Wednesday 6 January 2010

The Abode of Snow

I've always been slightly amused by Australian place names. I find myself imagining the cartographic conference where questions were asked such as "So, Bruce, what shall we call this great sandy desert?" or "What about these northern territories, Bruce, they're going to need a name too. Not to mention these snowy mountains."

This is terribly amusing until you buy a book on the meaning of English place names, which are almost all just as dull. Most places are simply somewhere belonging to someone. Birmingham, for example, is the Beorma ingas ham meaning home of the sons of Beorma. Cambridge is the bridge over the Cam. I once spent a childhood car journey looking up every village we passed and would take a guess that 95% of places are like that.

And the same is true of the remote and exotic. If I started this post by laughing at the Australians calling some snowy mountains the Snowy Mountains, guess what Himalayas means? The abode of snow.

In fact I'm having trouble thinking of a single interesting place name at the moment. So instead I'll tell you that almost all western place names are written down phonetically in Chinese for obvious reasons. Oxford is the only one (I was once told by a sinologist) with its own pictogram. Just as dawn in Chinese is written as the symbol of the sun over the symbol for a tree, so Oxford is the symbol for a river with the symbol for an ox.

Oxford: niu-jin. Ox on the left, ford on the right.

Update: This from the sinologist who told me that in the first place, whom I e-mailed for confirmation:

Re: Oxford Pictogram It does, but I'm not sure if it is the only one. Cambridge I think half gets one (bridge is translated as the Chinese word for bridge, qiao). Basically, Oxford has been literally translated into the two characters ox (niu) and fording point (jin). 牛津 Most other places including London get translated into characters that sound like the English pronounciation (Lun Dun). If I think of another I'll let you know, otherwise some pedant might read the blog and beat me to it.

I doubt that any pedants read this blog (I've always imagined you to be a happy-go-luck, devil-may-care, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and generally hyphenated bunch), but if any do then please feel free to add your own.


  1. I have got a good one for you. You can check the Wikipedia entry for its validity -
    Te Urewera has an intriguing (if painful) origin. It means "The burnt penis", and is named for the tale of a Māori chief who died after rolling over in his sleep while lying too close to a camp fire.

  2. That is fantastic. I intend to honeymoon there.

  3. San Francisco is still called "Gold Mountain" in Chinese, and that's descriptive, not phonetic.