NEB&W Guide to Derivation of Town Names

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Modelers often have to come up with names for the towns on their layout, or name their railroad. Now I have all but pleaded for everyone to try modeling specific scenes, as you might find it many times more fascinating than making something up. I'd even suggest this if you wanted to model a town in Maine, one in Pennsylvania and one in West Virginia, and connect them with a totally implausible road. However, if you don't want to copy real places, let's discuss the matter of names:

Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged is based on the concept of an ideal free enterprise system, totally unshackled, run by benevolent dictators, and how the country goes to pot when reined in by labor unions, anti-trust laws and federal regulations. In the book there is a railroad called "The John Galt Line". This shows a little naivete about railroads.

Railroads are so capital intensive that they were not named after one individual. A Heinz, Borden, or Coors can start with a one-person business named after themselves and then expand eventually into a multi-national conglomerate with the same name. Railroads can't start that small. No one built a thriving but small business on a mile or two of track, and expanded it slowly to a Class I line. Okay, there are switching lines that exist, but they don't keep growing. Railroads named after one person couldn't raise the capital to get going. (Exception, the Bamberger, but this was a shortline.) Instead roads were named after geographical features, particularly a pair of towns that they hoped to connect, often with "Pacific" or "Western" tacked on the end to show the unlimited possibilities of the company to really excite investors.

Now railroads did adopt slogans "Route of the Rebel", "Route of the Nancy Hawks", etc. but these weren't the official name, and again not named after the founder. There was no "Russell Sage Line", "Vanderbilt Route". Yes, there was what we refer to as the "Harriman Lines" or the "Pinsley Shortlines" but these were not official.

So the roads are named after places, and if are making up names, you may also want to come up with plausible names for other places on your layout. I have become much more sensitive to names after tracking down the source a number of names for the paint schemes sections.

In the U.S., there were four major sources, in order of decreasing of importance. The first came from the original settlers, the Indians. Now rivers and mountains existed back before there were any Europeans, so often the colonists continued to use the Indian names. On the other hand, the Indians couldn't name the towns and cities that didn't exist yet, so these tend not to reflect Native American names as much as counties and states do, i.e., the natural areas. In some cases, they do, of course, but this is because the town was named after the geographical feature nearby. In other words, these came about second-hand.

The second source was naming by the first Europeans. In this case, we are talking English along most of the Atlantic seaboard, the Dutch around the Hudson Valley, the Germans in Pennsylvania, the French for much of Canada, and the Spanish along the west coast. The point here is that later waves of immigration do not get reflected much in names. Thus we have few Italian and Polish town names.

Sometimes these were "New Scotland" and "New England" and "New Amsterdam". (Less obvious, Nova Scotia - Latin for New Scotland.)

The third source was inspiration from the old world in general, Biblical names (Bethlehem, Goshen, Galilee, Salem - short from Jerusalem), classic names (Rome, Athens, Attica, Lebanon, Corinth, Cairo, Ravena, Seneca, Syracuse, Troy, Ithaca), famous cities or even countries (Dresden, Madrid, Peru, Toledo, Berlin, Warsaw, Lima, Florence, Paris, Dublin). In this same vein of religious names would be Providence, New Haven, Newark (New Ark) and Fair Haven.

The fourth source was after prominent men, as a way to honor local men making good. Examples are Jim Thorpe, Scranton, Columbus, Columbia, Washington, Lincoln and the rest of the Presidents.

Now modelers often like to use their family's names, when lacking any other source, and probably to create a little goodwill at the homefront. Unfortunately, these often seem hokey to outsiders, and cut into any attempt to create realism. In the real world, it is the last name that was used, not the first. (Ann Arbor was one exception, named after the first names of the first two women.) Thus Fredtown and Janeville are pretty obvious as homemade.

However, there are examples for use of a first name. Kings and Saints are called by their first name, so Fort William and Lake George and St. Mary are more reasonable. Saints in particular (there were a lot more of them, while Kings reused names, like Louis I up to Louis XIV) were favored. Of course, the French used "Ste." and the Spanish, "Santa" and "San", and this should be kept in mind as to the location of your layout. So instead of Frankburg, San Francisco is more appropriate for the west coast, or St. Fillippe instead of Philtown. Thus Santa Barbara, San Jose, Santa Rosa, Santa Fe.

Keep in mind that many surnames were derived from first names, such as Hudson, Johnson, Jackson, Jefferson, Thomson, Wilson, so you could tack on "son" to your kids' names.

Getting deeper into names, are you aware that all the "chester", "cester", and "caster"-type names are all related (Chester, Colchester, Rochester, Lancaster, Leicester, Gloucester, Manchester, Winchester, Worcester). English derived it from the Roman word for "camp" which also apparently gave us "castle". It also gave the French "chateau". (I was sure that "shire" also came from this, but etymological experts say no.)

We still have the term "hamlet", which means little "ham" (i.e, "home), which gave England a number of their towns (Birmingham, Durham, Shoreham, Chatham, Nottingham). The related Dutch language apparently had "dam" as in Amersterdam, Rotterdam, Pottsdam.

"Ville" is from "village" which comes from "villa", a country home. ("Villian" originally meant a serf attached to a villa, and only slowly evolved into someone bad, helped perhaps by the association with "vile.)

"Ton" was a corruption for "town" (Ballston, Barton/Bartonsville, Bennington, Binghamton, Bloomington, Bolton, Boston, Brighton, Burlington, Burton, Castleton, Clinton, Charleston, Canton, Dayton, Huntington, Lexington, Grafton, Farmington, Houston, Lexington, Milton, Norton, Stockton, Kingston, Princeton, Hamilton, Hampton, Scranton, Trenton, Wilmington, Winston). (In some cases, such as Houston, the name of the Texas city was from an individual, Sam Houston, whose family name probably was from the town they came from. The same with Scranton.)

(Actually, "town" is derived from "tun" which originally meant an enclosure and then buildings in an enclosed area, in other words a farm, so these "ton" names probably date back to someone's farmstead.)

Germany had "burg", which is why Pennsylvania is full of "burg" this and "burg" that (Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Newburg, Warrensburgh, Ogdensburg, Plattsburg, Alburgh). The equivalent in English is both "borough" (Westborough, Willsboro, Malboro, Brattleboro) and "bury" (Canterbury, Westbury, Danbury, Mayberry, Middlebury, Newbury, Sudbury, Waterbury, maybe Barre and Wilkes-Barre). I am guessing that in Scotland, this was "burne" as in Shelburne.

"Ford" means a crossing of a watercourse ("fjord" in Scandinavian, "firth" in Scotland, "ferry" also in English as well as "port" and "portage"). Thus we have Beauford, Bedford, Bradford, Guilford, Chelmsford, Millford, Medford, Hartford, Rumford, Rockford, Stratford, Seaford, Sanford, Wallingford, Waterford. Port Penn, and others where "port" is first is also so derived, but Newport, Williamsport and Westport where it is a suffix is not so obvious.

"Sylvania" means woods, such as Pennsylvania, Transylvania, Spotsylvania, and just plain Sylvania.

"Apolis" was an ancient Greek city which became a generic city, Metropolis, (and also gave us "police" and "politics"). Thus after Queen Anne we got Annapolis, a city in Minnesota is Minneapolis, and Indianapolis and Copperopolis are obvious. "Hurst" is from the Greeks (I think), but I know it means "wooded hill", giving "Amherst", "Elmhurst", "Lakehurst", "Bensonhurst".

"Wick" is derived from Latin "vicus" meaning village (and also gave us "vicinity"). This gives us Brunswick, Warwick, Southwick, Hardwick. Also related is "wich", Greenwich, Norwich, Sandwich. (Of course, it was the Earl of Sandwich, who not wanting to interrupt his card game, called for roast meat to be put between two slices of bread, thus giving his name to the food.) And wick/wich go back to the same prehistorical root that gave Latin, "villa".

Other suffixes:

  • "Moor" (Dartmoor, Baltimore, Dunmore, Fillmore). ("Moor", a swampy flat area, comes utimately from the Latin "mar" for sea (marine, submarine, and mermaid), and in England, a "mere" is a lake, thus giving Windermere. It also gave us "marsh".)
  • "Springs" (too obvious)
  • "Mont" (short for mountain) (Beaumont, Claremont, Freemont, Philmont, Piedmont, Vermont, Richmond). (Also as a prefix, Montreal - i.e. royal mountain, and Montpelier.)
  • "Hall" (Whitehall)
  • "Field" (Bakersfield, Goldfield, Greenfield, Sheffield, Mansfield, Springfield, Plainfield, Farfield, Clinchfield)
  • "Bridge" (Bainbridge, Cambridge)
  • "Hill" (Churchill)
  • "Land" (Ashland, Cleveland, Courtland, Ireland, Maryland, Oakland, Portland, Rockland, Rutland, Sunderland, Shetland)
  • "Mouth" (as of a river, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Yarmouth)
  • "Stock(ade)", (Comstock)
  • "Well" (Roswell, Carwell, Hopewell, Orwell)
  • "Wood" (Buttonwood)
  • "Wall" (Cornwall)
  • "Pool" (Liverpool, Blackpool)
  • and "gate" (Harrowgate, Colgate, Bathgate).

So if you are stuck with trying to work your kids' names into your layout, try adding one of these suffixes. Or plan ahead when your children are born and name them "Chicago", "Western", and/or "Pacific".

Finally, "Rensselaer" from Dutch means "deer's wood or grove or cape" meaning a deer's couch or harbour (?)