Sunday, 23 July 2017

The power of names

His Eye might there command wherever stood
City of old or modern Fame, the Seat
Of mightiest Empire, from the destind Walls
Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can
And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir's Throne,
To Paquin of Sinæan Kings, and thence
To Agra and Lahor of great Mogul
Down to the golden Chersonese...
And so on and on and on. Paradise Lost, Book 10
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. Coleridge
Some places should be visited because of the beauty of their names. So says Marzena Pogorzaly, who herself has a very beautiful name, and gave as an example Odessa.
Zanzibar, Mozambique, Madagascar, Barfleur, Lalish and Palmyra are as beautiful as their names. Manderlay sounds beautiful but is a dump. I just came across a name as beautiful as any of those: Marazion. I forget whether Marazion lives up to the beauty of its name, though.

Tintagel was a great disappointment, except I expected it to be awful. In 1976 it was as tacky as you can imagine, even by the standards of England in 1976, which was the apogee of tackiness.

Perhaps the most beautiful name of all is Székesfehérvár. Or possibly it is Marosvásárhely, the Hungarian name for Târgu Mureș (Romanian readers, please don't kill me). Or perhaps it is Samarkand, which I intend to visit this autumn.

I once read a collection of quotations from the poets who mentioned the Hebrides. The only one I can find on the net is this well known but slightly banal couplet by Flecker.
West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young Star captains glow.
Is there a connection between a beautiful name and a beautiful place? Reason says no, but Jung thought names had great significance. His meant young and he contrasted it with Freud, which appropriately, for one who saw the sex drive as the key to life, means joy.

Googling, I found this.

"The German poet Christian Morgenstern once said that “all seagulls look as though their name were Emma.” Though Morgenstern was known for his nonsense poetry, there was truth in his suggestion that some linguistic labels are perfectly suited to the concepts they denote. “Dawdle” and “meander” sound as unhurried as the walking speeds they describe, and “awkward” and “gawky” sound as ungainly as the bodies they represent. When the Gestalt psychologist and fellow German Wolfgang Köhler read Morgenstern’s poem, in the nineteen-twenties, he was moved to suggest that words convey symbolic ideas beyond their meaning.To test the idea more carefully, he asked a group of respondents to decide which of the two shapes below was a maluma and which was a takete.If you’re like the vast majority of Köhler’s respondents, you’re compelled by the idea that malumas are soft and rounded (like the shape on the left), whereas taketes are sharp and jagged (like that on the right). As Köhler showed, words carry hidden baggage that may play at least some role in shaping thought. What’s surprising, perhaps, is how profoundly a single word can shape material outcomes over time."


  1. I think the place in Romania with the most beautiful name is probably Timisoara. It sounds super sweet and feminine.

  2. In German Temeschburg and in Hungarian Temesvár. I like Temesvar. Sarmizegetusa is another memorable place name.

    1. Why Temesvar? Timisoara sounds much more pretty and sweet (and this is coming from someone who grew up speaking both Hungarian and Romanian).

      I guess Temesvar sounds down right masculine.

  3. Also a reason why some things can't be translated, or change when they are translated. The shape or essence of things partly formed by the sounds used to name it.
    Eva de Winter

    1. Sounds are important but meanings are equally so. 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree' continues 'Where Alph the sacred river ran", which is very beautiful. TS Eliot pointed out that "Where Alf the bread delivery man" would not be nearly so beautiful, though it sounds fairly similar.

    2. Oh dear, my (real) last name comes from a wedge-shaped bread with currants, which will from now on have a strange connection with sacred rivers...

  4. I like the name Cefalu. Jeanne G