Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Place Names of Illinois!

Wet off the presses from the University of Illinois is a book for every microhistorian with an interest in Illinois -- or anyone who's ever enjoyed driving around the state: Place Names of Illinois, by Edward Callary, who teaches English at Northern Illinois University. (Anticipated in this post.)

It's not just a list, it's an alphabetical anthology of snippets of state history from Abingdon (Knox County) to Zuma (Rock Island County) -- because, as Callary puts it opposite the contents page, "PLACE NAMES ARE THE ARCHIVES IN WHICH THE HISTORY AND CULTURE OF A PEOPLE ARE STORED."

We learn where each name came from (if known), as well as where it didn't come from -- all backed up with source citations and a 32-page bibliography. (Aroma Park [Kankakee County] is not named after its smell. Almost all the names designate inhabited places -- communities, townships, or counties -- few natural features are included.

Callary does not neglect to mention when a place bears a name unique in the US, such as Zif (Wayne County) and Brereton (Fulton County). The third longest entry in the book, after "Chicago" and "Illinois," deals with the small town through which we got our mail for eleven years -- Ipava (Fulton County) -- and the conclusion is that nobody knows how it got that name.

Of course half the fun of such a book is picking it apart, because while few people (one, to be exact) had the grit, determination, time, and energy to accomplish this job, everyone has an opinion on how it should have been done. I have found only one outright error -- the tiny town of Trivoli (Peoria County) is pronounced with an "uh" at the end, not an "ih" sound. But there are two fuzzy boundary areas where rules are few, and seeming inconsistencies promise to breed endless time-sucking onomastic contention:

(1) Chicago places, once separate entities and now city neighborhoods. Rogers Park and Austin are in, but Jefferson [Township] and Andersonville are out. Of course, this is part of the vexing problem faced by anyone trying to write about Illinois as a whole -- how to encompass the vast space of downstate in the same universe of discourse as the vast population of Cook County.

(2) Small places, my favorites. Amazingly unmentioned are Middlegrove (Fulton/Knox County), Greenwood (McHenry County), and Salisbury (Sangamon County). Arguably less significant wide places in the road are included, such as Leesburg, Enion (both Fulton County), and Cramer (Peoria County).

If you aren't wondering about several places in Illinois right now, then eschew this book.

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