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NEARBY PLACES WITH STRANGE-SOUNDING NAMES

The old song celebrates "faraway places with strange-sounding names." But here in Pennsylvania, you don't have to travel very far to visit places with names like Punxsutawney, Asylum, Bird in Hand, or Scalp Level.

Many names that are spelling bee stingers come from the first Americans who dwelt here before the Europeans. Punxsutawney, famous for its grandstanding groundhog, means "gnat-town," after the sand-flies, or "punkies," that plagued the early settlers there. Not much more reassuring, either in spelling or in meaning, is Kishacoquillas, in Mifflin County, where "the snakes have gone into their dens." Other place-names from around the state suggest how important waters and wild game were in the lives of native Americans: Daguscahonda, "pure water"; Maxatawny, "bear-path stream"; and Moshannon, "moose stream."

More recent settlers have also contributed their share of unusual place names. More than a dozen towns and villages in Pennsylvania take their names from old tavern signs. King of Prussia is named for an old colonial inn with a portrait of that monarch hanging out front. Temple, just north of Reading, is not named after a place of worship, but rather a tavern called Solomon's Temple, whose proprietor's given name was Solomon. Other towns such as Blue Ball, Broad Axe, and Red Lion take their names from historic inns in the southeastern counties.

Along highway 340 alone, one could stop for refreshments at the Mariner's Compass (now Compass), White Horse, and Bird-in-Hand, where an inn once sported the motto, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Intercourse is found on the same highway, known as a place of commercial and social exchange. (This market town is not in any way connected with a village near the Maryland border named Pleasant Union.) 

The names of some Pennsylvania places reveal their unique local history. The township of Asylum, in Bradford County, recalls a colony founded in 1794 as an asylum for refugees of the French Revolution. This visionary community was once visited by Louis Philippe, later to become the king of France. But the experiment was doomed to fail eventually because its wealthy inhabitants had been accustomed to a life of ease, and had very little idea how to adapt to their rugged new surroundings. 

A very different story emerges from the town of Economy, on the east bank of the Ohio River, founded in 1825 by a celibate community called the Harmony Society. True to its name, the little village of Economy became the center of enterprises which stretched out over all of western Pennsylvania, including coal mines, salt works, lumber and textile mills, and even oil wells. But by the beginning of this century, the community was all but extinct, due to mismanagement, internal bickering, and prolonged litigation--a loss of harmony which spells the end of any Economy. 

Another historic town founded in the nineteenth century is Eighty Four, where a post office was first established in the year--well, you know. As for Scalp Level, south of Johnstown, I have not yet found the meaning of its name. But until I do, I'm not stopping there for a haircut.
 

Recent Publications

The Way We Word 

WHAT'S IN A SURNAME? 

ITS A DOG'S WORD 

NEW WORDS FOR A NEW CENTURY 

WORDS FOR THE BIRDS 

KINGS AND CABBAGES: The Origin of Common German Family Names 

NEARBY PLACES WITH STRANGE-SOUNDING NAMES 

DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: Names of Pennsylvania's Rivers and Creeks

WORDS OF CON-GRADUATION

 


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