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New York Folklore Vol. 3. Nos. 1-4, 1977
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Cover of Vol. 19, Nos. 1-2, New York Folklore


Vol. 3, Nos. 1-4, 1977

by W. F. H. Nicolaisen

The late Francis Lee Utley, to whose memory I wish to dedicate this brief essay, used to delight in telling the folk-etymology of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which, according to his version, “goes back to an old poly-philoprogenitive Indian who rushed one day into the trading post with the remark, damaged by bilingual phonemic conversion, that ‘she is a boy again’.” They say that the desire for a son is the father of many daughters, but quite clearly the reverse is true in the case of this particular father. Be that as it may, this humorous anecdote may serve as a prototype for the kind of brief narrative to be examined in this paper, i.e., the reinterpretation of a meaningless place name through commemorative, and usually humorous, reference to an occasion on which somebody is supposed to have made an utterance which, as a whole or in part, has given rise to the present name.

Folk-etymology is, of course, a well-known force in the development of any vocabulary, serving the function of reinterpreting words in order to provide them with new etymologies and transparent meanings, after their original etymologies have become obscure and their meanings opaque. Incident names, too, are a toponymic category encountered not infrequently in local place-nomenclatures, especially in the primary naming of comparatively small geographical features. What is unusual, however, and therefore noteworthy, in the combination of these two principlessecondary re-interpretation by means of fictitious incidents-is the realization that the inordinate emphasis placed on events as sources for name giving in no way reflects the comparatively small use made of this device, by people on the same folk-cultural level, in the original naming of places. Primary naming and secondary reinterpretation are consequently greatly at variance with each other in this respect, in so far as the former process can be shown to have a much wider range of stimuli and associations available than the latter....

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