The Atlas of True Names reveals the etymological roots, or original meanings, of the familiar terms on today’s maps of the World and Europe. For instance, where you would normally expect to see the Sahara indicated, the Atlas gives you “Sea of Sand”, derived from Arab. es-sahra “desert, sea of sand”. The ‘True Names’ of 1500 cities, countries, rivers, oceans and mountain ranges are displayed on these two fascinating maps, each of which includes a comprehensive index of derivations.
Etymology, (OGr. etymon “true sense” and logos “speech, oration, discourse, word”) is the study of the origin and history of words. For the first time, the Atlas of True Names uses etymology to give us an unusual insight into familiar geographical names – with intriguing results……
The linked webpage shows closeups of a couple of areas of the map, North America and Britain/Ireland, and it looks like a lot of fun: Florida becomes “Blossoming Land,” Chicago “Stink Onion,” and so on. And when the names are unchanged, like Oakland, you find yourself contemplating the literal meaning of the name for the first time, perhaps, since you were a kid.
Now, it goes without saying that not all the etymologies are cast-iron, and some are pretty dubious (“I Don’t Understand You!” for Yucatan); much is made of this in the Language Log post about the map, but this is nitpicking. Anyone who gets seriously interested can find more authoritative references. Furthermore, a couple of commenters there complain that giving deep etymological origins of toponyms derived from other toponyms is misleading: “Even if York means “Wild Boar Village”, the people who named New York (a) didn’t know, (b) didn’t care…” But the idea is not to provide an analysis of the history of the name but to give the earliest available meaning for the name. It’s a thought experiment and mind-joggler, not an awe-inspiring work of reference, and for what it is, it seems to be very well done (they provide a list of all the etymologies they used). Intelligent, well-constructed fun is a good thing.