Monday, November 15, 2010

What's in a Town Name? Or, That Cutoff Joke Was Too Easy

The South has a rich literary history, and that's reflected in something you might not realize – town names.

I haven't been all over the country, but the most interesting, funny, funny-sounding, and curious names seem to be attached to Southern towns. And the smaller the town, it seems, the odder the name can be. Town names are a form of literature, to me, in that they can say a lot in just one or two words.

Some personal favorites, most of which I didn't have to look up (unincorporated towns included):

• Cuba, Ala.
• Noxapater, Miss.
• Rolling Fork, Miss.
• Cutoff, La.
• Dry Prong, La.
(Those last two remind me of a Lorena and John Wayne Bobbit joke, but since this is a family blog...)
• Coffeeville, Miss.
• Denmark, Miss.
• Oddville, Ky.
• Gu-Win, Ala.
• Bald Knob, Ark.
• Green Frog, Tenn.
• Kiln, Miss.
• Toad Suck, Ark.
• Turkey Scratch, Ark.
• And my personal all-time favorite: Smackover, Ark.

I wonder, of course, how these town names came to be. I could do some research, but that'd be too much like work. So I'll take a stab at how some of the above towns became so named.

• Cuba, Ala.: Obviously Fidel Castro's top-secret American spy headquarters. Or just where he keeps a summer home. Bribes the locals to keep quiet with free cigars and large guns.

• Rolling Fork, Miss.: See, this one guy wanted to call it Rolling Fork, but another wanted to call it Rolling Spoon. They got in a fight to the death, and you can guess which utensil won out. (Rolling Knife guy suffered a tragic, and embarrassing, injury but later founded Cutoff, La.)

• Denmark, Miss.: The first and only Danish settlement in Mississippi is still a thriving community of tasty pastries.

• Bald Knob, Ark.: [CENSORED]

• Toad Suck, Ark.: You don't wanna know. Let's just say it's derived from some weird local custom involving warts.

• Kiln, Miss.: Originally named Crucible, then later Induction Furnace, and finally Kiln.

• Smackover, Ark.: In 1889ish, the mayor of the newly established town was set to reveal the name (as voted on by the settlers) at a well-publicized ceremony, but just as he was about to make the big announcement, a runaway mail carriage ran him smack over and killed him, so they went with that. Nobody liked that jerk anyway.

Weird town names aren't limited to the South, of course. There's Intercourse, Penn. There was the boomtown of Tombstone, Ariz. And the aptly named Peculiar, Mo. And let's not forget West Elbow, Mont. (OK, that place doesn't exist, but it should; there is a West Thumb, Wyo.)

Maybe that's why I find big towns and cities so boring. No character, no color, just names as cold as the concrete. I mean, how could you not love a place like Rabbit Shuffle, N.C.?