi, Latin jovis).

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