Stray Phytotoponyms.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Gustaf Sobin’s Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestige in Provence and Languedoc:

For just as the flora has left its ghostly imprint embedded in so much fossilized matter, so, too, its memory has been sprinkled across the surface of innumerable church cartularies, bullaria, monastic records; been buried within the archival wealth of countless wills and testaments, marriage contracts, notarized deeds; or, occasionally, been inscribed across the surface of cadastral survey maps, outlining the limits of given properties. Within such documents, a stray phytotoponym—an oblique reference, say, to some olive grove offered up as part of a medieval dowry—gives researchers, on occasion, an invaluable aperçu of the floral environment of a particular locale at a given historical moment.

Fagus sylvatica, or common beech, is a perfect example in point. For the expanse that that tree once occupied can still be measured today, either by the lingering presence of ancient place-names in current usage or by the detection of such names in medieval records. In toponymic form, the tree appears under a variety of synonyms: Fage, Fau, Fagette, Fageas, Fayard, and so on. In each and every case, these place-names testify to a vanished environment. Infallibly, they indicate the exact location of forests that—in retracting—have left nothing for memento but their own estranged vocables. Among the many eloquent examples cited by Aline Durand, one in particular—drawn from a medieval cartulary— refers to a certain Faja oscura located in the Causse du Larzac. Faja signifies the tree itself, with all the nutritive oils inherent in its woody fruit, whereas oscura evokes the darkness, and thus the density, of those once-flourishing beeches. Long since converted into pastureland, that arboreal stand endures in a lone microtoponym: Lou Fagals. Mnemonic marker, it designates little more than a tiny ramshackle hamlet in the commune of Les Rives (Hérault).

The word—along with its residual counterpart, the fossil—bears witness to those vanished landscapes. Properly interpreted, its seemingly inconsequential particles, buried in so much somnolent documentation, allow one a glimpse—at least—of that lost ecology. It’s as if the word, as a token of human consciousness, had withstood the retraction and ultimate disappearance of that dense sylvatic canopy—that Faja oscura—in order to preserve the wood’s very memory. Even more, it serves to preserve our very own. For in that retraction and ultimate disappearance, the interface between culture and nature—cultum and incultum—has vanished as well. Only the word, it would seem, has withstood that spoliation. Having done so, it reminds us of a time in which the woods—the earth itself—hadn’t yet been sacrificed, alas, for the sake of ourselves alone.

Of course it’s wildly overstated (“In each and every case,” “Infallibly,” “exact location”), but it describes something real, and I confess I like that sort of thing even if I’m not a tree-hugger.


  1. Suburban tracts built on demolished forestland would often be called “Fair Oaks” or such, as some residual nod to the past. Now, I think, names like this are handed out willy-nilly, without any particular connection to the actual history of the place.

  2. Quite so. Presumably that wasn’t much of a consideration in medieval times, but it gives one to think. And it seems to me I read somewhere about a village that was named after a plant that grew in the locale the people who settled the village came from, out of nostalgia.

  3. Robert Everett-Green says

    A condo development in my city of Toronto was named Opera Place, to claim some dubious reflected glory from a failed plan to build an opera house on the site.

  4. In the Swan River Colony (Perth, WA), it was common for settlers to name their tracts of land after their family’s estates in the old country. These have since become suburb names.

    Eg. Herne Hill is located on a fairly flat piece of land without any discernible hill.,belonging%20to%20his%20wife%27s%20family.

  5. A phytotopoglottonym: Sidetic is the language of Σίδη (now Manavgat, Turkey), probably named from Greek σίδη ‘pomegranate (tree and fruit)’, synonym of ῥόα. The pomegranate appears on the coinage of the city, at least. The Greek word σίδη itself is doubtless of Mediterranean substrate origin. There is an etymological study of σίδη here.

  6. There is an etymological study of σίδη here.

    A useful roundup of forms and theories, thanks. The latest earlier theory:

    Under the heading σίδη Beekes (2010: 1329) mentions the related by-forms σίβδη and (Aeolian) ξίμβα, as well as to Alb. shegë f. ‘pomegranate’. After Brandenstein and Furnée he reconstructs the protoform *σιϝδ- for σίβδη and strongly argues that “the group is Pre-Greek”.

    The authors say:

    6. All the attested Ancient and Modern Greek forms can be reconstructed as *siCgwā f. ‘pomegranate’ or *kw(u)-siCgwā f. ‘great pomegranate’.

  7. One of my favorite phytotoponyms testifying to a vanished landscape is Chicago—the ramps (Allium tricoccum) now all having become ramps (concrete parking)… There is a thorough compilation of the evidence for this etymology of Chicago from Miami-Illinois šikaakwa “ramps (Allium tricoccum)” here on JSTOR. What I had not realized is that šikaakwa could mean both “ramps (Allium tricoccum)” and “skunk” and is thus apparently the same word as skunk from an etymological standpoint. Here is etymology for skunk in the Random House Dictionary, doubtless prepared by Ives Goddard:

    1625–35, Americanism; < the Massachusett reflex of Proto-Algonquian *šeka·kwa (derivative of *šek- urinate + -a·kw fox, foxlike animal)

    From this I gather that “skunk” must be the original meaning of the Miami-Illinois word and “ramps” an extension of this.

  8. P.S. There is a really nice website presenting the older materials documenting the Miami-Illinois language here. Search for an English or French term, click on one of the entries the search yields, and then click on the small blue icon with an eye on it to see a scan of the original manuscript.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Indian papoose : “Aw, Ma, not skunk again!”

  10. [Chicago] is thus apparently the same word as skunk from an etymological standpoint.

    Wow, that’s wonderful to know — thanks!

  11. David Marjanović says

    Indian papoose : “Aw, Ma, not skunk again!”

    Some folk’ll never eat a skunk,
    but then again some folk’ll…

  12. Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, both capitals of ‘breakaway republics’, are said to have to do with hornbeams. Charmante coïncidence!

  13. Very nice!

  14. I was wondering about Encino, California. The Wikipedia has this to say about the origin of the name:

    Fray Juan Crespi, a Franciscan missionary traveling with the expedition, named the valley “El Valle de Santa Catalina de Bolonia de Los Encinos” (The Valley of St. Catherine of Bologna of the Holm Oaks).

    However, it is not St. Catherine of Bolognia that is usually associated with the holm oak (Quercus ilex), Spanish encina, encino, also applied in the Californian context to the North American species Quercus agrifolia and Quercus chrysolepis, and perhaps some other Californian species I am unaware of. Rather, it is St. Catherine of Siena who is associated with Lecceto, the ‘Forest of Holm Oaks’ (Italian leccio ‘holm oak’). I wonder if this is just a coincidence. Crespí was a Franciscan, so it is expected that he would name the place after Catherine of Bologna, who was a member of the Order of St. Clare of Assisi, and not after Catherine of Siena. So I suppose the association of holm oaks and St. Catherine of Bologna in the name is just a coincidence due to the local landscape. Or maybe there is a connection between St. Catherine of Bologna and holm oaks that I am unaware of?

    (Ernout–Meillet on Vulgar Latin *ēlex (apparently attested in Gregory of Tours and glosses) for īlex, ‘holm oak’, for the first syllable of encina < *ēlicīna, it seems.)

  15. Santa Catalina Island was named after the Catherine of Alexandria on her Saint’s day. I thought Crespí might have named Encino likewise, but he was there on August 5th, which isn’t either Catherine’s day.

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    For 5 Augusti the Martyrology has:
    Antiochiae sancti Eusignii militis, qui annum agens centesimum decimum, cum Constantini Magni fidem, sub quo militaverat, Juliano Apostatae exprobraret, eumque ut patriae pietatis desertorem redargueret, ab eodem jussus est capite caedi.

    I agree that Eusignius > Encino is a stretch, requiring perhaps a misspelling or misreading of a “saint’s calendar” text.

  17. The mention of Catherine of Alexandria reminded me that I just recently learned that the mural showing her famous disputation (which Pope Alexander VI had painted in the Borgia Apartments of the Apostolic Palace) includes a portrait of the exiled Ottoman prince Cem Sultan. (The likeness of Catherine herself has sometimes been identified with Lucrezia, but that is a lot more dubious; the resemblance does not appear to be particularly close, and finding the pope’s daughter among the painted figures is just the sort of tabloid baloney that is typical of anything related to the Borgias.)

  18. David Marjanović says

    the sort of tabloid baloney that is typical of anything related to the Borgias

    Hey, if you don’t have any Kardashians, you have to make do with what you’ve got…

Speak Your Mind