What’s in a name? Does a name convey meaning, or is it just a label by which we identify a person or place? Does the source or etymology of a name even matter? I know of people who chose their children’s names from baby books based on the “meaning” of the name, by which they mean what the word meant in its original language. David is a Hebrew name meaning “beloved,” I’m told, but I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t know that. Does that make me more or less loved?
So today as we continue with the chapter “The Ponds,” Thoreau is getting worked up about the name of Flint’s Pond, another local body of water that he loved.
“Flint’s Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and bony talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like; — so it is not named for me.”
Henry thought it should be named “from the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own…”
I can see his point. Some place names are grossly inappropriate. For example, the highest mountain in the Black Hills — sacred ground to the Lakota (Sioux) — is today called Harney Peak, honoring the general who slaughtered Lakota men, women, and children at the Blue Water in 1855.
Or names can be boring. A big bluff in western Nebraska is called Scotts Bluff after a trapper who died there back in the mountain man days. But the local Indians called it Hill That Is Hard to Go Around. Which is a mouthful (at least in English) but more descriptive.
Some old, descriptive place names remains where I live. The central river of Nebraska (you must forgive the Nebraska geography lesson: it’s where I live) is called the Platte, which is French for “flat.” Perfect. It comes from the river’s Indian name, which meant “flat water,” and which was pronounced more-or-less “Nebraska.” In a state filled with towns named for nineteenth century railroad officials, “Nebraska” is a remarkably good name. No urban planner or booster would come up with such an honest name today. But in its honesty, it’s beautiful.
So yes, Henry was right. As a name, “Flint’s Pond” sucked. But he forgot one thing. Names and other words can acquire new meanings by association. Who was Walden, anyway? No one cares. Thanks to Henry’s famous book, the name has come to stand for something larger and more profound that its namesake could have imagined. “Walden” no longer refers only to a place, or even to a book. It represents an ideal, or a way of looking at the world. A name can start out small and unimaginative, but will grow and stretch to fit its subject. I suppose most of Henry’s neighbors would be surprised at how the name “Thoreau” has grown and deepened over the years. (Not to mention the change in pronunciation. Apparently back in Henry’s day the accent was on the first syllable!)
(About “A Year in Walden”)