My family visited Washington D.C. last year for Spring Break and, during our 12-hour drive, I remember noticing a subtle change in the names of the cities and towns we were passing through. In the beginning, the place names had a familiar mid-western flavor; one that mixed Native American origins (e.g. Milwaukee, Chicago) with bits of French missionary and 19th-century European settler. The names slowly took on a more Anglo-Saxon bent as we moved east, traveling through spots like Wexford, PA, Pittsburgh, PA, Gaithersburg, MD, Boonsboro, MD, Hagerstown, MD, and Reston, VA.
We have English-sounding place names in Wisconsin, of course, including highfalutin towns like Brighton, Kingston, and New London, but they seem to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of places with syllables like “wau”, “kee”, and “sha” (or all three combined). Many of these town names can be difficult for “outsiders” to pronounce and the spelling is all over the place since they were often coined by non-native speakers who’d misheard the original words. (The Native American word for “firefly”, for example, is linked to variations like Wauwatosa (WI), Wawatasso (MN), and Wahwahtaysee Way (a street in MI).)
I thought it would be interesting to see if there were any patterns to these U.S. place names or toponyms so I pulled a list of Census Places and extracted the most frequent letter combinations from the names of the country’s cities, towns, and villages. I tried to isolate true prefixes and suffixes by remove any letter pairings that were simply common to the English language and I then counted up the number of times each word root appeared and ranked them by state.
Top 10 Word Roots by State
After looking over the top word roots by state, I was interested in seeing more detail so I calculated a location quotient for some of the most common word roots and plotted these out by county. Click on the maps for a larger D3 map.
Location Quotient for “ton”
The word town derives from the Germanic word for “fence” or “fenced settlement.” In the U.S., the use of -ton/-town to honor important landowners or political leaders began before the American Revolution (think Jamestown, VA or Charleston, SC) and continued throughout the settlement of the country. (Interestingly, my hometown of Appleton, WI was named for philanthropist Samuel Appleton and is not a true town-based word root.)
Location Quotient for “boro/borough”
The word borough originates from the Germanic word for “fort” and has many common variations, including suffixes like -borough/-boro, and -burgh/-burg. Like -ton/-town, these place name suffixes became popular in the 18th century and were used extensively throughout New England and the Atlantic coastal colonies. You can see how dominant the -boro/-borough suffix is in the upper Northeast.
Location Quotient for “ville”
The suffix “ville” comes from the French word for “farm” and is the basis for common words like “villa” and “village”. The use of the suffix -ville for the names of cities and towns in the U.S. didn’t really begin until after the Revolution, when pro-French sentiment spread throughout the country — particularly in the South and Western Appalachian regions. The popularity of this suffix began to decline in the middle of the 19th century but you can still see it’s strong influence in the southern states.
Location Quotient for “san/santa”
The Spanish colonial period in the Americas left a large legacy of Spanish place names, particularly in the American West and Southwest. Many of the Californian coastal cities were named after saints by early Spanish explorers, while other cities in New Spain simply included the definite article (“la”, “el”, “las” and “los) in what was often a very long description (e.g. “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula” … now known simply as Los Angeles or LA). The map shows the pattern for the San/Santa prefix, which is strong on the West Coast and weaker inland, where it may actually be an artifact of some Native American word roots.
Location Quotient for “Lake/Lakes”
The practice of associating a town with a nearby body of water puts a wrinkle into the process of tracking of place names (the history of “hydronyms” being an entirely different area of study) but it was common in parts of the country that were mapped by explorers first and settled later. This can be seen in the prevalence of town names with word roots like Spring, Lake, Bay, River, and Creek.
Location Quotient for “wau”
Here is the word root that started this whole line of inquiry. It is apparently a very iconic Wisconsin toponym, with even some of the outlying place names having Wisconsin roots (the city of Milwaukie in Clackamas County, Oregon was named after Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1840s).