Chicago? Or Stink Onion?

Unfamiliar words from foreign tongues have a way of finding their way into English, a language which itself is a melting pot when it comes to origins. Frequently the foreign expression has a way of better summing up what the user is trying to say than what is available in the native tongue. What sounds better? A “smorgasbord?” Or “an extensive array or variety?” How about “faux pas” versus “a slip or blunder in etiquette?”

You would probably agree that these foreign phrases, however odd they might sound, help quickly convey meaning from a speaker or writer to his listener. It’s a pity then, that as the first settlers spread out across “new worlds” like America and parts of Europe, they didn’t stop to consider the native words and phrases they chose for their new homes. Surprisingly enough a new book of maps called The Atlas of True Names hopes to set the record straight on this linguistic confusion, offering detailed maps laid out with ridiculously literal translations of place names in their native tongue.

Thought that island across the pond was called Great Britain? According to the map, it’s actually “The Great Land of the Tattooed,” a reference to the colorfully tattooed people who originally occupied the place. Weird. And how about the beautiful city of Chicago, my hometown? It loosely translates as “Stink Onion,” from the Algonquin phrase checagou, referring to the soggy marshland upon which the city was founded. Ouch.

Certainly not the type of thing the local tourist board will want to brag about, but interesting nonetheless for anyone interested in geography and language. There’s plenty more oddly named cities, rivers and mountains in the galleries over at the Telegraph website.