Surprise! After many months off I’ve written a new post, and I intend to keep writing, although at a slightly slower and more sustainable pace than last winter.

I started researching Surprise, Arizona, only to discover that it may have been named after Surprise, Nebraska. Then while mapping Surprise, Nebraska, I found that there’s also a Surprise, New York! I’ll deal with each surprise separately.

Surprise, Arizona

from a fan's perspective
Photo by Kai (Click to view on Kai's flickr page)

Surprise was founded in 1938 by, depending on who you ask, Flora Mae Statler or her husband Homer C. Ludden. The long held popular opinion that the town was founded by Ludden appears to have changed in 2010 when property records were discovered showing that Statler owned the property that became Surprise before she was even married to Ludden. The Surprise, AZ Wikipedia article and the official city website say that it was Flora Mae Statler that founded the city. So where did the name Surprise come from? According to this story at some point Ms. Statler said “she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much” hence the name Surprise.

However, if you believe that Mr. Ludden founded Surprise, then it seems that Surprise, AZ, was named after Surprise, NE, Mr. Ludden’s hometown. This is what the Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce and Suprise, Nebraska Wikipedia page say.

I think that the real story is probably somewhere in between. Probably, Ms. Statler owned the property, married Mr. Ludden, and they founded the town together naming it after his hometown. But that’s mostly guesswork on my part. Either way the town was founded in 1938, incorporated in 1960, and is now a medium city where the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers hold their spring training camps.

Surprise, Nebraska

It looks like Surprise, Nebraska has quite a history, (there was an opera house there at one time, although there seems to be some disagreement online about which building it acutally is), but unfortunately not much of it is findable online. According to the Surprise, NE Wikipedia page there are only fourty-four people living there at the moment, which would explain why a lot of the history is not yet online, (although I was able to find a reference to people seeing wild lions near Surprise in Google Books).

So why is Surprise, NE is called Surprise? The Wikipedia page says that when a group of settlers came upon the people who were already living in Surprise and asked what the village was called, Dr. Anthony Swanson, a resident of the village, responded with “as the tea kettle keeps whistlin’, I say, I’m surprised me and Mary are still here!” and was misunderstood to mean that the village was called Surprise, ironically leading to the village being called Surprise. Of course the answer can’t be as simple as that. The 1960 book Nebraska Place-Names (New Edition)’s story is that “Surprise was so named by the settlers because they were surprised to find the land so much better than they expected it to be after their first tour through this part of the country.” Every place has so many stories, which do you think is true?

Surprise, New York

Surprise, NY is even smaller than Surprise, NE, which would explain why I’ve been having trouble finding much at all about it. I have been able to determine that Surprise, New York is located in Greene County, NY, and according to the Wikipedia page for Greenville, NY is “a hamlet near the east town line” (of Greenville). It’s mappable on Google Maps, and Street View shows not much more than a few barns. I would be interested to know more about the history of Surprise, New York and how it got its name.

Those are all of the surprises I’ve got for today, (pun very intended). If you know of any other surprises please post in the comments or let me know. Welcome to 2011!


A photo of the star-shaped sign welcoming visitors to Eclectic, Alabama
The welcome sign in Eclectic, Alabama. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Now that the Olympics are over, we’ll be going back to some more random names, starting with Eclectic, Alabama.

Eclectic is a small town of just over 1000 people in Elmore County, Alabama. The post office was opened there in 1879 and the town was incorporated in 1907.

So, how did it get its name? According to Wikipedia, there are two theories. The first is that it was named by a local who had taken an “eclectic” course of study at school and apparently named the town after the various surrounding geographic areas, (which I’m guessing are eclectic). The second is that the name was supposed to be “Electric” but somebody messed up somewhere, or the name was otherwise corrupted to Eclectic. In the late 1800s the town appeared on some maps as Electric.. However, since the post office was established in 1879, it may be that “Electric” is the mistake and “Eclectic” is the real name. Who knows.

Edit:It turns out that David knows, and the whole “Electric” thing is a big mistake. See his comment below for clarification, and more about where the name “Eclectic” actually came from.

In the meantime, enjoy a video of some mudbogging in Eclectic:

Olympic Summary

Yesterday I posted the last post, (at least for another four years), in my series on the Fascinating Names of Winter Olympic Host Cities. It was a fun, although sometimes frustrating, exercise, and along the way I learned a bunch, and came across a lot of fascinating names to write about.

Did you know that James Bond, in some form, has appeared in Chamonix, St. Moritz, and Cortina d’Ampezzo? With the way he gets around I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been to some other winter olympic host cities and I just missed him. More trivia: You can follow, (at least in theory – I might not want to try it on an innertube or anything), the Inn river from St. Moritz to Innsbruck, and the Olympic Flame wasn’t part of the winter games until 1952 in Oslo, (although there was a symbolic fire lit in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936).

Now that the Olympic exercise is over we, (much like the TV networks), will be going back to our regularly scheduled programming of funny and interesting names. I have a whole whiteboard full. Stay tuned, and follow @fascinames on Twitter.


A nighttime scene of Chamonix, France, at Christmas.
Photo by Sébastien B. (flickr)

Chamonix, France, hosted the very first Winter Olympic Games ever. This small town in a valley beside Mont Blanc, and a bunch of other mountains, (and I mean a bunch – the valley is surrounded), was “discovered” by modern tourists in 1741 when a pair of Englishmen showed up there and published their account of the incredible glaciers they found. However, they were far from the first people to visit the valley. They weren’t even the first to write about it.

Sometime around the year 1090, a Benedictine convent was founded in the Chamouny valley, and in the documents that granted the land for the convent can be found some clues to the origins of the name of the valley. The words used to describe the valley are campus munitus which translate, roughly, to “fortified field.” Since it was incredibly hard to access the valley at the time, (remember the mountains it’s surrounded by? they’re some of the highest in Europe), it appears that the mountains are the fortification, and the valley is the field. A community, albiet a small one, grew in the valley, so when those two Englishmen arrived in 1741 they met people, not just rivers of ice.

There is a second possibility of the origin of the name Chamonix. Placenames of the World says that the name “derives from a pre-Celtic, possibly Ligurian root, kam, meaning “rounded height.” I think that the fortified field may make more sense, but that’s just my opinion. Anyone is free to send me their arguments for the pre-Celtic root. Maybe we can discover history!

I don’t know exactly the city of Chamonix was founded, (the town created around 1090 was called Le Prieuré), but it seems like a fairly direct line from Chamouny to Chamonix. Maybe it’s even a difference between how a valley should be named and how a city should be named that I’m not aware of.

If you’re interested historical maps, here’s a good one of the area from 1881. Also, the origins of the word Chamonouy were quite difficult to find. It’s on Page 407 of the 1811 edition of A Handbook for travellers in Switzerland and hte Alps of Savoy and Piedmont.

St. Moritz

A photo of St. Moritz in the Evening
Photo by ForsterFoto (flickr)

St. Moritz, Switzerland, hosted both the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympic Games. The first record we have of the town is around the years 1137-39 as ad sanctum Mauricium.

St. Moritz is named for Saint Maurice, (Moritz is a form of Maurice), patron saint of, among other things, armies, armorers, clothmakers, dyers, and he is invoked against menstrual cramps.

The city was originally known for its therapeutic springs, in fact, one part of the town is called “Bad,” which is German for “Bath.” Winter tourism didn’t start until 1864 when a hotel owner bet some British tourists that they would love St. Moritz in the winter. They came back to the town that winter around Christmas, (he promised to pay their return if they didn’t enjoy themselves, and their hotel bill if they did, so they couldn’t really lose), and that was the dawn of winter tourism in not only St. Moritz, but the whole Alps.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: the source of the River Inn is near St. Moritz, so, at least in theory, it would be possible to follow the River Inn from the Olympic City of St. Moritz to the Olympic City of Innsbruck.

Google, Kansas

Artwork promoting Topeka for Google's Think Big project.
Photo by Charlie, (flickr)

Yup, there is now, unofficially, a city called Google in Kansas.

Yesterday, Bill Bunten, the mayor of Topeka, Kansas, issued a proclamation calling for the city to be referred to as Google instead of Topeka for the next month. Topeka is trying to get Google’s, (the company), attention as a possible testing ground for Google’s new super-high-speed internet project.

The city’s name hasn’t been legally changed – it would be too much hassle for only thirty days, but the mayor and city council want everyone to refer to Topeka as Google, KS, for the next month.


Christmas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Photo by Tania Ho (flickr)

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, host of the 1936 Winter Olympics, used to be two towns, Garmisch and Partenkirchen. This is probably not a surprise when looking at the name of the city. The two towns were combined by Hitler in 1935 in preparation for the 1936 games and have remained together to this day.

We’ll look at each of the two names, (Garmisch and Partenkirchen), separately, starting with Garmisch. One source tells me that Garmisch translates roughly to “Germar’s district,” and another tells me that the first mention of Garmisch is as around 815 AD as “Germaneskau” meaning “German district.” If the second source is correct, then some Germanic people settled in the area. If the first is correct, we should figure out the origins of the name Germar, and that is not easy to do. There are people named Germar, including a famous holocaust denier, but I haven’t been able to find any reference to someone named Germar who ruled the district, and am wondering if perhaps Germar’s district is just another way of saying German District.

Partenkirchen was originally a Roman town called Partanum, founded in 15 AD. I’m not sure when the name got changed to Partenkirchen, but I’ve read that Partenkirchen means “Parthians by the Church.” Assuming that Partanum and Parthians are the same word, this would make sense since the German word for church is Kirche.

I’ve exhausted my resources on this one, so if anyone knows more about the history of either Garmisch or Partenkirchen don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.


A photo of the Opera house in Oslo, Norway
Photo by Kris Taeleman (flickr)

Founded by King Harald Hardraade sometime around the year 1050, Oslo, Norway, was the host of the 1952 Winter Olympic Games. The Oslo Winter Games were the first winter games to feature the Olympic torch that we have become so accustomed to seeing.

The origins of the name Oslo seem to be the source of quite a bit of disagreement. There are several theories. Some people think that it means “Mouth of the lo river” but at least according to Wikipedia, parts of the theory that suggest this naming were probably made up by the guy who originally published it. It is also possible that, since Oslo was once spelled Áslo, and there is a ridge called ås near the city, that the name means “Meadow beneath the ridge” or, since “Ás” may also be a reference to the Æsir, (the group of gods that includes Thor), Oslo may also mean “Meadow of the Gods.” Finally, the “os” part of Oslo may be mean “estuary” or “river mouth” and refer to Oslo’s location at the end of the Oslo fjord, (although, interestingly, no rivers actually enter the fjord at Oslo).

So, basically, there are a bunch of different stories that lead to Oslo being called Oslo, and many of them are believable, but we don’t have a definite answer about which one, if any, is the real story.

Cortina d'Ampezzo

Cortina d'Ampezzo Centre
Photo by Leo-setä (flickr)

Cortina d’Ampezzo, an Italian city surrounded by the Dolomite mountains, hosted the 1956 Winter Olympic Games. Because of its location, Cortina d’Ampezzo has been part of both Austria and Italy, but since the end of the first world war it has been part of Italy.

So, how did Cortina d’Ampezzo come to be called Cortina d’Ampezzo? That is difficult information to find if you don’t speak or read Italian – there’s a whole section on the origin of the name on Italian Wikipedia. I, however, don’t speak or read Italian, so I had to look elsewhere.

The name Cortina d’Ampezzo has two parts, and, at least according to Placenames of the World, the first part, Cortina, means “little court,” cortina being the diminutive of corte, the word for “court.” Some places seem to suggest that there may be a small fence or curtain involved, but that may simply be a result in translation errors. And for the second part of the name, Ampezzo, Cortina d’Ampezzo is in the Ampezzo valley, (hence the d’ part of the name, in English we would say “Cortina of Ampezzo”), and Ampezzo comes from the Italian in pezzo meaning “piece of land.”

Squaw Valley

Squaw Valley under a blanket of snow on Christmas Weekend 2006
Photo by via flickr

The smallest place in the world to ever host the Olympic Games, Squaw Valley is actually a ski resort, not a town, however because the resort is so popular, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot else in the area, the whole community is known as Squaw Valley, (the official name is Olympic Valley, California). Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1960.

So, how did Squaw Valley come to be called Squaw Valley? Much like Lake Placid we’re not 100% sure, but we do know a little more about Squaw Valley. According to Historical Notes by Hal V. Hall:

Before the white settlers migrated and established their homes and way of life in the valley. During late summer and early autumn, prior to the migration of the abundant deer herds and before the winter snows, it was the ancient custom of the Washoe men, the hunters of their tribe, to harvest winter food with an annual hunt in the high ridges radiating from the Squaw Pass area. While the men were thus engaged, the Squaw camp remained in the valley. The first white men to visit Squaw Valley found it occupied by a camp of “squaws” and children, engaged in food gathering.

So, when the first white men came to Squaw Valley, they found the valley occupied by only “squaws,” (at the time, “squaw” simply meant “native woman”), and their children, and, we assume, called the valley Squaw Valley. We need to speak about the word Squaw. It comes from the Algonquian family of languages and translates roughly to “woman” in english. Its origins are not derogatory at all, but unfortunately it has come to be viewed as a derogatory term by many. To learn more about the history of the word I highly recommend reading Reclaiming the Word “Squaw” in the Name of the Ancestors by Marge Bruchac.

So, to recap, when white people first came to Squaw Valley, the only native people they found were women. Since, the word that was being used by white people at the time for native women was squaw, the valley was named Squaw Valley, and the word Squaw is borrowed from the Algonquian languages, and means, roughly, “woman.”

Special thanks to Katherine at Squaw Valley USA for filling me on on some historical details of Squaw Valley.