What's in a Name

No, not that Woodstock
Illustration by Brad Fitzpatrick

Legend has it that when Mussolini committed aggression in Africa the conscientious citizens of our Lone Star State were quick to notify the League of Nations that it was Rome, Italy, and not Rome, Texas, that had invaded Ethiopia. Good PR for Texas.  

It’s enough to make you wonder if the good citizens of Lebanon, New Hampshire, ever thought to remind the world that their fair city has never waged war on Jordan, Syria, Israel or even Vermont. Chances are, our “Lebanese” people are too modest to boast of their peace-loving ways.

Some of the cities and small towns in New Hampshire use the diplomacy of diction to make clear the pronounced difference between their humble communities and their more famous namesakes in far-off foreign lands. Our northernmost city, for example, is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable to distinguish BER-lin, New Hampshire from that European capital known as Ber-LIN. That’s so tourists who get lost in the North Country won’t think they’re in Germany and start pestering the locals with a lot of foolish questions about directions to the Autobahn or some such thing.   

The same is true of MI-lan (population 1,254), which is just north of BER-lin and nowhere near Italy. In MI-lan, DaVinci’s last supper might have been in Ursula’s Snack Shack or Muriel’s Restaurant or possibly at the Yokohama Restaurant, which is in nearby Gorham and not in Japan. There is no cathedral or museum in MI-lan, but there are surely plenty of trees to please leaf-peeping travelers each autumn. And there is no shortage of friendly, pun-loving wits who will be happy to tell you that “if you think this town is dumb, the next town is Dummer” (population 285).

Our neighboring states also like to make such fine linguistic distinctions. Barre, Vermont, for example is pronounced “Berry,” while Calais, Maine, is called “Callous,” perhaps for its callous indifference toward French seaport cities.

Tripoli Road in Waterville Valley doesn’t have any shores on which Marines might land to fight Barbary pirates. But it has made visitors fighting mad when they get directions to turn on what sounds like “Triple-I” Road and they get lost looking for a road marked “III.”

Sometimes a similarity in names, however spoken, can cause confusion in the minds of travelers who are, you might say, geographically challenged. Anyone looking for Hampton Beach in New Hampton, for example, will be thoroughly lost and more than 80 miles from the nearest ocean. And since next year will bring the 50th anniversary of the great whatever-it-was event in Woodstock, New York, in 1969, there are bound to nostalgia-driven retro hippies looking for the famous site in Woodstock, New Hampshire, or Woodstock, Vermont.

I’ve yet to hear of anyone looking for a Steelers game in Pittsburg, New Hampshire, where the biggest spectator sport might be watching bears fight at the town dump. But I was once stopped on Manchester’s Elm Street by a couple of travelers asking for directions to a place that turned out to be in Manchester, Vermont. They were a long way from their destination, but it could have been worse. At least they weren’t trying to reach Manchester, England. That would have been a far more hazardous journey.  

Especially in a pickup truck.

Categories: Humor