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Call It What You Will
A place has a name for a reason


AS DEVELOPERS began shaping Snohomish County pastureland into a golf-course community back in the '70s, they spent considerable time noodling over the right name. "Olympus" was an early frontrunner, but they went instead with the rustic label of "Mill Creek." There had never been a mill on the land — let alone a mill creek — but it was the concept that counted.

The concept, and the name, stuck. The community became a city and thrived. But through the years, a problem lingered. Mill Creek never really had much of an identity, or a center for that matter. OK, said city bigwigs, let's clear more land and create a downtown. To make sure everybody gets it, let's call the place "Town Center." To hammer home the point, let's call the little creek that wiggles through it "Mill Creek."

What made sense to the city, however, got blank stares from the Washington State Board on Geographic Names, the official arbiter of such issues. The volunteer board raised a number of niggles: While a town is often named after a geographic feature like a mountain or creek, it's rarely done the other way around. The name Mill Creek is, of course, historically misleading. And the board avoids letting a natural feature be named to help a development. Also, locals had been unofficially calling it Smokehouse Creek because there used to be a smokehouse business along one bank.

For board member Grant Smith, a national expert on names and a linguistics lover in the extreme, there was another glaring problem. The proposed name was stunningly unoriginal. There were already three dozen Mill Creeks in the state and more than 1,400 across the country, making it the nation's most-used name. Did the world really need another Mill Creek?

Board member Putnam Barber, an "amateur philosopher of names" whose day job is helping nonprofits, couldn't help himself. "I'm not proposing this," he said, grinning at the city's representative, "but wouldn't it make more sense to name it Mill Creek Creek?"

Amid the pressing issues of life, such toponymic tussles seem trivial. Isn't a rose by any other name still a rose? Maybe, but naming a place is something else again. It's critical to making maps that people can use. Yet it goes far beyond practicality. Place names can promote environmentalism, stamp ownership, preserve history, incite revisionism. They signal changing culture, encourage diversity, and sometimes sting with insensitivity. They commemorate the famous, the beloved, those who got there first — or at least laid first claim — and those who made an impression.

Illustration Names recall events, tell stories and incorporate generational spin. Names can stoke enduring arguments. (Should Mount Rainier really be Mount Tahoma, or Mount Tacoma, for that matter?) Subtle adjustments go a long way, like renaming King County in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King instead of William Rufus DeVane King, an ex-vice president who owned slaves.

Any developer can attest to the psychic and financial power of the right label — think Willows, Osprey, Mountain Vista or Mill Creek. We rarely give names a second thought. How many of us know how our neighborhood or street was named? Even so, we are born labelers.

SCAN A MAP or thumb through the various encyclopedic books on Washington place names and you'll notice labels that describe terrain (Rocky Peak), designate distance (Seventeen Mile Mountain), orient to direction (North Bend), or indicate size (Tiny Lake).

Some hint at stories (Jump-Off-Joe Butte), warn of danger (Deadman Island), boast attributes (Lunker Lake), convey our primal need to mark turf (Joe's Bay). We name for the famous (Lincoln County), the beloved (Martha Falls), and guiding forces (the community of Jerry). We give optimistic names (Opportunity), ghoulish names (Cadaver Gap) and names reminding us of back home (Odessa).

Names can evoke imagination. Would you picnic along Rat Creek? Can Mount Wow live up to its name? Can you smell the melting leather when you hear about Burnt Boot Creek? How many tears spilled into Lonesome Lake, and how'd they come up with Hickey Hump? (It's a hill named after sheepherder Ed Hickey.)

Many names get swept away or squished into derivatives as culture changes or new neighbors arrive. Native Americans, European explorers, packers, settlers, park surveyors and railroaders laid the groundwork for most. Native Americans named places based on the land's character, spirituality and function. Lt. Charles Wilkes, who led the first U.S. Navy exploration of the Pacific Ocean, named dozens of features, including Maury Island (after a friend). A.H. Sylvester, a supervisor at Wenatchee National Forest, mapped much of that area and sprinkled all kinds of names around it, including the unforgettable Dirtyface Peak.

One story has it that a surveyor named a spot Rattlesnake Prairie because he heard the brush rustling as he slept under the stars, and another tale claims Poodle Dog Pass was named after a mine owner's pet. Sometimes it's hard to pin down, among various versions, the real reason for a name. Some places had several unofficial names, especially within the mountaineering community.

The state's smallest town is Krupp on maps, but locals of the eastern Washington wheat-farming burg call it Marlin. Krupp fell out of favor during World War II when the German factory by that name made munitions for the Reich. Marlin was an early settler. Townfolk don't care much about the discrepancy because mail to Marlin gets to their post office.

IllustrationNAMING ISN'T NEARLY so casual today. In fact, deciding on what a place should be called is akin to writing a memo by committee.

Counties, cities and developers conjure their own labels, but the state names board meets twice a year under the fluorescent lights of an Olympia hearing room to decide what to call lakes, rivers, peaks, buttes and other features of the natural world. The seven-member board, led by the commissioner of public lands and supervised by the Department of Natural Resources, enforces the same general rules as does the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

For instance, there are rules about naming a feature after a person. He or she must have been dead at least five years, had a meaningful connection to the place and had some measure of at least regional recognition. It's not enough that grandpa liked to fish a stream; he must be associated with it by people beyond the family before it can be named after him. The board is also mindful of proportion, equating the stature of the person to the grandeur of the site. Mary's Stream may work, but forget Mount Mary.

To avoid vanity names — driven by a family interested in perpetuating roots in a public way — applications must be backed up with history, reason and some sense that people in the area agree. Although the board sends out notices of each new name or name-change proposal, it can be hard to find dissent. Those who disagree generally don't carry the same passion as those seeking the name.

Before deciding to adopt a new name or change an old one, the board gives great weight to what locals call a place. Not long ago, it changed the official spelling of an island even though it thought the new name was probably a misspelling. Why? Because residents were so adamant about it. In the mind of some board members, the decision gave "local usage" a leg up on historical accuracy.

The standardization of names for natural features began in 1890, when President Benjamin Harrison established the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. With the end of the Civil War and western expansion in full throttle, mapping and scientific reporting surged to support exploration, mining and settlement. Contradictions, inconsistencies, misspellings and mislabelings were big problems.

The state board was created in 1973 to give form to the naming process and limit the role politics plays. Legislators are more easily swayed than the panel's volunteers are. Only about 15 names a year make it to their meetings' agenda.

The ultimate goal of naming boards is to ensure maps are accurate. A few years ago, a man from western Washington traveled to Moses Lake and began selling his version of Grant County maps, with his own names for places there. The sheriff's department, concerned the odd labels could jeopardize a rescue some day, ran him and his maps off.

Bureaucracy hasn't bled all character from names yet. Over the years the board has entertained — and sometimes granted — names such as Preacher Creek, Robber Creek, Glade Bekken, Worm Flows, Sasquatch Steps, Stella's Swamp, Mimsi Marsh, Slammer Island and Chuck-che-hum Mountain. During the '80s, the board accepted Sasquatch Steps even though the Forest Service initially argued against it on the grounds that there is no proof Bigfoot was ever actually there.

GRANT SMITH is past president of the American Name Society, an officer with the International Council on Onomastic Sciences, author of dozens of academic papers on toponymy (the study of place names), and longtime humanities professor at Eastern Washington University. He speaks and thinks with the precision of someone who has spent much of his life parsing words, yet he is also keen on the lyrical cadence of words and emotional power of names. He gained minor fame a few years ago when he used a 20-point scale to study candidate names and determine that the better-sounding name wins about two-thirds of the time.

He also studies how names evolve. As a boy in Eastern Washington, he'd tell Mom or Grandma he was going "down to the creek" or "by the bridge" or "down by the eddy." As he aged and his world expanded, specifics became important. Instead of "the lake," he'd tell his mom he was going to "Toad Lake," which actually had toads.

IllustrationBut even that changed.

"The official name of the lake really was Toad Lake," he says, "until some developers bought it and renamed it Emerald Lake. That name looks better on a brochure, but it doesn't quite capture the images of my childhood experiences."

Names, he says, have lives. Most, if not all, are born from oral tradition and represent eras and people. Over years, names get mashed, truncated or blended with what the new group prefers. The original may be forgotten, but often remnants of it are preserved in some form, like historical strata.

The strong influence of Chinook Jargon on place names in Washington is an example. The jargon was shorthand dialect that allowed tribes to communicate with each other as well as white explorers and settlers. As Europeans arrived and trading increased, the vocabulary expanded to about 800 words. Among the reasons the jargon showed such sticking power, Smith says, was that whites were familiar with the dialect and could pronounce the words.

Chuckanut Bay, Tyee, Tillicum and many others that dot our landscape were derived from the jargon. The "Pil" in Pilchuck River means red and the "chuck" means water, so natives knew it as Red Water. Settlers required more identification for their maps, so they added "River." The Skookumchuck River means Big Water. It doesn't look so imposing today, but pioneer wagons used to get stuck trying to cross it, says Roy Wilson, another member of the names board.

A robust man of 74, Wilson's bearing is as casual as Smith's is buttoned-down. While Smith wears suit and tie to the hearings, Wilson will typically arrive clad in a flannel shirt, vest, jeans and boots, a red bandana around his forehead. Their approach to names is just as different.

Wilson is a Cowlitz spiritual leader and author of several books, including one on tribal legends. There is a lengthy passage in his "Legends of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe" that describes The Coyote wandering the state, creating and labeling mountains, rivers and other features as it went.

"When I sat at my first meeting with the board I did something very unusual," says Wilson, who joined the group in 1996. "I kept quiet and just listened. My tribal name means 'Bear Who Talks Much.' At the second meeting I gave everyone copies of some of the legends, letting them know The Coyote was the original naming board."

THE MACHINATIONS of naming can require considerable work, the hearings can lag, and decisions can stoke deep feelings.

Jim Hinkhouse inspired many people by incorporating the rigors of mountain climbing with substance-abuse treatment. His program, One Step at a Time, included 12-step recovery programs through ascents. After he died in a Mount McKinley climbing accident, friends searched for a peak to commemorate him. The first one they chose, though, was in a wilderness area, where official names are discouraged. As a rule, a named place gets used more than an unnamed one.

Supporters kept searching and found a peak outside the wilderness boundary near Washington Pass. The board received stacks of heartfelt letters from people who said Hinkhouse changed their lives. As a result, Hinkhouse Peak was born.

Five years ago, Anne Nelson asked the board to name a creek along Highway 20 "Tri-Teen Creek" after three youths — including her son, Jason — who died there in a car accident. Board members balked, concerned about the precedent of naming a place after an auto accident, no matter how tragic. They wanted evidence that people in the area were calling it Tri-Teen and decided to implement a five-year waiting period as it would for any "commemorative name."

Nelson returned to the board last month to ask again. "My son fished and walked that creek; he was my little mountain man," she said before the hearing. "I have the communities up there behind this. Many times through the years, I would wake up and want to forget it, but I couldn't let it go."

She will have to wait longer because the full board wasn't present and the matter was tabled until the next meeting.

Sometimes, denial is an easy call. A proposal to name an unincorporated area in Snohomish County "Washington" so it could be known as Washington, Washington, attracted unambiguous community reaction. Here's a sampling of the letters:

"Washington, Washington. . . Such monotony, so boring!" "It's our suburbia. I see no need for name change." "This has to be the stupidest thing I have ever heard of, and every neighbor I've spoken to agreed with me." "Generally, I enjoy a frivolous name as much as any native Washingtonian, but this . . . "

Environmentalism has driven several new and changed names over the years. It is easier to generate support for restoring a creek with a name than one known only by map coordinates. A local Lion's Club did rehabilitation work on a stretch of water and was rewarded by the official name of Lion's Run. A tiny Kent-area creek got a big name, United Nations Creek, after students restored it and presented their work to a United Nations youth conference.

Three decades ago, the U.S. geographic board ordered the expunging of all names slurring African and Japanese Americans. Oregon and Idaho are in the process of replacing all "squaw" names; Washington's board is tackling the issue feature by feature.

While Native-American influence is well-represented on our maps, few names note African-American contributions. Smith surmises that may reflect lack of property ownership in the early days of the state. That's one reason Whitman County's Negro Creek became such an issue in 1998. A county commissioner told the board the name (and its occasionally used slur alternative) was offensive and should be changed to Moh's Creek, after a family of white settlers.

The Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers protested the proposed name change, contending it would erase African-American history. The creek had been named after a mysterious black man who went by the name of John Smith and owned a dairy near the creek in the 1880s. Some believe he was a runaway slave. Renaming it John Smith Creek wouldn't tell the distinction, either.

Negro Creek stayed.

MILL CREEK didn't take the first no for an answer.

Cari Hornbein, a senior planner, returned with the city's response. She told the board the smokehouse had operated in a square concrete building and had a relatively recent and short history in Mill Creek before moving to another town. It wasn't an historical building, and for that matter it wasn't like Lewis and Clark ever dined there. The city was trying to define the community and, if nothing else, Mill Creek residents could finally tell visitors where Mill Creek, the creek, was.

She delivered the requisite letters of community support, and eventually, the board found a strange tail-wagging-the-dog logic to naming the creek after the town so the town's name makes more sense. The proposal had a purpose, so Mill Creek got its Mill Creek and the national count of Mill Creeks hit 1,475.

"If people want it, that's fine with me," said Smith, who had favored something with more character and considered the name a missed opportunity. "We should be the recorders of names, not the name police."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Christine Cox is a Seattle Times news artist.

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