What the?

On June 29, 2014 · 7 Comments

It couldn’t possibly be true, a place named for Dwayne Johnson a.k.a "The Rock", the professional wrestler and actor?


This guy had more than 7 million Twitter followers and he followed only one person, Muhammad Ali. That would indicate someone of immense popularity, and yet, could that be enough to get an entire town named for him?

The Rock, Georgia, USA

No, of course not. The Rock in Georgia was not named for Dwayne Johnson and I never figured that was a realistic possibility. I was simply amused by the weird juxtaposition of a professional wrestler and a populated place with the same name. Johnson didn’t have any association with the state or for the town as far as I could determine. Nonetheless I never considered that The Rock — the town — had anything to do with the Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant chain either. However it did, as improbable as that sounded.

The Rock in Georgia was named for The Rock Ranch, and:

The Rock Ranch is a beautiful 1,500 acre cattle ranch located about an hour south of Atlanta in Upson County. It’s a place where families, school groups and even businesses can come to enjoy what we call "agritourism." The Rock Ranch is owned by Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and dedicated to "Growing Healthy Families"!

S. Truett Cathy and kin are no strangers to controversy. There’s no doubt that The Rock Ranch would have a strong opinion on those Healthy Families that it was dedicated to Growing, regardless of where one’s own personal feelings fell on that spectrum.

The Others

Bequia by Globalgrasshopr, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

My tangential thought process led me to consider other placenames beginning with the definite article. It had to be unusual, I considered, and then I realized it may not have been all that rare even if it wasn’t the norm. A simple visit to the US Department of State’s A-Z List of Country and Other Areas demonstrated that quickly at a national level.

  • THE Bahamas
  • THE Congo (Republic of, and Democratic Republic of)
  • THE Gambia
  • Saint Vincent and THE Grenadines

The rule of thumb seemed to center upon entities named for something like a river or a group of islands. Those increased the likelihood of having the definite article tacked onto them. The Grenadines portion of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines fascinated me, I guess because Saint Vincent and the Grenadines included only a portion of the Grenadines. The largest island of the Grenadines, Carriacou, was actually a dependency of Grenada. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines had to settle for the second largest island, Bequia. Perhaps the name should be changed to Saint Vincent and Some of the Grenadines? It seemed like false advertising.

While not explicitly stated in the US Department of State list in this form, one often encounters THE Netherlands and THE Philippines too. I suppose while I’m at it I could add THE United States and THE United Kingdom. There used to be THE Ukraine although that began to shift to Ukraine by iteself after becoming an independent state in 1991.

Nonetheless I think the only two nations where the definite article would always be capitalized would be The Bahamas and The Gambia (vs. the United States and the United Kingdom, where lowercase would be acceptable in many circumstances). It all gets so confusing.

In the United Kingdom

I looked for instances of THE attached to placenames in many areas and found no nation with a greater prevalence than the United Kingdom. There must be hundreds of them. Some where quite remarkable such as The Burf, The Folly, The Glack, The Mumbles, and The Shoe. The best of course were the several places named The Butts because 12MC couldn’t resist another opportunity for lowbrow humor. This would be an appropriate time to turn on the video of Da Butt for some inspiration.

Many British placenames that sounded odd to the rest of us were rooted in things that made complete sense in their original context. English Heritage provided a logical explanation for The Butts:

An archery butts is an area of land given over to archery practise in which one or more artificially constructed mounds of earth and stone were used as a target area. The name originally applied to the dead marks or targets themselves but the earthen platforms on which the targets were placed also became known as butts… Archery butts can be recognised as field monuments through their earthwork mounds but documentary sources allow the best identification of archery butts, usually through place-names eg. Butt Hills… Archery butts are associated with the use and practise of the longbow which was in part responsible for England’s military power throughout the medieval period.

Thus, many of The Butts derived from archery fields although some did not: "The Middle English word ‘butt’ referred to an abutting strip of land, and is often associated with medieval field systems." In Britain, The Butts could have been associated with archery or with an odd leftover land remnant.

The Gazetteer of British Place listed two specific location of The Butts, one in Glamorgan, South Wales (map) and the other in Hampshire, England (map), although other sources listed more.

I noticed something interesting next to The Butts in Hampshire, Jane Austen’s House Museum. Jane Austen (1775–1817) resided here during the latter part of her life, where she wrote the novels Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. She may have also revised drafts of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey here as well. Thus it could be said that the famous author gazed upon The Butts regularly.

Earl Grey

On June 19, 2014 · 1 Comments

The 12MC audience anticipated my next move again. This time it was "The Basement Geographer" who flagged British prime minister Earl Grey and the Grey Cup in a comment responding to Gray vs. Grey. Those will be mentioned along with other topics today. I knew that could be a risk when I mentioned the prairie town of Earl Grey in Saskatchewan. I interpreted this as a sign of an engaged conversation and I appreciated the input.

Earl Grey, Saskatchewan

Anyway, let’s talk about Earl Grey, the rural town and its namesake. There have been seven men with the the hereditary title Earl Grey. Earl referred to a Peerage of the United Kingdom in this context, not to some dude named Earl although that may have been much more entertaining. According to the History of Earl Grey as published in "From Buffalo Grass to Wheat: a History of Long Lake District,"

…this settlement began when a settler spent the winter of 1903-04 in a dugout in the side of the hill near where the old school stands today. The district was then known as Snorum. It was surveyed about 1885. When the village was incorporated in 1906, a C.P.R. [ed., Canadian Pacific Railroad] official suggested that it be called Earl Grey in honor of the Governor-General, Earl Grey.

This particular Earl Grey was also Sir Albert Henry George Grey, 4th Earl Grey and more importantly for this story, Governor General of Canada between 1904 and 1911. "He is probably best remembered as the donor of the Grey Cup, the trophy awarded to the champion team of the Canadian Football League."

Earl Grey Pass, British Columbia

The Canadian Geographical Names Data Base included one other Earl Grey, a mountain pass bearing the name in British Columbia. The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park explained the origin on its guide to the Earl Grey Pass Trail.

During a visit to British Columbia in 1908, Earl Grey, Canada’s Governor General… crossed the Purcell Mountains on a trail that connected the East and West Kootenays. He traveled up Toby and down Hamill Creeks, over a 2,256m pass which was later named in his honor… The Purcell’s so impressed Earl Grey that he had a cabin built for his family’s vacation in 1909. The remains of the structure still stand on Toby Creek, one kilometer from the Eastern trailhead.

These two Canadian geographic features along with numerous roads and schools spread throughout the Provinces were all named for Albert Grey.

Grey or Orange?

bergamotto by mariella44, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

Earl Grey Tea, however, was named for a different Earl Grey. I figured I should check that out since I was already examining geographic features named Earl Grey. The tea referred to UK Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who was the grandfather of Albert Grey, the former Governor General of Canada.

Lord Grey’s most remarkable achievement was the Reform Act of 1832, which set in train a gradual process of electoral change, sowing the seeds of the system we recognise today… One of his other legacies is the blend of tea known as Earl Grey. He reputedly received a gift, probably a diplomatic present, of tea that was flavoured with bergamot oil. It became so popular that he asked British tea merchants to recreate it.

Bergamot oil came from the pressed peel of the Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), an infrequently encountered sour citrus grown commercially in a small handful of places. The majority of those orange groves concentrated historically around the Calabria region of Italy, especially within the Province of Reggio Calabria (map), also recognized informally as the "toe" of the Italian boot. According to the Consorzio del Bergamotto (Consortium of Bergamot),

The bergamot is cultivated along the Ionian coast of the Province of Reggio Calabria, specifically between the towns of Villa San Giovanni and Gioiosa Jonica;  an area of about 1,500 hectares produces 20,000 tonnes of fruit, which yield an average of 100,000 kg of essence.

The Consortium provided an English-language video with much more information.

So remember,

  • Black tea infused with obscure citrus: 2nd Earl Grey
  • Canadian Football League championship: 4th Earl Grey

Feel free to drop those distinctions into your next cocktail party conversation if you need to disperse a crowd.

Gray vs. Grey

On June 17, 2014 · 10 Comments

I’ve always had a terrible time remembering how to spell a certain word that describes a mixture of black and white. Should it be gray or grey? In a sense I understood that it depended upon geography. The adoption of simplified spelling in the United States through the efforts of people like dictionary publisher Noah Webster in the early 19th Century certainly had an impact. I uncovered a little mnemonic that helped me out. The word grAy applied primarily to America; the word grEy applied just about Everywhere else. That introduced problems and exceptions too. It seemed somewhat dismissive to consider the United States as representing all of "America" for instance. Also certain proper terms such as Greyhound were always spelled with an E regardless of geography. Still, I’d discovered a simple enough mnemonic even with its limitations.

According to Grammarist.com,

Gray and grey are different spellings of the same word, and both are used throughout the English-speaking world. But gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all the other main varieties of English. In the U.K., for instance, grey appears about twenty times for every instance of gray. In the U.S. the ratio is reversed.

I’m not a grammar expert. Readers have to spend maybe five minutes on 12MC to understand that. I only wanted to know if the same ratio held geographically. I figured the percentage might be a little fuzzier because certain placenames would have existed prior to the polarization of gray versus grey between English-speaking nations. Either way, I was about to find out.

Gray and Grey in the United States

The United States’ Geographic Names Information System referenced 1,962 gray placenames and 550 grey placenames. That came a lot closer to 4:1 than the stated 20:1, although it marked a clear preference for the "Americanized" version.

Twelve Mile Circle loves anomalies so I examined the list of places in the United States that fell on the counterintuitive side of the spelling divide. The 550 were much more interesting to me than the 1,962.

Two Grey Hills
Two Grey Hills by Chuck Coker, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

Two Grey Hills fascinated me in particular. What a wonderfully descriptive placename even if the two namesake hills in the embedded photograph didn’t look all that grey or gray. The photographer noted that he’d captured this image outside of the Two Grey Hills Trading Post (map) in a remote corner of western New Mexico.

The trading post dated back to 1897.

… over a century old, and one of the few remaining historic posts on the Navajo Indian Reservation, is the primary source of authentic regional rugs and tapestries. Made of hand spun yarn from the fleece of naturally colored local sheep in shades of gray, brown, black and white, they are known around the world as the finest in Navajo weaving… Operating in isolation for over 90 years with no identifying signs, it is well known only to Navajos.

The price of intricately handwoven Two Grey Hills rugs can run into the thousands of dollars, easily.

Grey and Gray Everywhere Else

The Gazetteer of British Place Names included 24 instances of Grey and 11 instances of Gray. The overall totals were much smaller than GNIS because the British database included only populated places, not every conceivable geographic feature like its US counterpart. Britain certainly demonstrated a preference for grey in its placenames although nothing approaching 20:1 in my unscientific sample. Canada, however, surprised me when the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base returned 93 grey placenames and 112 gray, or fairly equal. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was given "the spelling system can be said to follow both British and American forms." That seemed to be the case for grey/gray at least as far as Canadian placenames were concerned. Maybe our Canadians readers can tell us if there’s a spelling preference for other usages.

Gray Rink, Gray Saskatchewan

Nonetheless I selected a gray in Canada, the small prairie village of Gray, Saskatchewan, which is not to be confused with Earl Grey, Saskatchewan about 111 kilometres farther north (map).

Gray is a small community located 25 miles southeast of Regina. It was established in 1911 as an agricultural based town. Gray and the surrounding area is home to over 130 people and attracts people from a 35 mile radius for it’s many activities. Like most small towns in Saskatchewan, Gray has experienced the ups and downs in it’s population base and is currently in a growth position.

The village used the Americanized spelling of Gray and referenced miles rather than kilometres on its website. I began to wonder if someone might have slipped the border a little farther north during the night when nobody was looking. Then I noticed that social activities in Gray seemed to focus on its hockey rink. Clearly, Gray belonged in Canada.

Next I conducted some serious investigative journalism as the 12MC audience has come to expect over the years. Wikipedia claimed, without attribution I might add, that the village "…has a hockey team called the Gray Hounds." This statement violated the Greyhound rule and required additional fact-checking.

I found no verifiable evidence for the existence of the Gray Hounds. Indeed, the Men’s recreational hockey team in Gray went by a completely different name: the Screaming Os.

Oh my.

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