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

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

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
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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