James Kunstler

Synthetic Toponymy

In yesterday’s post we explored a fascinating sub-discipline of “toponymy” – the study of place names. A toponymist studies the origins and meanings of place names or “toponyms.” He or she is usually a geographer, someone seeking to understand how and why places are named as they are. Toponymists are also involved in establishing “official” geographical names for use on maps.

We were ruminating yesterday about the names given to the infestation of housing developments, condominium complexes, and residential enclaves proliferating in and around our cities and towns. These names, unlike most geographical names, lack a real etymology. Put another way, they don’t really have a genuine origin story.

As blogger and author David Kadavy says, “naming these places seems to be a constant struggle against their lack of genuine sense of place.” In his blog Kadavy cites James Kunstler, the author of the Geography of Nowhere, a book on the rise of suburbia, as arguing that “perhaps they name these places after the things they destroy to build them.”

So, as it turns out, we are not the only ones fascinated by this synthetic toponymy. Kadavy even built a simple “Suburban Development Name Generator” that creates two-word subdivision names. You can try it out at http://kadavy.net/blog/posts/suburban-development-name-generator/.

Ken Schroeppel also has an interesting post on the blog DenverInfill where he presents his “Guide to Suburban Denver Subdvision Names” (http://denverinfill.com/blog/2006/09/guide-to-suburban-denver-subdivision.html). In the post he decries the use of these invented names, arguing that “Denver’s rich history gives us plenty of authentic people and places and events from which to draw names.” We would argue that the same is true of most American towns and cities. We have enough real history and culture to provide names rich with historical, cultural, and geographic meaning.

For the fun of it, we started a small list of real “fake” places that are located just in the area we are living. This list includes apartments, housing for those over 50, mobile home parks, subdivisions, gated communities, and the like. It’s amazing how many of them sound exactly like they came out of Kadavy’s name generator. Kadavy’s generator produces two-word names, but as you can see from some entries on our list, two words are no longer enough. The naming stakes are escalating!

As Mark Frauenfelder, also discussing suburban Denver, says on the blog boingboing (http://boingboing.net/2006/10/10/guide-to-suburban-de.html),

No longer would something simple and unassuming like “Columbine Knolls” suffice. These days, the first part of the name must clearly identify that the development is not only a residential community, but also one of great distinction, and that these homes of great distinction are located at a place of even greater distinction. Thus, new suburban development names now begin with phrases like “The Estates at…” or “The Preserve at…” or “The Retreat at…” followed by not just one or two words to describe the incredibly special patch of prairie on which these homes have been built, but three words or more.

For your delectation and amusement, here are some of our local synthetic toponyms:

Bridgewater Park
Eastwood Glen
Fairway Park
Fairway Tower and Manor
Forest Glen
Foxtail Glen on White Pond
Hampton Knoll
Heritage at White Pond
Heron Springs
Hidden Lake
Hudson Park Estates
Hunt Club
Hunter’s Crossing
Highland Chase
The Highland Square
Hunters Lake
The Highlands of Heritage Woods
Huntington Hills
Maple Brook at Golden Pond
Meadowbrook Lake
Park Hill at Fairlawn
Partridge Run
Pheasant Run
Pine Mill Ridge
Quails Chase
Shoreline Beach
Timber Top
The Towers at Wyoga Lake Commons
Trails of Hudson by Redwood
Whispering Pines
Windsor Park Estates
The Woods of Fairlawn
Wyndham Ridge
Yorkshire Woods