The Austrian village of (now) Fugging finally decided in January 2020 to alter its appellation after suffering years of torment at the hands of English-speaking tourists. The hamlet was overrun by visitors posing for pictures or stealing signs displaying the original name of the town. A name that matched an English expletive. No prizes for guessing which one.
The call for geographical renaming
But towns with inadvertently rude names are only one of many reasons behind geographical renaming. Here we explore some others.
Tourism drive – Devil’s Arse, England
Fugging is a rare example of a name change to decrease the number of visitors to a place. Several steps were taken before they resorted to abandoning the original 11th Century title. Using theft-proof concrete for the signs was one of them. This didn’t deter the keen photographers however, leading to the eventual amendment.
But many name changes are done to attract more visitors. An example is Peak Cavern at Castleton, Derbyshire, which changed its name to Devil’s Arse for this reason. Less romantic perhaps, but it did increase tourism by 30%. The choice of cave name was based on an ancient moniker that referred to strange noises emanating from the movement of flowing water inside. If you decide to visit, you’ll be pleased to hear that photography is allowed. The website does warn visitors though, that Devil’s Arse (paradoxically) has no toilet facilities.
Bad association – Asbestos, Canada
Asbestos is a town in French-speaking Quebec. The cancer-causing mineral that was once mined locally is called Amiante in the predominant language. Nonetheless, there were enough Anglophones in the area in 2020 to know a name change was deemed necessary to attract more business to the town. As is la mode, the decision was left to a public vote. Poumontousse (a hybrid word meaning ‘lung’ and ‘cough’) and Asbestos 2.0 lost out to Val-des-Sources, meaning ‘Valley of the Springs’. Asbestos McAsbestos Face wasn’t in the running.
Evolution of language – Sandy Balls, England
In the picturesque New Forest, Hampshire, a village once known as Sandyballas can be found. Owing to its domed-shaped sand and gravel outcrops, the area was given its name in the 15th Century when Early Modern English was in use. When the language of Shakespeare transformed into Modern English, Sandyballas became Sandy Balls. Today the village features a holiday centre, prime woodland, the river Avon and access to the New Forest and its wild ponies. And no beach. For those who may feel concerned, this denotes a forgone conclusion; your ballas will remain sand-free.
Swallowed by a neighbour – Bouzillé, France
Bouzillé in the west of France was amalgamated into a new commune called Orée-d Anjou in 2015. So the village ceased to exist, in name at least. Which was perhaps a relief for its residents, seeing as the nomenclature comes from the verb bousiller meaning ‘screwed up’.
Political changes – Czech Republic and Slovakia
This is another motivation for renaming. Czechoslovakia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, became the Czech Republic and Slovakia – two separate countries – in 1993. In 2016 the Czech Republic title was changed to Czechia, citing the need for a shorter name. Or the country was feeling less republican. Either way, the T-shirt sellers in Prague were pulling their hair out at the cost of reprints. One such seller futureproofed themselves by designing a new shirt slogan that questioned, ‘Can anyone spell Czech?’
Colonial naming – Eggs and Bacon Bay, Australia
Throughout time a big reason for geographical renaming was down to new developments in that area. Often this was caused by new arrivals conquering the land or its people. Or both. This naturally led to many name changes for various reasons: adaptations of the indigenous one; the person who claimed the land; the ruling monarch; the holy day it was discovered on; a religious figure; the name of a place back home; or an interpretation of a landmark.
Between the 15th and 19th Centuries colonial powers, essentially from Europe, clambered for land across the world. The British Empire was the largest clamberer of them all. As a result many place names obtained an English revision, from New York in America to New South Wales in Australia. This has led to some strange name-change enclaves. Staying in Australia, on the island of Tasmania, we find Eggs and Bacon Bay, named after a plant of the same name – owing to its red and yellow streaks. Eggs and Bacon Bay has since witnessed an attempted name change again, this time by locally vexed vegans who want the name to reflect fruits grown in the region. It is yet to be altered to Apple and Cherry Pie Bay. The name scramble for Eggs and Bacon Bay continues.
Post-colonial naming – eSwatini, Africa
The 20th Century, particularly after WWII, saw a lot of countries gain independence from colonial powers. Consequently, many reverted to their original titles or changed names to reflect their new status. Ceylon to Sri Lanka, Siam to Thailand, Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, to name but a few. In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of their independence from Britain, Swaziland, a Kingdom nestled in South Africa, changed its name to eSwatini. This wasn’t a nod to the modern tech-orientated world; its direct translation is ‘Land of the Swazis’. Apparently, another motive for change was that the country was often mistaken for Switzerland. Besides sounding similar, quite how a rich Alpine democracy in Europe could be mistaken for a hot, less-affluent country in Africa, led by an absolute monarch with 15 wives is a mystery. Ah! I know why, they’re both landlocked.
Promotional exercise – Google, Kansas
eSwatini may not have been a tech-based modification, but Google in Kansas certainly was. To be chosen as one of the sites for Google’s experimental, ultra-fast broadband network, in 2010 the mayor of Topeka temporarily changed its name to that of the search-engine. In honour of this dispensation, Google temporarily changed its name to Topeka on April Fool’s Day of the same year. I’m not sure if the town got the contract. If you want to find out, Topeka it.
Legal wrangle – Harrodsville, New Zealand
Occasionally, a story surfaces about a small business facing a name lawsuit from a multi-national corporate giant. Nine times out of ten it involves McDonalds®™©. On one occasion in 1986, prestigious (and expensive) London department store Harrods went after restauranteur Henry Harrod of Otorohanga, North Island, New Zealand. In solidarity, all businesses in the little town previously famed for its Kiwi House, changed their name to Harrods. This included the district council who changed the town’s title to Harrodsville. Harrods (London) dropped the lawsuit. The locals were relieved: during that period all they could afford in the local shop was a pot of strawberry jam from the deli section.
Competition – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Truth or Consequences was an American gameshow whereby contestants had to answer impossible questions. Wrong answers led to wacky stunt forfeits. In 1949 the producers set up a competition: they were offering the first town that changed its name to Truth or Consequences the prize of becoming the host for a radio episode. Hot Springs in New Mexico won. Consequently, the town decided to keep the new name and ever since it has held an annual Truth or Consequences festival. It also kept its hot springs which the town was originally named after.
Problems with pronunciation – Ptarmigan, Alaska
Ptarmigan, pronounced ‘taa-migen’, is the name of a gamebird in the Fairbanks Southeast Census Area of Alaska. It was originally meant to be the name of a gold mining town found there but no one could agree on how to spell or pronounce it. So they plumped for something they could spell and pronounce. Chicken. As far as inventiveness goes, they ptarmiganned out.
If all else fails
Geographical renaming can be a complicated task. Perhaps a better option is not to name a place at all. Back in Austria, far from Fugging (a five-and-a-half-hour drive) is Namlos. In English this means ‘Nameless’. Rumour has it this mountain village, consisting of 100 people and 10 cows, started life being called Amel, named after a former settler. This altered over time to become Nameless. Amel would have been disappointed.
When a village doesn’t have a name, finding it becomes a problem. A place with no name can really only be found if there is only one place with no name. Or at least only a few. One of the big reasons for naming a place is so that it you have something to type into Topeka Maps®™©. If everywhere was nameless the whole task would become tiresome. Perhaps Nameless was renamed as part of a very early tourist drive; a magnet for the forgetful who had resorted to asking locals for directions.
Today in Austria if you forget the name of your destination, perhaps visit Fugging instead, and annoy the locals by taking pictures of their new signs.