Small Change, Big Difference

It struck me that Cheyenne (the capital city of the U.S. state of Wyoming) and Cayenne (the capital city of the French overseas department of Guyane française) sounded remarkably similar in name. Yet, as locations go they couldn’t have been much more dissimilar even though they were separated by only a couple of letters and a slight voice inflection.

The Old West came to mind when I thought of Cheyenne.

Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo 2014-8
Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo 2014-8 by enjoiskate8, on Flickr (cc)

Cheyenne’s name derived from Native Americans of Algonquian origin that migrated across the Great Plains in the 19th Century. Today they are located in Montana (Northern Cheyenne Nation) and Oklahoma (Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes). The etymology wasn’t entirely clear. Many believed that the name came from a Dakota Sioux phrase for the Cheyenne that was adopted by incoming settlers of European descent. It also seemed like a fine name for a town when those same settlers began rolling into Wyoming in force and platted a village in 1867.

The city of Cheyenne grew and prospered enough to become the capital of Wyoming in 1890 at statehood. Nonetheless, Wyoming remained largely rural, with open countryside dotted by cattle ranches, cowboys and romantic notions along those lines.

Cayenne, on the other hand, settled as it was on coastal South America, absorbed a decidedly equatorial flavor like the fiery red hot pepper named for it.

Cayenne, Carnival 2013 (1)
Cayenne, Carnival 2013 (1) by Andrea Privitera, on Flickr (cc)

Etymologically, Cayenne derived from Guyana, a name for the larger geographic region on the northeastern edge of the continent. In turn, Guyana likely came from an indigenous term for "land of many waters." Interestingly both Cheyenne and Cayenne had their basis in indigenous New World languages although their similarity would have to be coincidental since their language families were completely different.

The Game

I turned it into a little game. I began a brief quest to see if I could discover any other geographic designations substantially similar in pattern or pronunciation while remarkably distinct in just about every other respect. I found another good one. How about Dallas, Texas and Đà Lạt, Vietnam? Those two places would seem to exhibit tremendous differences.

Pioneer Park Cattle Drive
Pioneer Park Cattle Drive by Mike Desisto, on Flickr (cc)

I returned to the cattle and cowboy theme for Dallas. Then maybe added a few oil wells, made the cattle a longhorn, threw in a dash of J.R. Ewing, and maybe some barbeque sauce along with a few more selected cultural stereotypes. Compare that with…

Linh Son Pagoda
Linh Son Pagoda by Samson_Cheong_Kok_Chun, on Flickr (cc)

… Asian culture, Buddhist temples and rice paddies. Thus, Đà Lạt was about as far away from Dallas in every manner imaginable except alphabetically so that should be a pretty high score. If I was keeping score.

That’s how the game was played.

Some Other Examples

I spent more time than I’d care to admit trying to come up with other meaningful pairs. Some were vaguely clever and some were completely absurd.

  • Giza vs. Pisa: Considerably different although they both featured iconic structures; pyramids in the first instance and a leaning tower in the latter.
  • New York vs. Newark: Residents of those respective locales would likely argue that they shouldn’t be confused, however their differences didn’t approach anything like North America vs. Asia.
  • Santiago vs. San Diego: Here my creativity began to wane. The two didn’t sound all that much alike.
  • Paris vs. Ferris: Well, that was definitely a stretch. Ferris was a town in Texas with 2,500 residents. I hardly considered that a household name so this one began to look like desperation on my part. It got worse.
  • Manila vs. Vanilla. Now I’m joking of course although there actually was a Vanilla in Pennsylvania according to GNIS (at 39.7781488°, -77.8505523°). I included this one only because I thought Manila folders were called Vanilla folders when I was a kid. In my defense those folders did seem to have the correct approximate color, kind of a milky tan/yellow like the ice cream. It took me years to figure out that I was butchering the name.

That was fun although I ran out of ideas. This is where the Twelve Mile Circle audience can get involved. Please feel free to be creative and suggest better alternatives. I wonder if there are any triple examples?

17 Replies to “Small Change, Big Difference”

  1. I don’t know enough about them to comment on their actual differences, but how about Frankfurt the large city in Germany (whichever one you choose) vs. Frankfort the tiny capital of Kentucky?

    Or maybe Samara (in Russia) vs. Samarra (as in “Appointment in Samarra” – in Iraq, apparently), and perhaps also vs. Samaria (the region where Samaritans came from, now part of self-proclaimed Palestine).

  2. Santiago and San Diego are both Spanish variants of Saint James. Does the shared etymology disqualify them from this game? 🙂

  3. This is so strange! A friend and I were discussing this exact same thing the other day, before I knew this post was coming – and then I log on and see this.

    The ones I was coming up with were in Britain. For example, Bradford – a large, industrial city of over 400,000 people and Broadford – a small crofting village on the Isle of Skye. Then there’s Liskeard, a picturesque Cornish tourist town and Liscard, a run-down suburb of the Wirral, on the opposite bank of the Mersey from Liverpool. And of course, the one that perenially perplexes American tourists who take the tube to Stratford, East London to see Shakespeare’s birthplace – which is actually over 100 miles away in Stratford-upon-Avon.

    It’s interesting that you mention New York and Newark. The city of licence for popular New York radio station Z-100 is actually Newark, and for years their legal ID at the top of the hour would pronounce WHTZ Newark in such an ambiguous way that you could never be sure whether they were saying New York or not…

  4. What about Tirana, the Capital of Albania and Tehran, the capital of Iran? They are pronounced the same except for an “a” sound at the end of Tirana.

  5. Here’s a couple I found:

    Beira vs. Beirut — The former is a city of a bit over half a million in Mozambique which was founded less than 200 years ago by Portuguese colonialists (the name comes from from a region of Portugal; I wasn’t able to find the origin of the Portuguese region’s name). The latter is a city in Lebanon with a metropolitan population of roughly two million which dates back over five millennia (the name comes from a Phoenecian word meaning “wells”).

    Turku vs. Turkey — The former is a city on the coast of Finland dating back to the Fourteenth Century (it is the oldest city in Finland) and it’s name comes from an Old Slavic word for marketplace. The latter is a country bordering Europe and Asia whose name comes from an ethnonym which dates roughly two and a half millennia and whose original meaning is lost to time.

  6. Glad to know I’m not the only one that called them vanilla folders. I think I was in junior high before I learned they were manila folders. Now I just wonder about the Philippines connection…

  7. One that’s oft fascinated me is the comparison between Walla Walla (Washington USA) with Walla Walla (NSW Australia).

    Both names are derived from native languages. In the USA the term apparently means “Place of many waters” and in Australia the name means “Place of many rocks”. I suspect both are very apt descriptions.


    It opens the whole question of double names. They are quite common in Australia where many indigenous languages use word repetition to indicate large quantity or size but I hadn’t been aware that this occurred in North American native languages as well.

  8. How about Boston, Lincolnshire (population about 35k for the actual town, about 65k for the entire borough) vs. Boston, Massachusetts (population and significance slightly greater)?

  9. This reminds me of a question I’ve often wondered: Which place changes the most when you add “New” in front of the name? In other words: Which “New” place is the most unlike the place it was named after?

    My quess: New Britain (the island in Papua New Guinea). It’s hard to imagine a place more unlike ‘Old’ Britain.

  10. Inspired by the previous comment: Novosibirsk the city vs. Novosibirsky Islands (an uninhabited archipelago in north-eastern Siberia, perhaps better known under the translated name New Siberian Islands).

  11. And another: Sydney, Australia & Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada & Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. All three are quite different.

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