“Hundred Eyed,” “Redface Island,” — Gene Wolfe’s (1986) Soldier of the Mist is awash with charming place names that evoke wonder and puzzlement. This essay uses the lens of toponymy, the formal study of place names, to explores how the protagonist Latro generates these intriguing and idiosyncratic labels.
Noted toponymist George Stewart (1975) observed,
Place-names possess a marked capacity to outlive the displacement of one language by another, by being passed from the speakers of the original language to those of the succeeding one.
Related to this argument, we learn in the Foreword to Soldier of the Mist that Latro speaks Greek fairly well, but he writes in his native tongue, which is archaic Latin. To understand Latro’s recording of place names, it is important to note (Soldier of the Mist, 1986, xii; all references in this essay refer to the original Tor hardback edition):
In dealing with place names, I have followed the original writer, who sometimes wrote them as he heard them but more often translated them when he understood (or believed he understood) their meanings.
This process of translation is referred to as folk etymology, and it is the primary method Latro uses to record his place names.
Shortly after its publication, intrigued Soldier of the Mist fans began speculating on exactly how Latro generates curious coinages like “Thought” for Athens. Jeremy Crampton provided considerable insight into the topic when he began the process of analyzing these names in his 1988 fanzine Book of Gold #1 (BoG1), which is available on Ultan’s Library here. Crampton’s article “Some Greek Themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro Novels” (SGT) also originally appeared in this year. Crampton speculates, for example, that Latro’s “Clay” (Plataea, the opening of the story) is probably derived from a translation to platus, or plate, which was made of clay. Attica is recorded as “the Long Coast” due to its extensive shoreline (Crampton, SGT 1988; Wolfe, 1986). “Fennel Field,” according to Crampton (BoG1 vii, 1988), is named after the “yellow-flowered plant which is often used to flavor food” and grew wild at Marathon.
Crampton’s Glossary in Book of Gold #1 also provides notes, some onomastic and others descriptive, on Advent, Bearland, Boat, the Circling Isles, Clay, Cowland, Crimson Country, Dolphins, Goodcattle Island, Hill, Hundred Eyed, Long Coast, Redface Island, Riverland, Rope, Silent Country, Thought, Tieup, and Tower Hill. “Hundred Eyed” represents Argos, the “monster of the same name with many eyes” (BoG1 xxii, 1988). “Thought” is derived from “the goddess Athene, who sprung like a thought from the brow of Zeus” (ibid xxiii).
Other derivations in Crampton’s Glossary, such as “Thought” and “Rope,” are based on his analysis of Darrell Schweitzer’s interview with Mr. Wolfe that appeared in the Spring 1988 edition of Weird Tales, which is also reproduced here in full (ibid xiv):
Latro calls Athens Thought because that’s what he thinks it means. As it turns out, he’s right. That is what it means, although his derivation of it is incorrect. He’s connecting Athens with athanatos, which anybody with a superficial knowledge of Greek would do—immortal. What’s immortal is thought… Latro also thinks that Sparta means rope, because there is a very common Greek word spartos, which is rope, cord, string. Now Sparta didn’t mean rope. What it actually meant was scattered. But it took its name from a Greek word that was obsolete by the time Latro was in Greece.
These errors in derivation are examples of folk etymology. As it turns out, Latro uses a variety of methods to generate place names and, applying the categories provided by academic toponomy, we can identify that these include folk etymology, association, description, and commemoration. Topony also provides the tools with which we can examine and explain these naming processes.
How does a place gets its name? How do we come to know it and remember it?
Scholars who explore these questions engage in toponymy. In 1958, George Stewart introduced a popular taxonomy of toponyms that is still widely recognized (Fouberg, Murphy, & de Blij, 2009).
In Stewart’s system, there are 10 categories of place names. The first is descriptive; a location is named after a feature prominent to the eye, such as the Rocky Mountains. Latro’s “Long Coast” is an example of such a descriptive place name.
A related category is associative, in which a well-known feature of the place, such as a man-made object (e.g. Bridgeport), or highly representative flora or fauna, is linked to that location (e.g. Holly Ridge). Latro’s “Tall Cap Country” fits in this category.
Other place names fit into the category of incidents. For example, Columbus designated a Caribbean island “St Vincent” because he discovered it on January 22, 1498, the feast day of St. Vincent of Saragossa.
A fourth category, possessive, is based on ownership of a place, such as Johnson City.
A fifth category is commemorative. A commemorative place name celebrates a prominent person such as San Francisco or an abstract ideal like Concord. Latro’s “Hundred Eyed” (for hundred eyed Argus) falls into this category.
The sixth category of place names, which is highly relevant to the present essay, is folk etymology. In these cases, a place name is interpreted from another language. The translation is usually derived from a common sound or spelling. Latro’s “Hill” for Thebes is an excellent example.
The seventh category is commendatory and emphasizes a positive expectation of the new establishment (e.g, Prosperity).
The eighth category is relatively recent and is referred to as manufactured, such as Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
The mistake category typically involves an error in cartography. Nome, Alaska is probably based on the cartographer’s note “Name?” written on a sea chart.
Finally, the shift category refers to a toponym transferred from one place to another, such as Portsmouth, England shifted to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The following sections attempt to classify some of Latro’s place names in Soldier of the Mist according to Stewart’s taxonomy. The predominant category is folk etymology, followed by the less frequent use of descriptive, associative, and commemorative place names. In most cases, unless otherwise specified, I rely on the Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper to inform my analyses.
Folk etymology is the process of deriving a place name from a reasonable, but technically inaccurate, translation from one language to another. For example, imagine an English-speaking tourist who speaks German as a second language. He travels in Germany without carefully studying its place names. During the trip, he visits a large German city and wishes to record the name in his travel diary. He finds a native speaker and asks for the city’s name. The friendly German replies, “Baer-leen.”
Our English-speaking tourist knows that “bear” is the German bär, and he sees flags around the city adorned with bear crests. He puts two-and-two together and records “Bear Town” in his journal. Actually, etymologists speculate that Berlin stems from an old Polabian stem berl- for “swamp,” reflecting an associative toponym for a town situated on a marsh adjacent to the Spree River. Although not a good translation for tourism, Berlin was probably originally referred to as “Swamp Town.”
In this example, the tourist’s toponym is a reasonable place name representing a significant locale in his travels. Folk etymology reveals a fundamental tendency of the human mind: it constantly labels things. It assimilates, accommodates, and generally projects a personal frame of reference on the unknown. Abram Palmer, a 19th century etymologist, explained it this way:
The fact is, man is an etymologizing animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body (Wilton, 2013).
Latro is certainly a necromancer of sorts. At times, he records place names that do not match the literal sounds spoken by a Hellene because he is trying to communicate a deeper meaning about a place based on his understanding of the language.
The following table summarizes some of Latro’s place names derived from folk etymology. The first column is Latro’s place name. The second entry is the contemporary English translation. The third section notes how Latro used folk etymology to derive a place name.
|Latro’s place name||English place name||
|Bearland||Arcadia||Gk. arktos – bear|
|Boat||Lemnos||Gk. lembos? – a boat built for speed; a fast cutter|
|Clay||Plataea||Vulgar Latin plattus – plate (plates were made of clay)|
|Cowland||Boeotia||Gk. bous – cow, bull, or ox|
|Hill||Thebes||Gk. teba – also Archaic Latin for hill|
|Rope||Sparta||Gk. spartē – rope, cord|
|Silent Country||Laconia||Gk. Lakōnikos – taciturn (Spartans were renowned for brevity in speech)|
|Thought||Athens||Gk. athanatos – immortal (Latro associates immortality with thought)|
|Water||Aegean||Gk. aiges – waves|
The place name “Bearland” is analogous to the tourist’s translation of “Bear Town” for Berlin. The Peloponnesian prefecture of Arcadia (Αρκαδία) is actually a commemorative place name for the mythical hero Arcas, but Latro doesn’t know this. The Greek word for bear is arktos, so Latro reasonably assumes that Arcadia is an associative toponym based on a representative animal of that region. The Greek suffix –ia connotes “the land of; territory.”
Latro’s “Boat” is a bit of a puzzler. He is referring to the island of Lemnos, residence of Hephaestus. Lemnos was originally a commemorative toponym for the Great Goddess by the original inhabitants. Latro perhaps derives “Boat” from the Greek word lembos, which is a small, fast cutter. He views vapor rising from volcanic Mosychlos and imagines that it is the Smith God’s sail.
One of the more interesting toponyms is Latro’s “Clay” for Plataea. Plataea is actually based on a descriptive toponym from the Greek platys, “flat, broad,” as the city was located on a plateau. Latro instead makes a different association. The best explanation is Crampton’s (1988) argument that Latro associates Plataea with the Vulgar Latin word plattus, which possibly referred to a plate, and plates were made of clay.
Latro refers to Boeotia as “Cowland,” deriving cow from the Greek bous. Pindaros argues that Boeotia is an associative toponym: “The people here laugh at us because we named our country after our cattle.” The urban Athenians used the term “boeotian” to denote a country bumpkin.
Similarly, “Goodcattle Island” is an associative toponym for Euboea, based on the Greek eu “good” and bous “cow,” signifying a productive area for raising cattle. Despite the obvious links to associative toponyms, toponymists argue that the etymological roots of Boeotia are unclear. The name may stem from the Indo-European bhei “to fight,” or indicate that the original settlers migrated from Mount Boion in Macedonia. Regardless, Latro’s “Cowland” and “Goodcattle Island” are reasonable toponyms that describe important fauna of the area.
Latro’s “Hill” is one of the clearest examples of a place name based on folk etymology. The Boeotian city of Thebes, which is recorded as “Hill” by Latro, is perhaps a shift toponym for Egyptian Thebes. The Hellenes pronounced Thebes (Θῆβαι) as “Theb-eye.” Latro connects this pronunciation with the archaic Latin word for hill, teba.
Latro refers to Sparta as “Rope” because he associates it with the Greek spartē, “rope, cord,” created from the shrub spartos. According to Wolfe (Schweitzer, 1988, as cited in Crampton, 1988), Sparta is really based on a descriptive toponym for a Greek word signifying “scattered,” as it was a loose collection of villages without a wall. In terms of the “Silent Country,” Wolfe (1986, xii) explains in his introduction, “Latro seems to have heard some taciturn person referred to as having Laconic manners, and to have concluded that Laconia meant ‘Silent Country.’” Laconia was actually a commemorative toponym for the founder Lacedaemon, son of Zeus and Taygete.
The toponym “Thought” for Athens, according to Wolfe (Schweitzer, 1988), is created by Latro associating the place name with the Greek athanatos (“immortal”).
Why would Latro derive “thought” from “immortal”?
In a 2010 contribution to a now deleted online discussion group run by Wolfe’s publisher Tor and entitled “The Gene Wolfe Book Club”, Michael Andre-Driussi distinguished between thought-as-process (e.g. a stream of consciousness in a living person) versus thought-as-product (e.g. art, literature) that is recorded and transcends time and space. Latro associates immortality with thought products, particularly those thoughts that are recorded in text and passed down through the generations.
In Sword and Citadel (1994, p. 147), the character Severian articulates this idea in his analysis of the alzabo’s ability to absorb the thoughts of its victims:
Not surprisingly, the problem of correlating the alzabo with some higher truth was more difficult; but at last I decided that it might be likened to the absorption by the material world of the thoughts and acts of human beings who, though no longer living, have so imprinted it with activities that in the wider sense we may call works of art, whether buildings, songs, battles, or explorations, that for some time after their demise it may be said to carry forward their lives.
The association between immortality and recorded thoughts is poignantly conveyed in Latro’s recurrent, yet fleeting, awareness of his amnesia as he rereads his scroll; he is dependent on the scroll to maintain a sense of personal continuity and identity.
Athens is actually a commemorative toponym for the goddess Athena, but the word is probably pre-Hellenic and of unknown origin.
Finally, the Hellenes pronounced the Aegean (Αἰγαῖον) as “eye – gah – ee – on,” possibly derived from the Greek αἶγες (“eye-gees”) for “waves.” Latro assumes this is a descriptive toponym that he connects with the Latin aqua, which led to the translation of “Water.”
Descriptive Place Names
|Latro’s toponym||English toponym||Visible feature|
|Circling Isles||Cycladic Islands||A swirl of Aegean islands|
|Dog’s Tail||Kynosoura||A thin, oblong peninsula|
|Long Coast||Attica||Long shoreline|
Descriptive toponyms emphasize a prominent visible feature of a place such as the swirl of islands Latro refers to as the “Circling Isles.”
Latro’s playful toponym “Dog’s Tail” is Kynosoura, a thin, oblong peninsula jutting off the eastern coast of Salamis and shaped like the tail of a dog. The toponym appears to be generated from kynos (“dog”) and oura (“tail”). Yet, as with many place names, some etymologists argue that “Dog’s Tail” may be a folk etymology. The Hellenic mariners also referred to Ursa Minor as Kynosoura, which is odd, given that the entire seven-star pattern would be named “Dog’s Tail” as opposed to the three stars in the tail itself. Without getting into the details of their arguments, nineteenth-century etymologists variously derived the translations “Trail of Light” and “High in Rising” for Kynosoura. The general lesson here is that etymology is often a slippery business with multiple plausible interpretations. In any case, Latro seems to rely on the derivation from kynos and oura, which probably resulted in something akin to “Canis Cauda” in his scrolls.
Wolfe (1986) mentions in his Introduction that Latro’s “Long Coast” refers to Attica. This is a clear example of a descriptive toponym representing the long shoreline of this prefecture viewed from the Saronic Gulf. Latro’s place name is perhaps influenced by the Greek akte, meaning “shore; maritime place” (Room, 1997, p. 39).
“Riverland” is an interesting puzzle and connects Soldier of the Mist to later novels in the series. On the surface, Latro’s referring to Egypt as “Riverland” suggests a descriptive toponym. This is odd, however, because his amnesia would presumably have erased his recollections of the Nile. Latro has been to Egypt, so he may have a buried memory of the Nile influencing his use of this place name. In Chapter 1, the Egyptian healer would refer to Egypt in his native tongue as “Kemet,” as indicated in the glossary. Kemet means “black land,” which is a descriptive toponym for the dark soil of lower Egypt. Another possibility is that they conversed in Aramaic, referring to Egypt as “Mitsrayim,” translated as “two straits.” Latro might conclude that these straits represent part of a river cutting through the land.
Associative Place Names
|Latro’s toponym||English toponym||Representative object|
|Tall Cap Country||Phrygia||Phrygian cap|
|Fennel Field||Marathon||The field of wild fennel (Gk. maratho)|
|Hot Gates||Thermopylae||Gk. thermo hot + pylae gates – adjacent hot sulfur springs leading to Hades|
|Tie Up||Piraeus||Unclear—tying up boats at the port?|
|Tower Hill||Corinth||Referring to the Acrocorinth—a towered citadel looming over Corinth|
Associative place names derive from an observer linking a place to something prominent there. In one sense, an associative toponym is a descriptive toponym, but the “something” is often man-made. “Tall Cap Country” refers to the iconic Phrygian cap worn by natives of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Associative toponyms may also represent local fauna or flora. Latro’s “Fennel Field” and “Hot Gates” are clear examples.
A less clear example is “Tower Hill”, representing Corinth. It probably refers to the Acrocorinth, which is the citadel looming over Corinth, a suggestion originally made by Andre-Driussi in 2010 in the the aforementioned online discussion in the now defunct Gene Wolfe Book Club. It would certainly be a prominent feature to Latro as he entered the city, and he is less likely to know that Corinth is actually a commemorative place name for the founder Corinthus, son of Zeus.
Latro’s “Tie Up” is a puzzler unless we avoid over-analysis and simply acknowledge that he is referring to the fact that this locale, Piraeus, is a popular Athenian port where vessels are moored. The name Piraeus is perhaps a descriptive toponym from Gk. peran “beyond,” in reference to the fact that a marshy area separated it from the mainland. Its precise etymological roots are unknown, so it makes sense that Latro would rely on his own associative toponym.
Commemorative Place Names
|Latro’s toponym||English toponym||Well-known individual or ideal|
|Dolphins||Delphi||Apollo (in dolphin form)|
|Hundred Eyed||Argos||Argus Panoptes, the 100-eyed giant|
|Peace||Salamis||Phonecian salam “peace”|
A commemorative place name glorifies a founder or ideal. “Advent”, for example, is from the Gk. eleuseos, “the coming,” representing the spiritual advent of Demeter in the Eleusinian mysteries.
“Dolphins” is from the Gk. delphis (gen. delphinos) “dolphin,” which is the form that Apollo took in the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo. Apollo the Dolphin God recruited Cretan sailors to found his temple at that location.
“Hundred Eyed” is the commemorative place name for the 100-eyed giant Argus Panoptes whom Hera set to guard the nymph Io after she had been turned into a heifer.
“Peace” is derived from salam, the Phoenician word for peace (c.f. Salem, Massachusetts).
“Redface Island” is a portmanteau for Pelops and nesos (island). Pelops was king of Pisa on Peloponessus, and his name is itself a combination of pellos (dark) and ops (face, eye), which was probably a birthmark (i.e. a port-wine stain).
This essay has explored how the categories and insights of toponymy can be applied to Latro’s place names, shedding light on the protagonist’s thought processes. Latro relies predominantly on folk etymology, and to a lesser extent on descriptive, associative, and commemorative derivations, which breathe life into his Hellenic place names. In turn, these colorful place names motivate the curious reader to learn more about Hellas, classical mythology, and the Greco-Persian Wars.
More broadly, Latro’s place names illustrate how language influences a person’s perception and memory of a place. Latro sees mist rising from a volcano and thinks of a sail, generating “Boat.” He sees a towering citadel dominating a hill, generating “Tower Hill.” He hears “the-beye” and associates it with the archaic Latin word for “Hill.”
It is important to remember that Latro’s approach to recording place names is not archaic or obsolete. Travelers still use prominent or idealized features of the places they visit that ultimately color their perceptions and memory of that place: Paris—“city of light,” San Francisco –“city by the bay,” Prague—“golden city of 100 spires.” Place names influence how people represent a place in their autobiographical memories and how they communicate the essence of those locales to others.
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