What’s in a Name?

Shakespeare tried to teach us that it is the essential nature of a person or a thing that matters, not the name. What we call a flower does not determine its scent and what we name a person does not determine his character (read Freakonomics for a fascinating case in point). But does this same rule apply for cities? Would Paris still be as glamorous if it were called Furtwangen or Dippoldiswelde? (I hate to pick on the Germans, but after studying their language for six years I am the first to admit its guttural tones defy romance.) Would San Francisco be as cosmopolitan if it was known as Chugwater (it’s in Wyoming) or Hohokus (New Jersey)?

I am guilty of judging a place by its name. In leaving southern California, where most of the cities boast saucy Spanish monikers, I had serious reservations about moving to the South with its towns like Buford, Dahlonega, and Dunwoody. We found a lovely house that seemed perfect for making our cross-country transition, but I was hesitant to buy it since it was located in a place called Alpharetta. What kind of word was that? It conjured visions of all the wrong stereotypes–dueling banjos, corrupt sheriffs, and missing teeth. I finally agreed to the purchase but only on the condition that I would list Atlanta as my address on all professional correspondence. This may seem a strange hangup for a person who went to high school in a city called Schenectady, but maybe that’s the root of my bias. I don’t want to be judged by the merits of the name of my hometown. (I have, of course, since learned that Alpharetta is a lovely locale inhabited by enlightened people who don’t marry their cousins or fly the Confederate flag.)

So will we be influenced by the names of places in honing our itinerary? Perhaps. I recently read an article by a travel writer that suggested one way to choose vacation spots is based exclusively on name. He argued that you might visit Djibouti just because the name has always made you giggle, or Abu Dhabi or Timbuktu because they sound mystical. If I had to choose one place based on its name, I think it would have to be Zanzibar. Can you think of any place that sounds more exotic? The fact that there are abundant beaches, spices, and butterflies seals the deal for me, but I’ll have to work on Tom. It’s currently not in the plan. I also love the sound of Tripoli, but even though Qadafi has changed his ways, we’re not ready to take the kids to the former terrorist breeding ground just yet. Though the Slavic languages share German’s lack of euphony (I studied Russian for three years), they’ve come up with a few places that sound intriguing. We’re excited for Dubrovnik, especially after seeing pictures of cascading orange tile roofs rising up from the misty shores of the Adriatic. Ljubljana in Slovenia is fast becoming a tourist hotspot and seems to merit a visit if only to figure out how to pronounce its name.

The one place we have visited exclusively for its name is Dax, France. We named our eldest son Dax, not because we adored the city or the French, but because Tom had a friend whose brother was named Dax. We liked it, stole it, and took him to visit the city in the summer of 2000 during an extended trip to Spain. It was a little run down and they seemed more than a little surprised to see the Clampetts roll into town. The tourism trade in Dax caters primarily to working class French who visit the local hot springs to cure rheumatism and other assorted afflictions. Luckily the annual bullfighting festival had just ended (Dax is just across the border from Spain) so there were plenty of souvenirs for our Dax to bring home to his friends. We captured the experience by taking Dax’s picture in front of Dax-emblazoned trash cans and street signs, and just so McKane wouldn’t feel left out, we took his picture too in front of the anti-Dax sign.

MVC-306F M in dax

In 50 weeks and six continents I’m sure we’ll find that some places live up to their names while others defy them or fall short. If you’ve got any suggestions, or have a place you’d like us to check out, let us know.

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One thought on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I just got wind of your blog (thanks to Rolf Potts’ blog), was going through old posts, and noticed you mention– Ho-Ho-Kus!! The lovely town in Jersey where my Dad grew up. It’s the only dually hyphenated city in America! I’m amazed that someone else has heard of it. Anyway

    Your trip sounds incredible. I love reading about it and am looking forward to my own RTW


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