Unusual town names: from “Hell” to the “Kingdom of Heaven”
The names of these oddly labeled towns don't say much about the quality of life there, but they often speak volumes about the history, location or the ancestral lines that founded the settlements all those centuries ago.
Anyone driving through Germany will notice the bright yellow name signs on the edge of each town. Smaller hamlets are given a modest green signboard with yellow writing. The small villages of “Ohnewitz” (no joke) in Brandenburg, with just 10 houses, or Kotzen (vomit) in Havelland, however, are forced to go without such a sign. The reason? Anonymous trophy hunters regularly come and steal the signs in the middle of the night for their precious collections. Until the sign is replaced these towns remain incognito, but the inhabitants know where they live and, more importantly, they know that the idyllic town of Kotzen, for example, was first mentioned in the 14th century under the Slavic name “Cozym”. The original name means something like “Haarbüschel” (tuft of hair) or “Ziege” (goat). The town's original name really has nothing to do with the contemporary meaning (vomit) that seems to so motivate the sign thieves.
Name transformations – a question of broken telephone?
“Over time, geographical names often undergo changes due to a simple process of a 'broken telephone' effect in which the different people who say the name in different languages, dialects and eras all leave a trace of their accent on the name itself,” explains the Atlas der 999 seltsamen Ortsnamen (lit. Atlas of 999 Unusual Place Names). The book features a map of Germany which, in addition to more conventional names like Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt and Cologne, contains villages, towns and districts with much more bizarre monikers. They are placed into 24 categories including Gruseliges (Spooky, e.g. Geistermühle – ghost mill), Bekleidung (Clothing, e.g. Regenmantel – raincoat), Beleidigung (Insults, e.g. Großmaulberg – loudmouth mountain), Merkwürdiges (Unusual, e.g. Killewittchen – according to legend, something like “white dwarf cave”) and Nützliches (Useful, e.g. Bürstenstiel – brush handle). Using the map, readers can take a tour through Schleswig-Holstein to towns like Rotzbüll (snot hill), Gärtnerslust (gardener's desire), Schlagseite (list), Rußland (Russia), Stinkviertel (stinky quarter), Honigsee (honey lake), Oha (whoa), Weitewelt (wide world) and Ekelsdorf (revulsion town).
The travel routes are similarly original in all of the German states, but don't be surprised to discover that the things you find amusing about Busendorf (bosom town), Tittenkofen (tits clearing) or Sexau (sex meadow) aren't particularly funny for the locals. Nor is a photo opportunity in front of the town sign. In Blödesheim (dumb town) in Rhineland-Palatinate, for example, things went a little too far with the jeers and in 1971 the town changed its name to Hochburn. Yet nobody in Blödesheim had any reason to feel dumb. Founded in 782, the town's original name was actually Blatmarsheim before it changed into Blatmarisheim, Blittersheim, Plödesheim and then, in 1613, Blödesheim. Over the centuries, Blödesheim's name has in fact changed nine times, the last time on the express wishes of its inhabitants.
A light in a dark past
The fact is that a town's name is only very seldom changed intentionally like in Blödesheim. The authors of the atlas say that, “Many place names have a long, convoluted linguistic odyssey behind them. People have simplified, mumbled and otherwise dialectically transformed these names over time.” The Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities is currently researching place names between the Rhine and the Elbe as well as the onomastics across Europe in general. For scientists it is clear that, “from a historical perspective, place names are unique. They are tenacious enough to survive migrations of people and are thus witness to the history of human settlement.” Even language and literature scholar Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) appreciated the meanings of proper names, “whose founding sheds light on the language and whose history sheds light on our ancestors.”
Place names as a brand
Considering the hidden historical tidbits of place names as well as some of the more practical elements, it is no surprise that some towns aren't able to hold out as long as Blödesheim did. “Fucking”, a town of about 100 inhabitants on the border of Germany and Austria, had good reason to reconsider its beloved village's name. Still, in a referendum the citizens voted against a change. Instead, they have decided to embrace the attention they are getting, in particular from English-speaking visitors. At this point, due to the popularity of the town signs, the signposts have been cemented in, but not all hope of a souvenir is lost. Guests still have the chance to enjoy the local “helles Pilsener” beer (“hell” means light) in one of the town's taverns or taking a bottle home as a souvenir with the name Fucking Hell.
Stephan Hormes, Silke Peust:
works as a freelance journalist in Hamburg.
Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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