Insulting and/or Naughty Place Names

Recently an undergraduate student was transcribing herbarium labels using Notes From Nature as part of “The Physician’s Garden,” a course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that combines botany, chemistry, gardening, history, and citizen science.

Herbarium staff were helping the student learn how to read herbarium labels – how to enter collector name, where to enter the date the plant was collected, how to tease apart location and habitat – when a specimen with an insulting place name came up on the screen. Ahhhh… yes… a Curatorial Cringe Moment. From time to time, we come across labels that contain insulting or otherwise unfortunate place names. I had failed to even think about a specimen such as this popping up on Notes From Nature. For those interested, you can look up Mt. Jefferson in western North Carolina, U.S.A. to see the name that is used to be called. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Jefferson_(North_Carolina)] This happens to be a well collected area with lots of interesting plants, so we have many specimens from this area.

Fortunately, the student was gracious about it, “Hey, history is history,” was his comment and it prompted a discussion about how the mountain got its name, what the mountain is called now, and how to deal with cringeworthy herbarium labels on Notes From Nature in the future.

One source on Wikipedia claims that the mountain got its name from the many African Americans who lived on the mountain to escape slavery. More likely the name actually comes from the dark coloration of amphibolite and metagraywacke rocks of the mountain. Dr. Asa Gray called it by such name in his notes from his trip to the mountains of North Carolina in 1841 because of the coloration of the rocks. When the peak became a State Natural Area in 1956, the name was changed to Mount Jefferson in honor of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States.

Nearby Mulatto Mountain, with its somewhat lighter rock hues, is further from the beaten path and has not been renamed. If we were to re-name Mulatto Mountain, my personal choice would be Mount Hemings, a nod to the complexity of race, love, property, freedom and history in the life-long relationship between Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Sally Hemings (c. 1773-1835).

Lest one think that a reference like this is associated only with places in The Land of Dixie, a quick perusal of herbarium specimens on sernecportal.org yields Creeks/Mountains/Heads/Points/Islands etc. from Idaho, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Washington and California with the same unfortunate use.

So, what is a Curator to do with offensive or insulting place names? First of all, take a deep breath and like my undergraduate, concede that “history is history.” Second, pick up and read From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame by Mark Monmonier, published in 2006 by University of Chicago Press. “Offensive toponyms fall into two categories. One type…denigrates racial and ethnic groups. The other variety…offends folks bothered by rude or otherwise impolite references to body parts, sex, excrement, and other no-no’s.”

So, armed with Tolerance for History and Appreciation of Anatomy, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Herbarium has resolved to Keep Calm & Continue Databasing old specimens from now-Mount Jefferson (North Carolina), “Dildo Cove” (Newfoundland, Canada), “Shitten Creek” (Oregon), “Jap Valley” (California) or, going for the double bonus of derogatory and anatomical, “Squaw Tit” (Arizona).

We welcome your thoughts on this issue and also end by reminding everyone that our social mores and values change, usually for the better, and what was seen as acceptable in in the 1800’s is not so in 2016.

Carol Ann McCormick, Curator, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Herbarium

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One response to “Insulting and/or Naughty Place Names”

  1. Helen Bennett says :

    Strewth! My thoughts would be, clean up denigratory names, definitely; but keep the impolite ones, they make life more colourful.

    Anyway, if we went for a total cleanup, Manchester would have to be renamed. Manchester, UK, is named for the Camp on the Breast-Shaped Hill; as named by the Celts and then latinised by the Romans. I guess humans have likened landscape features to breasts for a very long time.

    Now I’m trying to decide if “Whorehouse Meadow” is denigratory and should be renamed “Sex Worker Establishment Meadow” or not… somehow it just doesn’t have the same ring.

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