Flight of Ideas
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Flight of Ideas

Words that will take you places

or places will bring you words!

In this post Change is the only Constant!, we visited the word laconic named after a place in Greece called Laconia. People of Laconia had the reputation for being frugal with words so the word took the meaning “being brief or terse”. Such words are known as toponymic words i.e. words derived after the name of the places. English is full of such words and you should be aware of such words if you are to avoid committing solecisms while using language.

Consider, for a moment, the word solecism. It means a grammatical error in speech or in writing. The word is also a toponym after a place called Soli, Cilicia. Ancient Athenians believed the different dialect of the people of Soli to be completely wrong and labeled their errors as Solecism. The word survived all those years and was eventually absorbed in English to take its current meaning.

If you meander your way through a dictionary you will be surprised to find that there are so many toponyms that you were not even aware of. The word meander itself is another toponym. The word derives from the river Menderes now known as Büyük Menderes River. Ancient Greeks noted the river’s convoluted winding course before it met the Aegen sea and coined the word meander to mean to wander aimlessly.

River Menderes

But it is not just the Greeks who have given toponyms to the language. The die was cast even by the Romans. Julius Ceasar was governor of a province of the Roman Empire and when his governorship ended he was ordained to disband his army and to return to Rome. He instead chose to take his army. He was warned to not cross the River Rubicon which then marked the Northern border of Italy.

He despite the warnings crossed the Rubicon and famously said “Alea iacta est” (The die has been cast) after which started 3 years of Civil war in Rome. The phrase now means an event that cannot be changed. “Crossing the Rubicon” was another phrase coined after the event which means the point of no return.

The river Rubicon

And it is not that only ancient people coined words after places. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem Kubla Khan in 1797. The poem opens by describing a place called Xanadu (named after the place Shangdu in China) for its opulence and magnificence. The word Xanadu has now been adopted to denote to a place idealized for its beauty and opulence. Such has been the influence of the word that the house of Bill Gates has been nicknamed Xanadu 2.0 in popular culture.

Xanadu 2.0

And if you are tired of learning so many toponyms here is some rest. Enjoy this movie starring Charlie Chaplin called Shanghaied.

But why is this movie called Shanghaied? Shanghai is another toponym obviously based on the metropolitan city of China. Shanghaiing means to trick people into some place or into doing something. Back in the 18th and 19th century it was common practice to kidnap or force people to work as sailors. The practice was driven by a shortage of labor as most people did not want to do tedious work on ships. Such ships usually had Shanghai as their final destination so the word came to be known as Shanghaied.

The language is strewn with toponyms. Do you know any other?

That’s it for now! If you like my post please like, comment, and subscribe. Thank you



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Priyash Jain

Priyash Jain

Psychiatrist. Aspiring writer. Voracious reader. Tech junkie. A logophile. History enthusiast. Foolishly optimist.