Thursday, September 20, 2018

What's in a name?

Michael - Thursday

I’ve just completed the road trip back from Knysna to Johannesburg over two days. It’s about twelve hours of driving, so one has plenty of time to let one’s mind wander (but hopefully not too far off the road). From time to time one approaches (and usually avoids) a town which appears suddenly in the the dry Karoo in the middle of nowhere. Often these towns have intriguing names and I promised myself I would look up the stories behind some of them. Of course, the same is true in any country, but South Africa’s settlement names spread across a variety of languages. I chose to concentrate on the ones where I knew what they meant. Inevitably, I speculated about the stories behind the names as I drove. For example Eenbekerpan means ‘one cup water point’. One can imagine the thirsty travelers arriving on horseback and being faced with a nearly dry pan with just one cup of water to share between them. A colorful story to tell as one drives past, but maybe a mortal disappointment to the trekkers in the arid Northern Cape.

 Anyway, as I drove I made up some of my own stories of how the names originated. Then I checked on Google to get the real story (if it had one). Here’s a selection of towns with both. You choose which is the true one.


Johannesburg with mine dump in the foreground
Johannesburg owes its existence to the rich gold reef discovered in 1886. Before that, it was just a collection of farms. The discovery was made by a father and son prospecting team - Johannes Willem Nel and his son Johannes Pieter Nel. They tried to keep the find secret, but word soon got out starting one of the huge gold rushes of the nineteenth century. The sprawling settlement of miners was named after the two discoverers.
Johannes is a very common Afrikaans boy’s name – equivalent to John. Since the land was in an Afrikaner republic at the time, many of the people involved had Johannes as at least one of their names. Even the famous Paul Kruger, who was president of the said republic at the time, had it as a middle name, so some believe the new town was named after him. Others say that it was named after people involved in the layout of the town.


Baardskeederbos. Pretty spot nowadays
This translates to beard cutter’s forest. It’s named after a barber who had run foul of the Dutch administration in Cape Town and took himself out of town to a location where he could practice his trade in peace. In due course, he made his peace with Simon van der Stel (then the governor) and returned to the town.
The forest is named after a spider which was believed to run at high speed chasing people and even snipping men’s beards for its nest. Since it is very common in the area, the town is named after it. Watch out for your beard!

Coffee Bay

A beach at Coffee Bay
As a result of a ship wreck, a mass of coffee beans were scattered on the fertile shore. They grew into coffee bushes, giving the town its name.
The Nenga River flows into the sea with a large lagoon at Coffee Bay exiting into a sheltered cove. The brackish water from the river has a brown hue which colors the bay after a flood. The brown bay gave the town its name.


Maybe its the design over the bar of the Bandelierkop Hotel?
This means bandolier hill. The town takes its name from a boer commando that camped on the hill overnight. After breaking camp and heading down to the surrounding plane, one man discovered that he’d left his bandolier behind. His unsympathetic commander made him return for it while the others rode on.
The hill has an interesting cliff face which has eroded vertical pock marks over the eons. A fanciful person might claim that they look like a bandolier straddling the hillside.


Soweto as it is today
This huge sprawling township to the south of Johannesburg was initially populated by the Southern Sotho people. Bantu languages often insert ‘we’ into the tribal name to indicate home. So the name means ‘home of the Sotho people’.
The name is an acronym for South Western Townships.


Did I mention it has a lake?
The name comes from the Hebrew word meaning ‘younger son’. It was a later development than Johannesburg, but nearby, so in that sense it is the offspring.
The town was hard to lay out because of technical problems with the deeds, so it’s named after Rachel’s son – ‘son of my sorrow’ because she had a difficult time giving birth to him.


With a name like that, you have to do something to attract tourists
This is the Afrikaans word for a puff adder – a deadly local snake. The town is situated in an arid part of the Cape where the snake is particularly common.
Klaas Pofadder was a local chieftain of the Koi Koi people and the town was named after him.

Anyone have any favorite town names and the stories (truth or fiction) behind them?


  1. benoni in hebrew have 2 different meanings: 1) medium size or medium quality. 2)if you divide it to ben-oni: it means the son of my strength. on means normally masculine power

  2. Thanks for the clarification! That makes both the stories wrong, or at best the town planner didn't know the true meanings of the word.

  3. Glasgow means the dear, green place. It's very green of course, because of the rain.
    Is the truth of the Bandolier the one about the cliff? I might be using the word Banolier more often.

    1. This time it was the commando going up the hill...
      Glad about Glasgow. Just as I've always pictured it!

  4. Many think that the town I've lived in for 40-some years was named after Albany, NY, which was named after the archaic name for the part of Scotland lying north of the River Forth, but they're wrong. It actually acquired its name when a early settlers asked an earlier native what kind of game was to be found in the area. Deer? Elk? Bear? Beaver? etc? The native continued to indicate negativity. Finally, in very broken English, the native said, "All bunny." And so it goes...

    1. That's GOT to be the true story, Everett. The more unlikely the story is the more likely it is to be true.

  5. And then there are the Pennsylvania towns of Blue Ball and Intercourse. Cue my brother Jeff!

    1. Those really exist? In a nice God-fearing state like Pennsylvania? Okay, so now we have to have the stories of how they got their names. Jeff???

    2. Yes, the names are true. Blue Ball is very close to Intercourse and they're both out by Philadelphia, as folks in the eastern part of the state tend to think in those terms more than we sophisticated Pittsburghers. And don't forget Climax and Fertility, Pennsylvania.

      I can sense the incoming cards and letters headed this way. :).

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