The New Navel of the Moon. It’s so poetic, isn’t it? (And sure, maybe a bit anatomically confusing.) That’s the real meaning behind the state name New Mexico, and it’s one of many etymological gems uncovered by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust while they were creating this U.S. map depicting the original, literal meanings behind the states and cities we know today.
“The inspiration was my interest in etymology and my profession as a cartographer,” Hormes tells Co.Design. “I started to exchange real names for rue names and the world became a strange romantic continent. It’s obvious to me that after five years of changing names on maps, I must do it. No map is safe.”
Of course, most state names aren’t nearly as gorgeous as New Mexico’s moon navel. For every Idaho “Light on the Mountains,” there is a Missouri “Land of the People with Dugout Canoes.” Many states, of course, simply describe geography, which works out well for Mississippi “Land of the Great River” but a bit less elegantly for Washington “Marsh Farm Land.”
I ask Hormes if there was a single discovery that was most shocking.
“I found some funny stuff like ‘Astrakhan’ in the Wolga delta which means ‘Tax haven for pilgrims,'” he explains. “Once we made a funny map of peculiar place names in German. Place names like ‘Fucking’ or ‘Cats Brain’ changed even my selective perception.”
At the U.S. city level, it’s fascinating to see just how many names have gone unchanged. Green Bay. Cedar Rapids. Oakland. Little Rock. They’re all modern names that, when you take a second look, have an old-world appeal. I just wish I could say the same for my hometown of Chicago, which didn’t age so gracefully. It translates to “stink onions.”
If you’d like to buy an atlas or map of literal state names, prices start at about $20. And for more infographics on Co.Design, go here.