Atlas of True Names

December 2, 2008

There is always something impossibly romantic about place names. I love thinking of the evolution of a place, from its existence as a mere geographical feature into something fathomed, something known and possessed, bearing a name and a mythology of its very own. I love imagining how these place names came about. The city I grew up in grew from obscure Paleolithic origins into the Roman “Augusta Taurinorum”, until finally settling on Torino, translated literally as “Little Bull”. The bull prances all over the city in symbol, but the mystery remains as to how this place could be so strongly associated with the animal as to be named after it. Same thing with New York, the city in which I currently reside. New Amsterdam might have been a fitting title– Amsterdam was, after all, a world capital at the time the village was named. Comparing York to modern-day New York is a jarring experience, as one never really stops to think of the connection that exists between the cities. Better to switch place names with New London.

This is all a typically long-winded introduction to this article in the Spiegel about the Atlas of True Names, or rather an etymological atlas of the world. A team of cartographers traced the etymological roots of various place names and compiled the result in something that looks like perfectly normal maps, until you get close enough to read the place names. The end product is like a map out of Tolkien, or of some other imagined world, replete with stories that have been hidden for so long because of linguistic laziness. Do yourselves a favour and click on the slide-show.

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