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What is a Toponym?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2016
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Toponyms can be both place names, real or imaginary, as well as names derived from places or regions. Toponyms are found in many different arenas of industry, enterprise, culture, and current events. It is not unusual to find toponyms used for places that recall other places, as well as wars, treaties and agreements, bands, food, and fabric, among other items.

There are many, many places beginning with the word new that are toponyms named to recall or honor other places. In North America, we have the US states New Hampshire named after Hampshire, England; New Jersey named for the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel; New Mexico, recalling the country to our south; New York, after York, England; and the Canadian province Nova Scotia, which means “New Scotland.” There are also a number of toponymic North American places named after rivers, including the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, Ohio, and the provinces of Saskatchewan and Yukon. The province of Ontario is named after Lake Ontario.

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Some contemporary bands have toponyms for their name, drawing on both real and imaginary places as their inspiration. Chicago, the American rock band formed in 1967, takes its name from the city of Chicago. The Manhattan Transfer, an American vocal group that formed in 1972, has a name that’s a toponym once-removed: it is named after novel Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, after Manhattan Transfer train station in Harrison, New Jersey. The rock group Styx, originally called The Tradewinds when they began in 1961, drew their toponymic second name from the river in Greek mythology. The Shangri-Las, named after the Himalayan utopia in James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, was an all-girl American pop trio/quartet in the 1960s.

A number of fabrics have toponyms that acknowledge their place of origin. The shirt fabric called Oxford takes its name from Oxford, England. The two thick cotton materials used for pants, denim and jean, are both toponyms: the first derives from the fact that it came from Nîmes, France – it was said to be “de Nîmes.” Jean comes from the French pronunciation – Gênes – of its city of origin, Genoa.

Cambric and Chambray, fine cotton or linen and lightweight gingham respectively, are toponyms from the French textile-manufacturing town of Cambrai. Cashmere, a wool fabric created from Kashmir goats, takes its toponymic name from the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Finally, Madras, India lends its name to cotton fabric that often has characteristic plaid patterns.

Some of the most well-known toponyms occur in the realm of food. Hamburgers, named for Hamburg, Germany, and frankfurters or hotdogs, named for Frankfurt, Germany, are perhaps the most recognized food toponyms. Also likely familiar are two nicknames for coffee, Java and Mocha, referencing cities in Indonesia and Yemen. Tangerines are a popular fruit named for Tangiers, Morocco, but the Barbados cherry, Natal plum, and Java plum might be less familiar.

Some food toponyms are associated with a particular place by law. Roquefort, named for the village Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, has what is called “named-controlled AOC status” bestowed by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the regulatory body in France. It was, in fact, the first cheese to be so singled out in 1925. There are several dozen others that have since been given that status.

Using the name "Champagne," a name for sparkling wine, is illegal in a number of parts of the world unless the product originates in the Champagne region of France. In December, 2005, the pork pie-makers from the Melton Mowbray region of England were given permission to apply for similar status, aiming to restrict the zone of production of products allowed to bear the name “Melton Pork Pie” to a 1,800 sq. mi. (4662 sq km) zone. The case is being challenged by longtime manufacturers whose places of business fall outside the zone.

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