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KEVIN PANG/MCT/Landov

15 Places With Strange Names (and How They Got Them)

KEVIN PANG/MCT/Landov
KEVIN PANG/MCT/Landov

What's in a (bizarre) name? Here are some strangely named places and the stories, legends, and theories about their origins.

1. Santa Claus, Indiana

In 1854, a group of pioneers settled in southwest Indiana and established a small town called Santa Fe. But when they applied to get a post office two years later, they were turned down. There was already another Santa Fe, Indiana, with a post office. The new Santa Fe would need a new, distinct name to get one of their own.

Fact and legend blur when it comes to how the town settled on calling itself Santa Claus. The standard version of the story goes like this: the townspeople held several meetings over the next few months to select a new name, but could not agree on one. The last town meeting of the year was held late on Christmas Eve after church services. During the debate, a gust of wind blew open the church doors and everyone heard the ringing of sleigh bells close by. Several children got excited and shouted “Santa Claus!” A light bulb went off in someone’s head and by Christmas morning, the town had a new name.

2. Intercourse, Pennsylvania

intercoursepa1.jpgThe town of Cross Keys, nestled in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, changed its name to Intercourse in 1814. How and why is anybody’s guess. There are a few explanations floating around about the origin of the name, but none with a lot of solid evidence to back them up.

One story ties it to a racetrack that used to exist just east of the town. The entrance to the track had a sign above it that read “Enter Course.” Locals began to refer to the town as “Entercourse,” which eventually evolved into “Intercourse.”

Another proposed origin has to do with an old usage of the word intercourse—everyday social and business connections and interactions.

3. Idiotville, Oregon

Idiotville is a ghost town and former logging community northwest of Portland. Most of its former residents worked at a nearby logging camp called Ryan's Camp. Because of the camp’s remote location, locals said that only an idiot would work and live there. They began referring to the surrounding area as Idiotville. The name was eventually borrowed for a nearby stream, Idiot Creek, and officially applied to the community on maps.

4. Toad Suck, Arkansas

A widely accepted story about Toad Suck’s name dates back to the days of steamboat travel on the Arkansas River. Toad Suck sits along the river and its tavern was a frequent stop for boatmen, who were said to “suck on the bottle until they swelled up like toads.”

Dr. John L. Ferguson, late director of the Arkansas History Commission, proposed an alternate explanation. He thought it was likely that, since the first Europeans to thoroughly explore the area were French, the name was an English corruption of a French word (like how aux Arcs became Ozarks).

This Arkansas travel website runs with Ferguson’s idea and muses at length about the different words and phrases that could have given rise to Toad Suck, including eau d' sucre, chateau d' sucré and coté eau d' sucre.

5. Eighty Eight, Kentucky

Eighty Eight is an unincorporated town in Barren County. According to the New York Times, Dabnie Nunally, the town’s first postmaster, came up with the name. Nunnally didn’t think very highly of his handwriting, and thought that using a number as the town’s name would make legibility on mail less of an issue. To come up with the numbers, he reached into his pocket and counted his change. He had 88 cents.

An alternate explanation sometimes floated around is that Eighty Eight is located eight miles from each of its neighboring towns—Glasgow to the west and Summer Shade to the east. (According to Google Maps, however, Summer Shade is actually about five miles away.)

6. Eighty Four, Pennsylvania

Eighty Four is a small unincorporated community southwest of Pittsburgh. It was originally named Smithville, but Pennsylvania already had a Smithville (also a New Smithville), so the USPS required a name change to avoid postal confusion. The true origin of the name is unknown, but it's been suggested that the number comes from the town’s place along the 84th mile of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line, or the year the post office was built.

7. Ding Dong, Texas

The fact that Ding Dong is in central Texas’ Bell County is a funny coincidence. The county was named for Governor Peter Bell, and the town for resident and businessman Zulis Bell and his nephew Bert (no relation to the governor).

The Bells ran a general store and hired a local painter named C.C. Hoover to make a sign for their business. Hoover supposedly illustrated the sign with two bells inscribed with the Bells’ names, and then wrote “Ding Dong” coming out the bottom of the bells. As a rural community grew around the area, the words stuck as a name for the place.

8. Cut and Shoot, Texas

In the early 1900s, trouble was brewing in a small, unnamed community a little north of Houston. Different versions of a local legend say that the townspeople were fighting over either the new steeple for the town's church; the matter of which denominations could use the building (and when); or the land claims of church members.

Whatever the reason, the townspeople had gathered near the church and were on the brink of violence. A boy at the scene supposedly declared to his family that he was going to take up a tactical position and “cut around the corner and shoot through the bushes.”

The matter was eventually taken before the court. When the judge asked one witness where the confrontation had taken place, he didn’t know what to call it, since the town didn’t have a name. He told the judge, “I suppose you could call it the place where they had the cutting and shooting scrape,” and the name stuck.

9. Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, Quebec

The municipality of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in Quebec has a name that makes perfect sense -in French. Sort of. The Ha! Ha! is officially traced back to an archaic French term, "The haha," which means an unexpected obstacle or dead end. This would refer to Lake Témiscouata, which came into view suddenly for early French explorers. The citizens of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! are proud to say that it is the only city name in the world that features two exclamation points.

See Also: The Origins of the 8 Strangest Place Names in Canada

10. Hot Coffee, Mississippi

In the early 1800s, travelers on their way to Mobile often stopped at an inn in southern Mississippi, where owner Levi Davis greeted them with ginger cookies and a pot of piping hot coffee. The inn took on the name of its signature beverage, and eventually so did the surrounding area. Today, it’s not really a town so much as a scattering of farms, homes and businesses along Hot Coffee Road.

11. Knockemstiff, Ohio

Knockemstiff is a small rural town in south central Ohio. Several legends give different explanations for the name. One says that in the 1800s, a traveling preacher entering town came across two women fighting over a man. The preacher doubted the man was worth the trouble and said that someone should “knock him stiff.”

Another similar story has it that a woman went to a preacher to complain that her husband was cheating on her. The preacher’s straightforward advice became a motto around town, and eventually its name. Yet another explanation is that the name is slang for the moonshine or homemade liquor that many of the locals manufactured.

12. Two Egg, Florida

This little burg got its name during the Great Depression. The story goes that in the town’s general store, two lads often came in on errands for their mom, regularly trading two eggs for a package of sugar. Locals began referring to the place as the “two egg store,” and the name stuck for the town as well. Strange fact: On the town’s website, there is news about sightings of a Bigfoot-type creature called the Two Egg Stump Jumper.

13. Rabbit Hash, Kentucky

According to popular legend, a flood in the 1840s drove hundreds of rabbits from the riverbank, and right into the stew pots of hungry settlers. Described by the general store clerk as “a little slice of American pie,” Rabbit Hash consists of “eight buildings and an official population of one.”

14. Cookietown, Oklahoma

This place supposedly got its name in the early 1900s, after general store owner Marvin Cornelius gave a cookie to a young boy, who exclaimed, “I don’t want to leave Cookietown.” Despite its yummy name, Cookietown is more of a ghost town today—just a few residents and a church.

15. Glen Campbell, Pennsylvania

This small (pop. 306 as of the 2000 census) borough in Western PA isn’t named after the Glen Campbell famous for "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Wichita Lineman." Instead, it’s named in honor of Cornelius Campbell, the first superintendent of the Glenwood Coal Company, which operated the mines in the area. The Glen in the name comes from the Scottish word for a valley.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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