Just the -fax, Ma’am

On March 2, 2014 · 0 Comments

Police sergeant Joe Friday never actually said "just the facts ma’am" on the vintage television show Dragnet, according to Snopes. Rather, the character played by Jack Webb uttered different lines that were later confused with the classic phrase now erroneously attributed to the show.

A similar confusion surrounded the suffix "-fax" appended to surnames and place names, and also to surnames that later became place names. -Fax had an interesting etymology as described in Wiktionary and in other sources:

From Middle English, from Old English feax (“hair, head of hair”), from Proto-Germanic *fahsą (“hair, mane”), from Proto-Indo-European *poḱs- (“hair”, literally “that which is combed, shorn, or plucked”), from Proto-Indo-European *peḱ- (“to comb, shear, pluck”).

It also noted cognates that existed in Dutch, German, Norwegian, Icelandic and Sanskrit generally translating to something like hair, head of hair, mane, and so on.

This might lead one to conclude that English place names ending in -fax might have something to do with hair. Those theories certainly existed with frequency, with some substantiated, some wrong and some uncertain, not unlike Joe Friday sort-of uttered his famous catchphrase using different words. A second title for this article — since I’m in the mood for bad puns — might have been, "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow."

I focused on four -fax place names that traced to England. I’d be interested to know if there were more, and particularly, their etymologies.


Fairfax, Virginia, USA

I was sensitized to Fairfax right away because it was both a county and an embedded independent city in Virginia just outside of Washington, DC, and quite near where I live. Longtime readers might recall my epic journey to the City of Fairfax highpoint, the so-called Water Tower Tour a number of years ago.

Fairfax had the cleanest history, etymology and past association with hair. County and city were both named for Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, the county earning its name during the colonial era and the city afterwards. In this instance the peerage was named for the surname so one must start there. I’ll help readers avoid a pile of sleazy baby-naming pages and sketchy genealogy websites peddling advertisements and skip directly to an etymological dictionary. Fairfax meant "fair haired." The million-plus residents of Fairfax, Virginia can decide whether that confers some kind of exalted level of status upon them or not.


Nearly every Colfax was located in the United States, and many traced their naming origin to Schuyler Colfax, the scandal-plagued Vice President who served under President Grant during his first administration (1869-1873).

One such Colfax town named for him, the one in Louisiana, had particular historical significance.

Colfax Massacre, Colfax, Louisiana, USA

As described by the Public Broadcasting Service,

On April 13, 1873, violence erupted in Colfax, Louisiana. The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, clashed with Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia. The resulting death toll was staggering. Only three members of the White League died. But some 100 black men were killed in the encounter. Of those, nearly half were murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered.

The other side of the story, as noted by an article in the New Pittsburgh Courier Online, was reflected by an historical marker placed outside the Grant Parish Courthouse in Colfax in 1950. The marker stated, "On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpet bag misrule in the South." To be fair, the nation was undergoing racial turbulence during the 1950′s and the marker reflected certain sentiments of that period. Nonetheless the marker hasn’t been removed either (street view image).

American Surnames discussed two possible etymologies for Colfax. From German, Kohlfuchs referred to a specified color for horses, "dark sorrell or liver chestnut," with the fuchs part referring specifically "a very dark red." Alternately, from Old German, it could refer to the previously-noted hairy explanation. I couldn’t find anything definitive either way.

I worked hard to make sure I didn’t make any typographic errors on that last paragraph! This is a family-friendly website.


The preponderance of Halifax place names in North America were traced to George Montagu-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax (1716-1771), for example Halifax in Nova Scotia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Unlike Fairfax, the Halifax peerage derived from a place name rather than a surname. The original underlying Halifax used both for the earldom and the primary North American locations was Halifax in West Yorkshire, England.

Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, UK

Legends floated across the Intertubes about how Halifax descended from "holy hair" with some fanciful tale about a pious virgin who was executed and her hair displayed in public. The explanation had fallen out of favor though, making way for a much more mundane theory about how it may have derived "from the Old English halh-gefeaxe, meaning an ‘area of coarse grass in the nook of land.‘"


Readers from the United States likely did a double-take after seeing Carfax mention because it’s better known there as a company that bombards viewers relentlessly with advertisements for vehicle history services. No worries, the Carfax reference in England seemed to be completely coincidental.

Carfax Tower by Holly Hayes on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Carfax, a crossroads, marked the central point of Oxford, England. Carfax itself also had a central point, Carfax Tower, the remnants of a medieval church (map). It’s a tourist attraction now and visitors can climb to the top of the tower for panoramic views for a modest fee.

Most sources seemed to believe that Carfax derived from the French carrefore, "a place where four ways meet" and and earlier Latin quadrifurcus, "four-forked." Some earlier sources discounted that etymology largely on the grounds that French place names weren’t common in England, and halfheartedly wondered if hair figured into the etymology. Those theories didn’t seem to reach beyond the 19th Century, though.

Overall, -fax was a mixed bag: one usage likely related to hair; one maybe and two probably not.

Land of Disco

On February 2, 2014 · 3 Comments

I came across an unusual neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina where many of the streets were named for different genres of dance. Why yes, it was a mobile home park. How did you guess?

Schenley Square, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

It further confirmed my theory that trailer parks have the best street names, using labels that everyone would love to have if society didn’t constrain them with highfalutin notions. Waltz, Minuet and Polonaise sounded almost normal. Modern and Folk were pretty lame, though — get it, Modern Dance, Folk Dance, really? Cha Cha, Swing and Twist started getting more adventurous. Break Dance and Hip Hop definitely took some guts. At a main entrance to the community though, visible to the entire outside world (Street View), a road named Disco Lane? Exceptional.

That transported me mentally to a carefree time in musical history when Disco ruled the planet, sandwiched firmly between the activism of Hippies and the anger of Punks. Did the denizens of discotheques, mirror balls and polyester leisure suits leave any physical marks upon the geographic landscape other than a random trailer park in North Carolina? Not particularly. Disco may have become a pop cultural phenomenon briefly during the 1970′s, however most partakers denied knowledge afterwards. Nonetheless I found plenty of places with coincidental naming.

Disco Road, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The U.S. Geographic Names Information System listed four populated Discos, one found in Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin respectively. None of them was larger than a flyspeck. The occurrence in Tennessee may have been the most significant. It even included the wonderfully-named Disco Loop Road (map).

I’m not letting Canada off-the-hook either. The Canadian 12MC audience can always visit Disco Road in Toronto. They can dump their garbage at the Disco. I’m not kidding. The city maintains a drop-off depot for household hazardous waste and electronics at 120 Disco Road. I’m sure Toronto wasn’t trashing Disco intentionally. I’m also sure that Toronto West Detention Centre at 111 Disco Road wasn’t intended as a slight either. All coincidental, I assure you. Or was it? Why did all the Disco fans disappear suddenly after Disco Demolition Night?

Do the Hustle

Hustle, Virginia, USA

The Hustle may have been Disco’s defining dance. It exploded in popularity after Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony released their song of the same name in 1975. This will be the one and only time Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony will ever be mentioned in Twelve Mile Circle so mark it down and remember the date.

I found Hustle in Virginia. It wasn’t a town proper, just a crossroads, although it did have its own Zip Code – 22476. Conceivably, disco aficionados could carry an envelope to the post office and go home with a coveted Hustle postmark if they so desired.

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

If Disco had a defining dance it also had a defining movie, Saturday Night Fever, a theatrical pandemic from 1977. IMDB summarized it with few words, "a Brooklyn youth feels his only chance to get somewhere is as the king of the disco floor." That was the extent of any meaningful plot. It launched the career of John Travolta in the title role.(¹) The soundtrack released by the Bee Gees also became phenomenally successful.

I found Saturday Night Lake in Alberta (map above) and Saturday Night Hill in Montana (map) along with several other much smaller features with similar names.

Travolta St., Stafford Heights, Queensland, Australia

With respect to Mr. Travolta once again, I discovered him amongst several other era-appropriate actors, singers and entertainers in the streets of a development in Stafford Heights, Queensland, Australia. The same development also contained, I believe, the only street in the world named for Ernest Borgnine. Personally, I’d love to live at the corner of (Dolly) Parton and (Elvis) Presley Streets.


McBurney YMCA, New York City, New York, USA

It would be difficult to assign a signature song to the Disco era because it had so many iconic contenders. Y.M.C.A. by the Village People certainly qualified for elite status because of its sheer staying power. New York City’s Greenwich Village was the village of the Village People so I’d nominate the McBurney YMCA for special attention. Technically I guess it’s on the wrong side of W. 14th Street which puts it just north of the Village. Close enough for me.

And now I can’t get The Hustle out of my head. This will be a long, agonizing day.

(¹) Let’s not even pretend he can afford a home with its own jumbo jet hanger because of his earlier "groundbreaking" work in Welcome Back, Kotter where his primary claim involved coining the catchphrase "up your nose with a rubber hose."


Bowling Greener

On January 28, 2014 · 4 Comments

I work from my home most days and I have an IP Phone on my laptop that communicates with our Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system back at our physical office. Anyway the telephone rang — well I’m not sure those are even the right words anymore; let me try again — so the laptop opened a popup screen in front of me displaying the ANI of an unfamiliar NPA-NXX. Alright, once more using English this time: so the Caller ID displayed an unfamiliar telephone area code and exchange.

Just scratch that whole first paragraph. I got a phone call from someone in Bowling Green, Virginia. "Gee," I thought, "I wonder if the place was named for an actual bowling green." It appears that it was although it took me awhile to meander back to the point.

Admittedly I knew very little about the sport of Bowls or Lawn Bowls other than it had an ancient origin. In its modern incarnation, it involves players rolling balls towards a smaller ball called the "jack." Each ball from a player (or team) placed closer to the jack than all balls from another player receives a point. It gets considerably more complicated from there although that’s the essence. Bowls has little similarity to bowling in a bowling alley except they both involve rolling a ball with precision. However, the only salient point that 12MC readers need to remember for the moment is that bowls has been played traditionally on a "green," a designated area of closely-cropped grass.

My mind jumped to a recent trip to Kentucky where my path brought me close to another Bowling Green. It may be the largest and best known instance with a couple of hundred thousand residents in its larger metropolitan area. Where was its ancestral bowling green, though?

Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA

Bowling Green, Kentucky, USA

Bowling Green, Kentucky does not have a sanctioned bowling green today. Paradoxically the bowling green that provided inspiration may not have existed anywhere nearby at all. The city itself explained that the name came from "Bowling Green Square in New York City" as a result of events that took place there during the American Revolution.

Competing theories existed. Robert M. Rennick, a chairman of the Kentucky Geographic Names Committee offered alternate points of view in How Did Kentucky’s Bowling Green Get Its Name? (1997). He discussed and largely dismissed several explanations including a supposed nearby bowling green used by an early settler as well as the possible conveyance of name from other Bowling Green towns in Virginia and elsewhere. He concluded that, "in short, we really do not know how Bowling Green, Kentucky, got its name."

Fair enough.

Bowling Green Park, New York City, New York, USA

Built Manhattan 1733: Bowling Green by Michael Daddino on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

I decided to examine the story behind the New York City occurrence. Bowling Green Park had been a public property since 1686 and became the city’s first park in 1733, complete with a bowling green among its original amenities. The park still exists today at the southern tip of Manhattan and is the home of the famous Charging Bull statue often used by news media to represent Wall Street (street view). You’d probably recognize the image instantly. The Bull even has its own website.

A site I’ve enjoyed over the years, Forgotten New York, also noted that Bowling Green Park was the home of the Pietro Alberti monument. He wasn’t exactly a household name although he did hold the distinction of becoming the very first of probably millions of Italians to live in New York City. He arrived in 1635.

More germane to the story and with potential connections to Kentucky’s Bowling Green were events that took place immediately after the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence to residents of New York in 1776. Bowling Green Park had already become a lightning rod for discontent because of a large statue of King George III that had been erected there. Colonial rulers had to construct a cast-iron fence around the park perimeter to discourage vandalism — the same fence that circles the park today. Continental soldiers and local citizens stormed the park, pulled down the statue and destroyed it immediately. The story of their open defiance spread quickly throughout the colonies.

Bowling Green, Virginia, USA

Bowling Green Plantation, Bowling Green, Virginia, USA

Finally I returned to the Bowling Green that began this entire conversation, the one in Virginia. It’s the seat of government in Caroline County although the name predated the town, coming from the The Bowling Green plantation located nearby (map and photos). Major Thomas Hoomes donated land to form the town in 1803. The town then took the name of his estate, Bowling Green and his estate became the Old Mansion.

Hoomes’ plantation may have included a bowling green on the large lawn, a theory advanced in its National Register of Historic Places nomination form — it definitely had one of the first horse tracks in America so it didn’t lack for patrician flourishes — although the nomination did not include detailed source information. There was also a legend that it may have derived from something even earlier, Hoomes’ supposed ancestral home in England called Bolling Green.

The current (2012) owner of the Old Mansion added clarity,

My research of primary documents revealed the following: The property was named “The Bowling Green” — it was never named “Bolling Green.” There is no genealogical evidence that the Hoomes family even owned an ancestral home in England called “Bolling Green.” Architectural and landscape historians believe it was named “The Bowling Green” after the two-acre green sward in front of the manor house.

Now let’s roll the ball towards the jack.


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