Pull Out the Map and Learn About These Toponyms

Friday, December 32 min read

Traveling the world is an adventure, but learning about toponyms is one way to bring the journey home. A “toponym” is a word coined in association with the name of a place. Think of china place settings, or Swiss cheese. These are pretty recognizable, but here a few more toponyms you might not know are derived from place names.

P.S. — An “eponym” is a word named after a person, such as “sandwich.”


In 1945, the modern two-piece swimsuit started to get a lot of attention. The designer called it the “bikini,” a name he got from Bikini Atoll, an island made of coral reef in the Pacific Ocean. The island had recently been in the news when the U.S. performed its first peacetime nuclear weapons test there. The designer of the bikini hoped his creation would cause a similar cultural “explosion.”


Folks had been playing games with rackets and shuttlecocks for centuries before badminton came along, but the modern version was developed in Britain in the 1800s. Legend has it that the game was first played at House Badminton, the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort in Gloucestershire, England. British military officers may have picked up the game during their travels in India, where people played a version called “poona,” another toponym named for the Indian city of Poona (or Pune, as it’s known today).


Created by an Italian perfume maker in 1709, eau de Cologne literally means “water from Cologne.” Cologne, Germany, that is. Even though the original product was named for Germany, it had a citrus scent that recalled the morning air in Italy (and the term is French). Today, we use “cologne” to refer to a fragrance usually for men, while “perfume” is typically for ladies.


This deep blue-violet color is likely named after India. As far back as 4000 BCE, traders were sourcing indigo pigments from India. In ancient Greek, the dye was called “Indian dye,” later adapted into Latin as indico.


Homo neanderthalensis was first discovered in 1856 in a little part of Germany known as the Neandertal Valley. This early species of humans died about 40,000 years ago, but their toponymic name lives on.


For hundreds of years, people have been taking baths in water meant to treat illness. All around the world, towns with mineral-rich springs cater to people who want to enjoy healing soaks. One of the first was Spa, Belgium. Visitors have been flocking there since the 1300s, giving rise to the modern word “spa.”


The name “tuxedo” originated in the Tuxedo Park neighborhood in the fashion capital of New York. In this affluent enclave, men were known for their upscale dinner jackets. Later, these would be paired with matching pants, and the whole ensemble would be called a tuxedo. Or a “tux,” if you’re feeling casual.


Just north of Sicily, there’s a small island named Vulcan. It’s a landmass capable of spewing molten hot lava, and it received its name from the Roman god of fire, Vulcan. The term “volcano” (and Spock’s home planet) is inspired by this tiny, yet mighty, place.

Featured image credit: Kar-Tr/ iStock

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