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OFF THE MAP by Derek Nelson

OFF THE MAP

The Curious Histories of Place-Names

By Derek Nelson

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 1-56836-174-2
Publisher: Kodansha

 An informal discussion of how the deceptively solid boundaries and names appearing on maps (past and present) represent the intersection of geography with history, fantasy, prejudice, propaganda, wishful thinking, and pure chance. Maps are an attempt to depict an unstable world with a complex past and, as Nelson (Moonshiners, Bootleggers, and Rumrunners, not reviewed) notes, to ``send ominous messages and trace ethnic and religious fault lines.'' At any given time, more than a hundred boundaries are disputed, but some maps skirt reality or create their own. For example, Arab maps ignore Israel or call it Palestine, and Syrian maps claim territory for Syria that has been part of Turkey for 50 years. But then, imaginative map-making has an established history. During the Middle Ages, the kingdom of Prester John was a staple of European maps. Even an increase in firsthand accounts did not ensure accuracy; for example, Columbus insisted that he that he had reached the Orient, and accommodating cartographers stretched Asia to fit his claims. One place may acquire several designations because of transliteration snags, mispronunciation, or misunderstanding, as when Chinese told foreign traders that they were from Chin (their ruling dynasty) rather than Kung-ho-kuo (their country). Some names reveal fragments of local history: Mohawks sneered at the hunting skills of Algonquins residing in New York State's northern mountains by calling them HatirĀ¢ntaks (``they eat trees''), whence Adirondack. Others trace changes in government, as when St. Petersburg changed to Leningrad and back again. Place names can be wonderfully descriptive, such as Mose-os-Tunya, ``smoke that thunders,'' or imperialist, such as Victoria Falls, thus named by David Livingston. Such claiming by naming continues even today: While orbiting the moon, astronaut James Loving dubbed one of its peaks Mount Marilyn, for his wife. Enlightening entertainment for those who browse the atlas so long that they forget what they meant to look up. (50 maps)