Why. Whynot. Scratch Ankle. Cookietown. Delight. Rough and Ready. Okay. Clever. Nirvana. No Name.
From Poker Flat, Calif., to Double Trouble, N.J., and from Zap, N.D., to Cut and Shoot, Texas, American place names—particularly those of smaller hometowns—are among the most colorful in the world.
Those who originally settled our mountains, valleys, prairies, and deserts took a no-holds-barred approach to naming the places where they put down roots. They named their towns for natural features, for places they left behind in Europe, and for their leading citizens. But they also named them for obscure political parties (Greenback, Tenn.), salutations (What Cheer, Iowa), card games (Show Low, Ariz.), and breakfast foods (Toast, N.C.).
The result, in the words of 19th-century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, is that “there is no part of the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous, and picturesque.”
As intriguing as the names themselves are the stories behind them—a fascinating mixture of historical fact and legend. And more than one explanation for a name frequently exists.
Protection, Kan., for example, was named in 1884 either for the People’s Grand Protective Union, which opposed prohibition in the state, for a protective tariff hotly debated during the election campaign of that year, or for the protection against American Indian attack afforded by a U.S. Army fort at that location. Municipal memory is dim on all three.
Toast, N.C., is credited to E.P. McLeod, the school principal who supposedly thought of it while buying groceries in Hutchens Store one evening in 1927.
Cut and Shoot, Texas, takes its name from the cutting and shooting—fighting—that resulted when the town broke into two factions over whether to allow an itinerant minister to preach at the community center. Other memorable Texas places names are Dime Box, Telephone, Tesnus (Sunset spelled backward), and Uncertain.
At least four explanations illustrate how and when Uncertain got its name. The most likely is that it has to do with the uncertainty in the late 1890s over the town’s boundaries.
Crow Indians measured time and distance in “sleeps,” or overnight encampments. That’s how Wyoming ended up with a town named Tensleep. It also has a town named Bill—because it was the most common male name among local ranchers when the community needed a name for its post office. Colorado has a Joes, originally called Three Joes for the first settlers.
Last Chance, Colo., was named in 1926 by Archie Chapman and Essa Harbert, who wanted motorists to know that their filling station was the last chance to buy gasoline for 80 miles west or 104 miles east. Others in Colorado include Wide Awake, Tincup, and Troublesome.
Cookietown, Okla., supposedly owes its name to a friendly storekeeper who gave cookies to his customers. Another general store owner played in the naming of Slapout, Okla., in the early 1930s. When a customer asked Artie Nye for an item that was sold out, she always responded, “Sorry, we’re slap out.” People started calling her place of business the Slap Out Store and pretty soon this wide spot in the road grew to be known as Slapout.
New Mexico can lay claim to one of the truly unique place names in the United States—Truth or Consequences, named after a popular radio show nationally broadcast in the 1940s and 1950s. Host Ralph Edwards offered to shower with publicity any town willing to change its name to the name of his show, and Hot Springs, N.M., accepted the offer. Other New Mexico towns chose unusual names: Pep, supposedly named during the Depression for a breakfast cereal, and Pie Town, for the delicious pies baked there by a failed gold miner.
Other contenders for most unusual names: Twodot and Checkerboard, Mont.; Magnet, Hazard, and Surprise, Neb.; Okay, Okla.; Tea and Igloo, S.D.; and Pitchfork, Wyo.
Massachusetts, meanwhile, has both a Piety Corner and a Brimstone Corner. For passions somewhere in between, visit Tree of Knowledge Corner.
Connecticut weighs in with the curious place name of Long Society. It refers to a long strip of land extending nine miles along the western border of the town of Norwich that, in 1699, became a separate ecclesiastical society, or parish, from the rest of Norwich.
Two of New York’s most interesting town names are Horseheads and Painted Post. Both Bird in Hand, Pa., and Cocked Hat, Del., were named for Colonial-era taverns. Accident, Md., takes its name from a surveying mistake, or accident, legend has it.
Jackpot, Nev., was known as Unincorporated Town No. 1 until the day in 1959 when the Elko County commissioners were awarded a gambling license. Another Nevada location, Jiggs, was named after the husband who was always bickering with his wife in the popular comic strip Maggie and Jiggs.
Rough and Ready, Calif., was named by Gold Rush prospectors who had served under Gen. Zachary Taylor, nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready.” Usona, Calif., is an acronym for United States of North America. California also has communities named Weed Patch and Likely.
Homer Allen, the first postmaster of Dusty, a crossroads town in southeastern Washington, wanted his name to go on the map in 1898. But his wife refused. She wanted the name to reflect the windy and dusty outpost.
Snowflake, Ariz., has nothing to do with weather. The name honors the community’s two founders, a Mr. Snow and a Mr. Flake. Other Grand Canyon state names include Christmas, Tombstone, Two Guns, Double Adobe, Carefree, and Show Low.
“You show low, and you win,” Marion Clark supposedly said to famous American Indian scout Corydon Cooley before they cut the deck to see who would end up with their 100,000-acre cattle empire 40 miles north of Fort Apache. Cooley turned up the deuce of clubs and won the right to buy Clark out. The year was 1870.
One of the Midwest’s most, well, peculiar place names is Peculiar, Mo. The town got its moniker in 1868 when the first postmaster wrote a letter to the postmaster general in Washington, D.C., saying, “We don’t care what name you give us as long as it is sort of peculiar.” Another unique Missouri name is Tightwad, named for a thrifty storekeeper.
Correct, Ind., was supposed to have been named Comet, for Halley’s Comet, but postal officials in the early 19th century couldn’t read the handwriting on the application and interpreted it incorrectly as “Correct.”
What Cheer, Iowa, takes its name from an old English salutation meaning “How are you?” used by English and Welsh coal miners who immigrated to the town in the 1850s. Other curious place names in the region: Tenstrike, Minn.; Novelty, Ohio; and Nirvana, Mich.
Germfask, Mich., has nothing to do with germs, although a man who knew something about them coined it. Dr. W. French used the first letter of the surname of each of the eight founding settlers: Grant, Edge, Robinson, Mead, French (the good doctor himself), Ackley, Shepard, and Knaggs.
A map of the South is dotted with curious down-home place names, the most quirky being Bug Tussle, Scratch Ankle, Vinegar Bend, Graball and Smut Eye, Ala.; Two Egg and Sawdust, Fla.; Between, Ga.; Jigger, La.; Monkeys Eyebrow and Rowdy, Ky.; Toad Suck, Dog Patch, Delight, and Smackover, Ark.; Frog Jump, Tenn.; Tightsqueeze, Va.; Whynot, Miss.; and Bug Hill, N.C.
North Carolina has a town named Democrat and another named Republican. Greenback, Tenn., was named in the late 1880s for the populist Greenback Party, whose supporters were opposed to the gold standard of federal monetary policy.
Short Pump, Va., refers to a hand pump whose handle had to be shortened. Hot Coffee, Miss., was the location of a store where a fresh pot was always brewing. Umpire, Ark., honors one Billy Faulkner, who in the 1890s called balls and strikes at the first baseball game played in that area. The winter of 1894 made a liar out of the real estate broker who named Frostproof, Fla., and the flooding Mississippi River never respected the name Waterproof, La.