Mark Monmonier

In From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame (University of Chicago Press), the geographer Mark Monmonier makes maps make sense for the rest of us. It’s a story about how we have come to name the places we know. It’s a story about the long process we go through to rename when we’re offended or times change or we realize the lie of the old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Monmonier points out that names are crucial. He explores the serious: terms that are derogatory to a race or an ethnicity. He discusses the names that are changed during war or times of political instability. But he also talks about the lighter side: the naming of the moon, lunar features, and stars. And how many times the words nipple, breast, and teat show up in the place names—toponyms—out West. His history of naming is also a lesson in American bureaucracy; naming or erasing a name can be difficult. Some people spend their entire lives dedicated to fighting a name-change. Here Monmonier, distinguished professor of geography at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, talks about the power of the mapmaker and the officials who name and rename. He demonstrates how naming places things like Squaw Tit and Whorehouse Meadow and Dildo raises questions—and starts fights—over decency and respect and maintaining tradition.

Colette Labouff Atkinson: You begin by saying that this book is “a tale of power and compromise arising from the mapmaker’s pursuit of an orderly process for naming and renaming that avoids confusion, preserves history, and serves diverse political aims.” But whose confusion? Whose history? And whose political aims? How do mapmakers, recorders, and names scholars negotiate being in this middle place?

Mark Monmonier: They see their role primarily as upholding the standards and integrity of the official cartographic enterprise. In this sense, names officials are quintessential bureaucrats. In their eyes, duplicate names, nonstandard spellings, and impetuous commemorative naming are no-no’s that might pollute the names database and any maps based on its content. (This focus on standardization is a cartographic imperative of sort among government mapping agencies, which have a high regard for formal accuracy.) Thus the names database must also serve the political aims of the state, which include preserving historical accuracy and not undermining the credibility of the government by defaming minority groups. That said, determining whether a particular name or a group of names is offensive is a conservative process, not to be undertaken precipitously.

CLA: Is there one example that stands out to you as particularly difficult in which there were multiple confusions, histories, and political aims?

MM: Squaw names are a good example. From the perspective of many (perhaps most) “names authorities,” the recent agitation to eradicate squaw names is more political correctness than an official insult that demands immediate, across-the-board action, as occurred in the early 1960s, when Negro was substituted for nigger. The feeling is that because squaw originally was offensive to only a few tribes, blanket renaming is not warranted. Moreover, because there are several potential replacements—Indian Woman, Indian Princess, Clan Mother, etc.—blanket renaming would be ill-advised. Even so, geographic names officials willingly accept substitute names that conform to their policies and procedures, adherence to which is likely to avoid future problems. But make no mistake—should tribal bodies reach a broad consensus that abhorrent squaw toponyms warrant immediate replacement, expeditious renaming will occur. As it is, names officials are well aware there’s a problem here, and they’re endeavoring to correct it, incrementally and with all deliberate deliberation.

CLA: In your chapter on body parts and risqué toponyms, you claim that these tend toward female anatomy rather than male not only because the landforms are less often phallic but also because men did the naming. While people might be offended by these names, you point out that sometimes locals embrace the racier terms. Whorehouse Meadow in Oregon is an example. What was at stake in that potential renaming?

MM: Tradition and local pride mostly, plus resentment of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which changed the name on its maps apparently because someone in the local office thought Whorehouse Meadow was a bit much.

CLA: Even as you point out that fewer terms refer to the "sex trade," it seems that the trend to honor the sex trade as positive might also contribute at least as one more trend—to locals not wanting to change these names. And sex sells even in a name?

MM: Yes, sex sells, but in this case it was more a contest of wills between the locals and Oregon’s own names experts versus federal land managers—outsiders who thought they knew best. Names experts are strong believers in tradition, and Whorehouse Meadow not only has a historical basis but also sounds pleasantly quaint. And it had no permanent residents likely to resent the name on their mail address.

CLA: Are there risqué place names—cities or towns—that seem to take advantage of tourism in this way?

MM: The classic example is Intercourse, Pennsylvania, originally named to commemorate commerce of a more general variety, but now commemorated ruthlessly on postcards and assorted bric-a-brac.

CLA: In your research for the book, what seemed the most risqué toponym?

MM: The honor goes to an Austrian village named Fucking, apparently a family name without prurient connotations in German. Anglo visitors like to have their pictures taken next to the official place-name marker, which highway officials keep replacing because light-fingered tourists can’t resist taking the signs home as souvenirs. A close second is the Canadian town of Dildo, named in the late eighteenth century, well before the term gained prominence as a sex toy. Residents trounced a 1985 effort to change the name, and locals proudly commemorate the name with their mid-August festival Dildo Days.

CLA: The term squaw gets a lot of attention in your book since it has the unique distinction of being challenging—and derogatory—as a name in terms of ethnicity, language, and sexuality. Does ethnicity or sexuality play a more significant role in the distaste for the term?

MM: Complaints about squaw feature names almost always focus on ethnicity, particularly when the complainant is a Native American. The sexual aspect is important too, and not easily disentangled insofar as the word means “vagina” in some native languages, but not all. Although many nonnatives would agree that squaw toponyms are “politically incorrect,” I’ve noticed no formal complaints from either women’s rights organizations or Christian fundamentalists offended by the sexual innuendo. And many Native American groups jumped on the anti-squaw bandwagon only after the American Indian Movement framed the issue as a lingering insult by white Europeans. Squaw toponyms have been largely ignored by women’s rights advocates, who have bigger fish to fry—equal employment opportunities, wage parity, sexual harassment, and reproductive rights, to name a few. But the names have, in at least a small way, struck a chord among cultural theorists, some of whom insist the term “objectifies” women. And I’ve even heard a few post-structuralist types claim that papoose objectifies children.

CLA: Naming and renaming is a process you describe as conservative and slow. It seems both glacial and then—in the case of the Kennedy name frenzy—too quick. Is there a titleholder for a renaming caught in the long bureaucratic process?

MM: There might be other cases, but the one that stands out is the effort to rename Mount McKinley, or I should say, restore its original name, Denali, an Athabaskan word meaning “the high one.” North America’s highest peak acquired the name Mount McKinley in 1896, when William A. Dickey, a prospector who admired McKinley’s vigorous defense of the gold standard, named it for the Republican presidential candidate William McKinley. The mountain had a few other names in addition to Denali, but the moniker Mount McKinley stuck in 1901, when McKinley was assassinated and promptly commemorated by a rampant nationwide renaming of streets, parks, and high schools. Native Alaskans continued to insist on the name Denali. In the 1970s they ramped up the campaign to restore the name Denali. In 1980, with the support of other Alaskans peeved that McKinley had never visited or otherwise had kind words for their state, they convinced the National Park Service to change the name of Mount McKinley National Park to Denali National Park. Even so, efforts to rename the mountain itself have been thwarted by the long-time Republican congressman Ralph Regula, who represents McKinley’s hometown, Canton, Ohio. Every two years, a few days after a new Congress convenes, Regula introduces a bill calling for the mountain to retain the name McKinley. Although these bills are promptly referred to a committee that takes no action, their mere introduction is sufficient to trigger a Board on Geographic Names regulation that suspends action on any name “also being considered by the Congress or the Executive Branch.” If McKinley is still remotely popular in Canton when Regula leaves office, his successor will probably continue to block a change endorsed in 1975 by the Alaskan legislature, which made Denali the official name for state maps. (Although many state and commercial mapmakers honor the board’s actions, its decisions officially affect only federal usage.)

CLA: If as an ordinary citizen I wanted to initiate the process of changing a toponym that was offensive in my city of Irvine, California, what would I have to do?

MM: If the place is a street, a park, or a neighborhood, you’d have to work with local officials, probably the city council, or whatever they call the local legislature. County government would probably get involved too, because a name change could be confusing to emergency responders, especially if another nearby feature has the same or a similar name. If the place is a private facility—a building or a shopping center or an apartment complex, say—you could persuade the owner to change the name. Picketing, threats, blackmail, whatever. Or you could buy the property, and name it what you wanted. But if the place is a physical feature, you’d need to go through an official renaming process, which requires a petition to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, with endorsement by the California board. The petition would have to present a good argument that the current name is inappropriate and also provide a justification for the new name, which would have to conform to federal guidelines—they’re online at http://geonames.usgs.gov/domestic/policies.htm. Be wary of local opposition, though, and be sure to lobby the state names board, whose recommendation will be important. If the name is really offensive to others, especially if it offends an ethnic minority, you might stand a chance. But if the toponym has attracted little attention locally—perhaps because no one else is reading the way you do—expect opposition. And if you’re shrewd, you’ll choose a replacement name likely to satisfy federal guidelines and garner local support.

CLA: I’m curious about the name of your own book, which is for a general audience. You say it was called Fighting Words before it was changed. You don’t say who changed it. Can you comment about the process of naming something—in this case, a book—you made?

MM: The marketing folks at the University of Chicago Press made the decision, with my editor’s endorsement, of course. They thought the name would be engagingly provocative. I wasn’t pleased—I imagined myself blocking on tit when called upon to recite the title, which focused on a small part of a larger story—but I figured, what the heck, they probably know more about marketing than I do. Turns out, the new title got the book a lot more attention than Fighting Words would have. No one’s complained that the title is inappropriate. No surprise either that sex sells.

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