Saturday, June 21, 2008

Colourful, Whacky Place Names

The Maori hill

Ever wonder how does a particular place get its name? Some names are never a mystery to begin with, I know, much like my own birthplace Bukit Besi in Terengganu, for instance.

Simply translated, it means 'iron hill' and that was what it precisely was for some 30 years (1930s-1960s), a township carved out of nothing and named Bukit Besi for the lodes of premium grade iron ore unearthed and eventually mined to exhaustion there.

Bukit Besi still exists, the hill a mere stump now and the remaining ore, I was told, is too low a grade to be mined profitably.

Whatever the case, at least the Terengganu State Government saw it fit to redevelop Bukit Besi as an oil palm plantation and the old mine as a tourist attraction.

Until today I am still intrigued by Batang Berjuntai (The Hanging Trunk or The Hanging Prick, take your pick), a small town in Selangor.

The connotation is too deliciously naughty to contemplate. I am sure the truth is nowhere near my impure thought, though.

Malaysia is woefully insipid as far as place names are concerned. Perhaps it is deeply rooted in our culture to be decorous (at least publicly).

But the Malay language has a lot of expletives, so we can't be all that verbally prim and proper, can we?

Let's go on a whirlwind tour of colourful place names and there are plenty of them around to tickle the palate.

The Brits, as to be expected, top the list in naming places with cherishably ridiculous names that you just can't simply improve on.

Bill Bryson in his book Notes From A Small Island (about his travels around Great Britain), notes there are villages whose very names summon forth a gamut of imagery:

  • villages that make one think of lazy summer afternoons and butterfly darting in meadows - Winterbourne Abbas, Weston Lullingsfield, Theddlethorpe All Saints, Little Missenden;

  • villages that seem to hide some ancient and possibly dark secrets - Husbands Bosworth, Rime Intrinseca, Whiteladies Aston;

  • villages that sound like toilet cleaners - Potto, Sanahole, Durno;

  • villages that sound like skin complaints - Scabcleuch, Whiterashes, Scurlage, Sockburn;

  • villages that have an attitude problem - Seething, Mockbeggar, Wrangle;

  • villages of strange phenomena - Meathop, Wigtwizzle, Blubberhouses;

  • villages with names just plainly inane - Prittlewell, Little Rollright, Chew Magna, Titsey, Woodstock Slop, Lickey End, Stragglethorpe, Yonder Bognie, Nether Wallop, Sots Hole, Spitall in the Street.
In one compact area of South of Cambridge, says Bryson, one can find Blo Northon, Rickinghall Inferior, Hellions Bumpstead, Ugley and the arresting Shellow Bowells.

"I had an impulse to go there, to sniff out Shellow Bowells and to find out what make Northon Blo and Rickinghall Inferior, " he quips.

Not to be outdone, the United States too has its fair share of colourful, no-nonsense, say-it-as-it-is place names. Just savour these:

  • Ding Dong, Lick Skillet - Texas;
  • Whynot - Mississippi;
  • Zzyzx Spring - California;
  • Coldass Creek, Stiffknee Knob - North Carolina;
  • Scratch Ankle - Alabama;
  • Fertile - Minnesota;
  • Climax - Michigan;
  • Intercourse - Pennsylvania;
  • Defeated, Nameless - Tennessee;
  • Hog Heaven - Idaho;
  • Dead Bastard Peak, Crazy Woman Creek, Maggie's Nipples - Wyoming.
Think about those last three names for a moment. Just who is the 'Bastard' and why is he dead? Someone must have been furious enough to gloat over his demise to the point of naming a peak after it.

Could the hapless fellow's fate be tied to a crazy woman whose name could probably be Maggie whose nipples are now on the US map? Phew! the possibilities are endless!

And all of this does not even begin to mention Wales where you can find towns and villages with names that look like Scrabble leftovers - Bwlchtocyn, Llwynddyrys, Cwmtwrch, Mwnt, Pwllheli - and we haven't even got to the pronunciation part yet.

By the way, Wales is also home to one of the three longest place names in the world, the other two being Thailand and New Zealand.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a Welsh town on the island of Anglesey, that means "The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio's of the red cave".

There is a hill in South Island, New Zealand whose Maori name is Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.

Roughly translated, it means "The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose lute to his loved one."

And finally there is Bangkok (meaning "Village of Plums"), known to Thais simply as Krung Thep (meaning "City of Angels").

Its official name, however, is more than a mouthful: Krungthep Maha Nakorn, Amorn Rattanakosin Mahintara Ayutthaya Mahadilok Phop, Noparat Rajthani Burirom, Udom Rajaniwes Maha Satharn, Amorn Phimarn Avatarn Sathit, Sakkatattiya Visanukam Prasit."

(Translation): The City of Angels, The Great City, The Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable City of Ayutthaya of God Indra, The Grand Capital of the World endowed with Nine Precious Gems, The Happy City, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn."

I am exhausted, deadbeat, drained, whacked, worn out, flagged and knackered from these "travels". Time to replenish. Ciao!

No comments: