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America's lakes

Mooselookmeguntic and Sopchoppy: America’s lakes and rivers

If you love words, chances are you have a favorite dictionary and probably a well-used thesaurus. Your bookshelves may hold some specialized resources as well – books about usage, idioms, puzzle solving, vocabulary building, rhyming, and so forth. If you have a particular fondness for words with an unusual flavor, you’ve probably browsed through books that feature the stories behind such curious gems as ‘odd bodkins’, ‘horsefeathers’, and ‘curmudgeons’. I’m an insatiable browser of such things. Funny words are fun. They needn’t mean anything funny. They just have to look or sound peculiar, and when they do, I feel an immediate attraction.

I have a particular preoccupation with odd place names, which began when I was seven years old and my dad got a Rand McNally US road atlas from the Esso station. It didn’t take long before I was discovering towns like Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and Lizard Lick, North Carolina. I was hooked. More recently I’ve had an interest in America’s lakes and rivers. Researching their names has been an ongoing activity (we live in a profusely watered nation!), but for one who enjoys the language of our geography, the rewards are worth the effort.

Not sure I could relax on a lake named Tippy Dam

Among my favorite US lake names are Emma Matilda (Wyoming), Darling (North Dakota), Elephant Butte (New Mexico), Hungry Mother (Virginia), Memphremagog (Vermont), Mooselookmeguntic (Maine), Nickajack (Tennessee), Prettyboy (Maryland), Square (California), Tenkiller Ferry (Oklahoma), Tippy Dam (Michigan), Winnibigoshish (Minnesota), and Yellow Belly (Idaho). Often cited for its notable length is the presumably Algonquian name for Massachusetts’ Webster Lake: Lake Chaubunagungamaug, more famously known as Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, understandably said to be America’s longest place name. (It is popularly translated to ‘you fish on your side of the lake, I’ll fish on mine, and nobody will fish in the middle,’ but this is just a humorous take on what may originally have been a reference to the boundaries of a fishing place.)

Eek! Is that Poo or Pudding in the Fryingpan? Whatever it is, it’ll Neversink

As much I enjoy the roll call of US lakes, I think the rivers have an even greater share of charmingly bizarre names. On my favorites list are Chunky (Mississippi), Eek (Alaska), Fryingpan (Colorado), Humptulips (Washington), Merrymeeting (New Hampshire), Neversink (New York), Sopchoppy (Florida), Loyalsock (Pennsylvania), Poo (Nebraska), Prairie Dog Town Fork Red (Texas), Pudding (Oregon), and Tchefuncte (Louisiana). If Massachusetts can claim the longest lake name, Oregon can contend for the shortest river name: D. For a river that runs a mere 440 feet, it seems a fitting title.

Long before Mapquest and GPS, there were these paper things

There are online resources that could provide instant lists of peculiar US place names, but I highly recommend looking randomly on maps—real, colorful, paper maps and atlases that you can lay on the table and pore over, running your finger along the network of highways and railroads that take you from place to place, and following the path of a river from town to town. This is when the sighting of an unusual and unfamiliar name becomes a personal discovery. I may never visit more than a few of these places, but I like knowing that there’s a dimension to my language experience that is as American as I am. The words in that language may not always be predictable, conventional, or even sensible, but that’s fine, because neither am I.

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