My latest article for the BBC is a road trip: 60 miles and 2500 years through the history of British place names – including Featherstone, Appleby Magna, the River Tame, and Newton Burgoland. Find out why England has a Great Snoring, a Westley Waterless, and a Shitterton!
Why does Britain have such bizarre place names?
And if you’re inclined to survey the route yourself and perhaps do a little street view to see how it all looks, turn to Google Maps.
I think it’s time for another poem from my book Songs of Love and Grammar. This is one of a small set that have nothing to do with romantic difficulty – though it does have to do with getting around.
When you’re referring to a couple of geographical features, such as the Bow River and the Elbow River, you can join them together and say the Bow and Elbow rivers, because river can be treated as a descriptive term in this case. If you’re talking about Green Bay and North Bay, you can say Green and North bays if you’re talking about the bays, but it might be misleading to use that when you’re talking about the cities. Some people like to extend this practice to city names, as in Forts Meyers and St. John, but that can get a little dodgy. Or maybe more than a little…
Getting around efficiently
Oh, all the places we have gone –
we’ve seen Forts Myers and St. John;
Green and Thunder Bays were nice,
and Frobisher, though full of ice;
Long and Virginia Beaches – spiffy;
Grand and Cedar Rapids – iffy;
I still recall how we did things
in Hot and Colorado Springs
and Sans Diego and Jose –
oh, yes, and don’t forget ta Fe;
Saints Petersburg and Paul were green,
Dart and Fal mouths were marine;
Ott and Osh awas were cool;
Grands Forks and Rapids, rather cruel;
Cals gary and ifornia, great;
Monts pelier and réal – don’t wait;
Wins dsor and nipeg, give a miss;
Den and Vancou vers, skiers’ bliss;
Columbs us and ia, just fair;
Phoeni and Bron xes – don’t go there;
Moose Jaw and Factory – no way;
Jun and Gatin eaux – OK;
Toes peka, ledo, ronto – yeah;
Men chester and itoba – nah.
Oh, yes, we’ve had the time that was
in Canad and Americ as!
A while back, a colleague was faced with an author who wanted to say the Silicon Valley rather than just Silicon Valley because, after all, we say the Ottawa Valley.
But the Ottawa Valley is the Ottawa Valley because it’s the valley of the Ottawa River. I grew up in the Bow Valley, so called because it was the valley of the Bow River. There is no Death River and no Silicon River; the names Death Valley and Silicon Valley are not descriptive formations based on some geographic feature. A valley doesn’t need to have a river to get a “the,” but the “the” generally indicates a central geographic feature contained by the valley, and that geographic feature is the focal detail, not the valley – the valley is presented as a surrounding attribute.
On the other hand, places named after some feature or associated quality or thing such that the place, not the associated thing, is central (and the associated thing is an attribute) normally don’t take “the” – Moraine Lake, Rainbow Falls, Happy Valley, Cougar Mountain, etc. So if it’s a valley first, it’s likely to be X Valley, whereas if it’s a river or whatever first and the valley is an attribute of it – if it’s the valley of the X – then it may be the X Valley.
But the main reason that Silicon Valley doesn’t take a the is just because it doesn’t. Never mind arguing from reasoning; place names are varied enough that exceptions can typically be found for any rule. Place names adhere to what is actually officially and commonly used for the place name, and it is not officially or commonly standard to say or write the Silicon Valley. It’s like saying the New York or the Vancouver Island.