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Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States

4.04  ·  Rating Details ·  308 Ratings  ·  61 Reviews
George R. Stewart’s classic study of place-naming in the United States was written during World War II as a tribute to the varied heritage of the nation’s peoples. More than half a century later, Names on the Land remains the authoritative source on its subject, while Stewart’s intimate knowledge of America and love of anecdote make his book a unique and delightful window ...more
Paperback, 511 pages
Published July 1st 2008 by NYRB Classics (first published 1945)
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Community Reviews

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Jan 25, 2010 Kathrina rated it it was amazing
How I wish George R. Stewart was still alive, so that I could actually respond to his request for letters on names of the land. How grateful I am that he found the process of naming so fascinating, and that his passion poured out in every sentence he wrote. A friend of mine recently read Moby Dick, and her review considered -- damn, this guy really likes whales -- and though I don't believe whales topped her list of fascinating obsessions, she appreciated the passion with which Melville spoke of ...more
Aug 06, 2010 Tony rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Stewart, George R. NAMES ON THE LAND: A HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF PLACE-NAMING IN THE UNITED STATES. ((1945; revised in 1958 & 1967; this ed. 2008). ****. Stewart wrote this book while he was serving in the military during WWII. How places got their names had been a life-long interest of his since he was a teenager. It is a book that you can’t read at just a few sittings. You have to keep getting up to tell someone what it was you just learned. This takes time. My wife has resorted to reading ...more
Jun 15, 2015 Lobstergirl rated it liked it
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Troy Patterson/Slate college reading list
Shelves: own, nyrb

For some reason I was expecting more charm, more narrative from this. Stewart's pile-of-facts style reminded me of John McPhee, as if this were a 500 page McPhee New Yorker article. It was boring.

But there were some moderately interesting facts, and some bright moments, as in this 1864 Congressional discussion of the naming of Montana:

Mr. Sumner: The name of this new Territory - Montana - strikes me as very peculiar. I wish to ask the chairman of the committee what has suggested that name. It se

I acknowledge that many goodreads reviewers profess to find this book "fascinating". I understand that it is regarded by some as an "American classic". There is something distinctly impressive about George R. Stewart's sheer stamina.

What I cannot do, based on empirical evidence from extensive trials, is read more than a page of this book without lapsing into prolonged, profound slumber. It may be the most boring book ever w
N W James
Jan 03, 2010 N W James rated it liked it
Shelves: history, 2009
It's a little dry. But in a 1950's tv program kind of way. We're used to whistles and bells in our culture nowadays. I know SEVERAL people who won't attend a movie on the basis of monotony if it doesn't have at least one explosion or murder in it.

This book is not for them. I kept having to remind myself that the book was written 50 years ago. As a textbook. And apparently a very well respected one. George Stewart has a mild humor as he writes. He passes the silly, the overly complicated, and the
Jul 04, 2012 Lacey rated it liked it
Have you heard the story about how chocolate chip cookies were invented? Once upon a time there was a lovely young housewife who was going to have company and wanted to make chocolate cookies for them. Lo and behold when she went to the cupboard she found, to her everlasting shame, that she was all out of cocoa powder. Undeterred she broke up a bar of baking chocolate and stirred the chunks into the cookie dough, assuming that in the oven the chunks would melt and mix into the cookie, making it ...more
Alex Rosenthal
May 10, 2015 Alex Rosenthal rated it it was ok
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I picked up this book and saw that it was 400 pages.

There are two ways a book like this could work. You could have a narrative study of the trends in place-naming and how these trends reflected the growth of the United States. Or you could have a bathroom style book of factoids explaining how each place in the United States got its name, something quick and easily digestible. Unfortunately, this book is both. A long narrative story that goes from place to plac
Dec 10, 2010 Whitaker rated it liked it
A really great book shows us how everything is great and worth to die for
Aug 30, 2011 Tim rated it liked it
A fine tracing of how our nation's landscape was named: natural features, cities, and towns. The author follows the individual strands of explorers and why they named features as they did (reflecting their heritage, religion, country, or for that matter, a whim of the moment.) Then settlers, factions, towns people, the Post Office and finally a Board to settle disputes or "clean up" anomalies - if the locals would allow it.

The book is comprehensive from the opening sentence, "In the beginning,
Aug 23, 2013 Elese rated it liked it
I am a name enthusiast and also have a great deal of respect for George Stewart--a former Cal professor and a prolific and varied writer. Despite all of that, I barely made it through this naming death march of a book. (Don't be fooled by the chapter "Melodrama in the Forties" beginning on p. 242. Nope that's about the 1840s.) But read it I did, and I'm glad I did. If you expect to see me in the next few months be prepared for an onslaught of place-name fun facts; I've stored them away like a ...more
Jun 07, 2012 Jay rated it it was amazing
Warning: My favorable rating may be due to my love of the subject matter. Toponyms fascinate me, and American toponyms are mostly recent enough to shed some light on the naming process. In fact, this book is generally about the naming process. It is not a dictionary of toponyms, but instead a guide through American history and how naming evolved from the first exploration of the now contiguous U.S. through the time of publication: post World War II (and pre-Alaska and Hawai'i statehood).

The boo
Aug 19, 2013 Derek rated it really liked it
Rarely does one encounter a scholarly work as sprightly and funny and downright readable as George R. Stewart's Names on the Land. Stewart has a storyteller's sensibilities, and it's pleasantly surprising how the book functions as a cover-to-cover read; to only skim for the places with which you are already familiar would do a disservice to the book, and handicap your enjoyment.

I'm resisting the urge to supply a list of "And did you know ____ got its name because ____??" given that everyone in m
Feb 05, 2016 Michael rated it really liked it
From the very beginning, Rippey's Names on the Land was a fascinating read, a strange hybrid sort of book covering the areas where history, folklore, and linguistics intersect. It is a rare and precious thing, for, while it covers our history of naming (and thus an important, though highly underrated, aspect of American history) in an objective and scientific way, the love and enthusiasm which Rippey has for his subject shows through between the lines and makes even the most boring passages seem ...more
Jun 29, 2015 Rock rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Language lovers and geography geeks will flip for this book, but I'd like to think that the wit and charm of the author -- as well as his wide net, ear for a good story, and connoisseur's curiosity -- would endear him to anyone, at least as a bathroom reader. To that end I'm glad to see there are recent editions (I read a Sentry from 1967). Speaking of later editions, the material added after the original printing (the author crows in the preface that he needed few edits in the second printing) ...more
Todd Martin
Sep 10, 2011 Todd Martin rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
True to its title, Names on the Land looks at how the country, its states, counties, cities, towns, streets, rivers and mountains were named. Stewart approaches the subject chronologically and uses a series of anecdotes to tell the story behind many of the more obvious landmarks in the USA (including “USA” itself). What we find is that many names are an amalgamation of Native American, Spanish, French, English and Dutch words, changed through translation and mis-translation, spelling errors, a ...more
Sep 20, 2010 Chrisiant rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, slate
Totally interesting subject matter. Stewart's writing at times feels rambly and repetitive, but then it's peppered throughout with quirky stories of the origin of specific places. It also seems very thorough, with some good comparison of the historical trends in place naming as well as just a chronicling of what the names are and how they came to be.
I appreciate Stewart's contempt for people who replaced solid, if sometimes leaning towards crude, names that reflected the experience of the settle
Aug 26, 2011 Spiros rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who has ever wondered about place names, and any one who hasn't
Shelves: remainders
Finished during World War Two, later amended to include Alaska and Hawai'i, Stewart's magnum opus explores the history and patterns of naming American places. From the "unimaginative" namings of the Spanish explorers (mainly places named for the Saint's Day on which the place was discovered) and English explorers (mainly Royal patrons), to the "romantic" namings based on Indigenous words, however inaccurate in etymology or geography, which gained popularity in the middle of the 19th century, ...more
Jul 17, 2009 Ethan rated it it was amazing
"Once, from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays.
"Men came at last, tribe following tribe, speaking different languages and thinking different thoughts. According to their ways of speech and thought they gave names, and in their generations laid their bones by the streams and hills they had named. But even when t
Frank Jacobs
Apr 14, 2014 Frank Jacobs rated it it was amazing
As authoritative and fresh as when it was completed in 1944, this is the standard on American toponymy: describing and detailing the waves of name-giving that swept over what was to become the US, from colonial (English, Spanish, Dutch and others) over revolutionary and patriotic (presidents, generals and heroes) to fashionable (Indian, pseudo-Indian, classic Greek and Roman, 'rustic' English, made-up Spanish), each illustrated with a wealth of examples; this from an author with an amazing ...more
Aug 18, 2008 Matthew rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
Absolutely enchanting. Reads like one giant "just so" story, with magic and myth and the march of time all intertwined. It's really quite amazing to realize that every name, every single little name that you see on any map, has a storied history behind it, in which you can see the progress of America from Native land to empire, colony to republic, from nation to state, and polity to bureaucracy. Adds a whole new dimension to seemingly silly debates over "Squaw Peak" vs. "Piestewa Peak" and the ...more
May 11, 2011 Bookwyrmgyrl rated it really liked it
This is a great book! It was first published around 1950, and done with real scholarship, yet interesting due to accurate and appropriate anecdones. I would recommend it for anyone twelve and up as a good read, or an excellent reference on place names, or even as an overview of the settling and history of the U.S. I wish I could find more books like this one! And I don't just mean place name books - I mean non-fiction books that have important information to share that are well-researched and ...more
Mar 07, 2013 Vidya rated it really liked it
I got this book for Early Reviewers, but it's been very slow reading for me - although that might have to do with its being non-fiction. Since I think it will be awhile before I finish, I'm putting at least a temporary review here. I can say that I have greatly enjoyed what I have read of it so far. It makes history interesting, and it's fascinating to see how some of the names came about in the US. I think this book could be an especially helpful reference to those who like building worlds of ...more
Asa Wilder
Apr 12, 2016 Asa Wilder rated it really liked it
Picked this up because of Lauret Savoy's Trace... A nice mix of dry factual stuff, little flourishes of poetic musings, and odd tidbits of forgotten history. Of course, Stewart tends to focus on white/colonial history, but I was also pleasantly surprised by the way he discusses Native peoples' names. I found myself skipping over sections that dealt with parts of the country I wasn't familiar with and the parts that dealt mostly with the Spanish and the French. Overall, very good and also quite ...more
Sep 17, 2008 joyce rated it liked it
Recommends it for: language and geography nerds
Interesting to read a book on American place-naming written when Alaska and Hawaii weren't even states yet, and when there were people still living whose parents remembered the Civil War. The "historical experience" was probably enhanced by the first-edition copy I'd checked out from the library, brittle pages to match that effusive old prose style, reminding me to be patient even when I skipped some of the longer-winded passages.

Fun read - would love to see the same with tons of maps, just beca
Mark Buchignani
Jun 03, 2014 Mark Buchignani rated it really liked it
Shelves: george-r-stewart
A wonderfully interesting book which begins in ancient naming origins and over time transitions to numerous specific outstanding or intriguing examples, such as Nome, Alaska, which was originally marked on the map as “? Name” because it had none. This then was misread as “Nome” and so it became. “Nome is therefore an authenticated example of the workings of mere error.” I found the early part of the book fascinating, the latter entertaining. If you are at all interested in U.S. place-name ...more
Sep 21, 2008 Stacey rated it it was amazing
I think I enjoyed this book so much because Stewart's joy in his subject is infectious. He luxuriates in the arcane details that in the hands of someone less thoroughly enamored of his subject would read as a disjointed ramble across space and time. Stewart manages to cobble together myth, legend, fact and story into a really entertaining (if not exactly page-turning) journey across American history and geography. His wry sense of humor also makes the esoteric subject surprisingly captivating.
Aug 03, 2008 Brad rated it it was amazing
The subject matter contained in this book could be quite dry. However, Stewart skillfuly narrates the history of name-giving trends in the US in an anecdotal style that is highly readable. Granted I am a huge geography/history aficianado, but I found this to be one of the better non-fiction books that I've read in quite some time. Highly recommended to anyone who has ever been remotely curious as to how a town/river/state was given its name
Nov 03, 2014 Rachel rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It isn't a bad book, but it's a bit like reading a dictionary. It gives the history of place names in the U.S., and I love that kind of history. However, I didn't make it past the East coast chapters before I decided I wanted to supplement my reading diet with something plot-driven, and eventually I forgot all about this book on my nightstand. I'll be picking this up again, but for now, I'm just going to say I'm done with it.
Nov 23, 2013 Nick rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The book is fascinating but also a bit thick, and take a while to power through. It's best not to try to read it straight through in my opinion; I actually found it fun to skip around different chapters (if you don't care about sticking to the historical timeline). It covers almost 200 years of naming in America, and is as much a history book as a book about naming places. Great for fun-fact lovers!
Aug 30, 2009 Raina rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I LOVE the content of the book. History of names of places in the US. Totally up my alley. Unfortunately I won't finish it because it reads like a text book written for the most boring class in 1957 that you can imagine. SO DRY. Stewart rambles and the book is not well organized. It just all blobs together, so you have to search through the chapters for the meaty facts. Great information, terrible presentation. Too bad.
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George Rippey Stewart was an American toponymist, a novelist, and a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is best known for his only science fiction novel Earth Abides (1949), a post-apocalyptic novel, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. It was dramatized on radio's Escape and inspired Stephen King's The Stand .

His 1941 novel Storm , featu
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