While perusing the real estate section of the newspaper a few days ago, Joan noticed an over-55 rental community named “Maple Brook at Golden Pond.” We resisted the urge to pack up and move there immediately.
We remarked on how ubiquitous such names are, cramming images of babbling brooks, cool shady trees, sweet syrup, and old movies starring Henry Fonda into one marvelous real estate mouthful. This wasn’t the first time we had wondered about how and why such names come to be.
In our lifetime we have seen an explosion of houses, mini-mansions, apartments, and condominiums gobbling up farmlands, woodlands, and wetlands. Spaces previously quiet, wooded, and rural, are all of a sudden filled to the brim with mobile home parks, subdivisions, enclaves, gated communities and other species of American residential space. They displace other more deserving species of their natural habitat. Ducks, herons, foxes, partridges, and any other furry or feathered friends need not apply for home ownership.
What we also found interesting about these little enclaves is that they all seem to have fantastic sounding names that reference some imaginary bucolic past, a long-gone natural landscape, or pretend to some kind of manorial grandeur. They evoke some imagined gentler, more natural or simpler time and space (or just the opposite, a space of baronial splendor where only the privileged reside).
True, some small number of these places we have seen possess names that reflect some actual physical or historical characteristics of their locations: a neighborhood named after some long-dead pioneer or farmer, a nearby forest, or an adjacent lake or stream. But many, if not most, of these places have absolutely no physical or historical connection to the names they presume. These names are a signal, a marker, a linguistic cue meant to invoke the magic of semantics: “hey, living here would be pleasant, peaceful, and privileged.” In the absence of real history, real nature, real trees and real animals, let’s just invoke a name. This is a kind of magic, isn’t it? The ancient wizards, magicians, and druids thought there was magic in names. If you knew the true name of something, you could control or possess it.
But there isn’t any magic in these names. They are empty signifiers of, in most cases, something that never was. And the invocation of the name doesn’t bring back the verdant woods, green meadows, clear streams, tangled copses and lush wetlands where the “foxes,” “pheasants,” and “herons” used to dwell. Calling your home an “estate,” a “chase,” or a “manor” doesn’t make it one.