Subtitled “How Maps Name, Claim, and Infame”, the title of Monmonier’s book is clearly meant to grab attention and make people stop in the middle of the bookstore. It certainly succeeded; I couldn’t put the book back on the library shelf after it caught my eye.

The book is not nearly as salacious as the title might make you believe. Instead, Monmonier takes readers into the world of toponymy — better known as the study of geographic names – and explains how state and national geographic boards rename and “correct” unusual and offensive monikers. Places like Niggerhead Point, New York are renamed into Negrohead Point with blanket corrections that remove offensive words from American maps. The American Indian Movement (AIM) made pejorative geographic names a part of its political agenda in the 1990s, labeling squaw offensive to all Native Americans. However, unlike Negrohead Point, Squaw Tit has not been changed across the board as Americans do not on the whole have the same embarrassed reaction to squaw as they do to pejorative words used to refer to African-Americans.

Then there’s the places without racial baggage – places like Grand Teton National Park, which refer to breasts in a “classier” way, and Intercourse, Pennsylvania in reference to trade not sex.  How do you balance local flavor with political correctness? The book makes it sound like Montana and other western states are offensive, sex-crazed places, forgetting the fact that they were largely settled by men.

One of the more fascinating cases used by Monmonier in his book is Denali National Park and the name of the United States’ highest peak, Mt. McKinley. Native and non-native Alaskans want to rename the peak “Denali”, an Athabaskan word for “the high one”, but every two years the congressional representatives from Ohio try to block the renaming and keep Mt. McKinely named for an Ohioan who never visited the state. The issue remains horribly deadlocked with Denali being correct according to the Alaska state geographic board, while McKinley is correct according to the national board.

The book isn’t entirely focused on the United States; utilizing examples from Cyprus and Israel/Palestine to explain how geographic names can erase the presences of one group and bolster the claims of another. Being able to give places biblical or Turkish names makes it appear as though the land has always belonged to Israelis and Turks, respectively. Propaganda at its finest!

Reading this book isn’t all smooth sailing despite its fascinating subject matter. With less than 150 pages of text and the rest a collection of references and indexes, the book should not have been nearly as repetitive as it was. The first three chapters could have easily been combined into a single chapter. Even so, I nearly devoured this account of toponymy and the importance of place names.

Book Mentioned:

  • Monmonier, Mark. From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print. 215 pgs. ISBN: 0226534650. Source: Library.

The Honors Project:

I read this book for The Honors Project, my own personal challenge to read more books about economics, food, and/or geography in preparation for writing my honors thesis. My goal for this project is to learn as much as I can about these topics so I can formulate better questions and, in turn, produce a better honors thesis. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Book Cover © University of Chicago Press. Retrieved: August 3, 2012.