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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 09:48 am

From Bug Tussle to Henpeck, it’s a trip

Fun with the place names of Illinois

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The 1821 Sangamon County commissioners established the temporary county seat on Spring Creek, so they named it Springfield. But the town's real founders — Elijah Iles, Pascal Enos and Thomas Cox — liked the name "Calhoun," for John C. Calhoun, the pro-slavery U. S. senator and one-time vice president from South Carolina. When southern politics fell out of favor in this northern town, the name reverted to Springfield in 1825 over other candidates, like Sangamo, Illini and Illinopolis. Some argued that there were too many Springfields already. Well yeah. There are 32 states that have at least one Springfield and many have several. But in this county where the "same old thing" is generally regarded as a good thing, Rochester wins for prosaism. There are 60 Rochesters.

Such facts and fascinating trivia are in Place Names of Illinois, by Edward Callary (University of Illinois Press, 2009). "What is the value of understanding the origins and development of place names?" the author asks himself. "The simple answer is that our history and culture, our beliefs, ambitions, and dreams, are encapsulated in the names we give our communities. . . ." This book can be a guide to the amateur onomastician (look it up), but mostly it's just fun.

Springfield and Rochester could have picked names more interesting, like Bug Tussle. That's in Franklin County, near Christopher in southern Illinois, where the bugs are even worse than here. A church revival attracted more June bugs than people, so the congregation spent most of the evening tussling with bugs. Oblong, in Crawford County, is said to be the "only community in the United States named Oblong," which makes possible that famous Illinois headline, "Oblong man marries Normal woman." There were places called Lickskillet in Macon, Vermilion and Piatt counties, but none survive, probably because there wasn't enough to eat. Sangamon, the river first and then the county, has a more prosperous derivation. It was recorded by a Jesuit priest in 1721 as Saguimont. Some say it means "good hunting grounds" and land "where there is plenty to eat."

There are at least 13 meanings and 40 spellings for Chicago, but the author settles on one derivation. "It is clear," he writes, that "Chicago" comes from sikaakwa, the Miami-Illinois word for the striped skunk. By specifying "striped" skunk, the originators made clear they were referring to the animals, not the politicians who regularly migrate to Springfield. Sikaakwa also meant wild onions, so it must have been a smelly place. For those who have to live there, good thing it's a Windy City.

Isn't it charming how we butcher the would-be lovely names left behind by the early French settlers of southwestern Illinois? Prairie du Rocher, founded in the 1720s in Randolph County, means "meadow of the rock," which, we are told, is the plain extending from the limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River. The Illinois pronunciation of that last word is given as "RO cher," as in one who fancies roaches. No such helpful pronunciation is given for the nearby Fort de Chartres, the 1719 French fort which is now a state historic site. That, of course, is Fort "Charters" in Illinois-speak.

The pronunciation is accurate for many of the world-city names transplanted to the prairie, so this would be a helpful guide to new Channel 20 anchors brought in from Florida or Texas. Athens is "AY thunz," and Vienna is "veye EN uh," although I would have put "veye AN uh" for Paul Powell's hometown. Missing are pronunciations for New Berlin ("noo BURR lun") and San Jose, east of Havana, which is "San JOE's." For Cairo, we're told the locals say "KER o," but outside of Illinois one is likely to hear "KAY ro."

In the category of geographical juxtapositions, the book notes that Franks, in DeKalb County, is five miles northwest of Sandwich. Lost Nation, up north in Ogle County, is far from Future City, way down south in Alexander County. But in Kane County, near Hampshire, there's a place called Henpeck, named for the postmaster who had trouble with his wife. The story goes he left his wife and went just up the road to start another town, which he called Harmony. In Jefferson County, there's another Harmony, five miles southeast of Divide. For real harmony, go to Moultrie County, where the town of Gays is not far from Lovington.

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times. Contact him at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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