Monday, April 29, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 11: The Strange Un-system of Place-naming

I've always been curious why places are named the way they are.  Virginia and Maryland, for example, were named after queens--this I know, but sometimes I wonder why.  Who, for instance, chose Queen Mary to name the land after rather than any other particularly awesome historical figure?  Who figured George was a cool enough guy--whichever one we're talking about, anyway--to name a future state after him?  Likewise, Mississippi is an Indian term for great river, which I get, but then why aren't Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and the other dozen-ish states that lie along the great river's course also called Mississippi?

So, back to the Alaska Highway adventure.  It's fun journeying through Canada looking at the place names and wondering where they're from.  Many are European-style (Whitehorse, Watson Lake, etc) while others aren't (Klondike, for example, comes from a Kutchin term for the practice of hammering nets into the water, and Yukon is Gwich'in for great river).  Now, having stood there, I can understand somebody nodding and agreeing, "mm hmm, great river, good name for this," but where the white horse came from is a little trickier.  Apparently the city was named for the White Horse rapids nearby, which in turn were named because the spray reminded somebody of a horse's mane.  I suppose that makes sense.

And then there's Wonowon, BC.  Cool-looking name, right?  Must be Gwich'in?  Wrong part of the world to be Cherokee, the language from whence we managed to strip a majority of place names currently used in the south.  So where's it from, you ask?  No, really, you should ask.  Stop reading, and go there to ask someone so you'll get "the look" like I did.

*spoiler alert*

Say it out loud.  Come on, with me now: "Wonowon."  Continue if you wish: "Wonotoo, Wonothree, Wonofor...."

See, yeah--it was originally a settlement that happened to be at Mile 101 of the Alaska Highway. 

There are a lot of places along the roads through Canada that lead up into Alaska that are identified with mile names: Ten Mile Lake, Hundred Mile House, and so on.  That would be a little funny but not strange at all down in the U.S.  In Canada, though, when the name is on a sign that tells how many kilometers it is to a mile mark, it's just kind of odd.

Remember, Canada is on the metric system.  There is no such thing as a mile in the metric system.

Then again, it's really not that odd after all once you get to thinking about it.  For one thing, many places get their names according to whatever is written down by whomever is making the map.  One problem they had in planning the route initially was lack of accurate mapping, so as the highway was being constructed, a lot of the mapping was done by the engineers doing it--who were, incidentally, U.S. Army engineers.  The folks constructing the road were also U.S. Army engineers, and so a lot of the terminology used to talk about places must have been molded by the sudden influx of 16,000 folks who spoke fluent (for the most part) United Statesian.

All that said, it's also useful to point out that Canada hasn't always been on the metric system.  In fact, for much of the nation's history they used the Imperial system of weights and measures, a fact that made a gallon of gas on one side of the border not quite the same as a gallon of gas on the other side.  Tee hee!  (yeah, right--grr is more like it)

I haven't followed the specific history of Canada's metrication (a word that sounds like vacation but is much, much different) mostly because the United State's metrication was so interesting.  Basic gist of the story, though: the two nations decided the metric system would be a good thing to adopt at about the same time, thus ending the my-gallon-isn't-your-gallon issue while generating a ton of revenue for the street sign makers.  Unfortunately for the grand scheme, we down here south of Calgary proved rapidly that Americans as a group just absolutely can not do math, and so the metrication lost steam and died a rapid but relatively painless red, white, and blue death.  All of us United Statesians breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Canadians, on the other hand, proved that they could at least do basic distance conversions, and so nearly all of their road signs were converted in the mid-70's, and most of those stayed converted till this day.

Keep in mind that by that point the Alaska Highway had been built and under the control of the Canadian government for more than two decades.  Places named according to miles were named according to miles, and that was just that.

Then again, and as I already pointed out, it probably wasn't as big a conflict to the Canadians.  They can do math. 


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