These Names Are All Over the Place

Rob Kyff on

During the early 1870s, the residents of a Tennessee hamlet sent a handwritten letter to the federal government requesting a post office. Finding the letter hard to read, a Post Office Department clerk wrote, "This is difficult" across the letter before passing it up the chain of command.

Thanks to this notation, the hamlet soon had a new post office -- and a new name: Difficult.

The story of how Difficult, Tennessee, got its name is one of over 500 fascinating anecdotes in Frank Gallant's delightful book, "A Place Called Peculiar: Stories about Unusual American Place Names." Gallant gallantly hikes the appellation trail, from Scratch Ankle, Alabama, (its horses and cows were pestered by insects) to Little America, Wyoming (this remote outpost reminded someone of Admiral Byrd's base camp in Antarctica).

My favorite loco local labels involve clerical errors. When a cartographer wrote "Name?" next to an Alaskan cape on his map to indicate it was yet unnamed, a colleague assumed his "a" was an "o," and thus "Nome" was born. Correct, Indiana, suffered a similar mis-Nomer when a postmaster requested the name "Comet," but it was misread as "Correct."

"We don't care what name you give us so long as it is sort of 'peculiar,'" wrote the founders of Peculiar, Missouri, while folks in one Mississippi hamlet grew so tired of hearing name suggestions ("Why not this? ... Why not that?") they simply called their town "Whynot."

A postmaster in Nashville, Indiana, was reading a letter asking him to recommend a name for a new post office in the nearby hamlet of Hobb's Creek. At that moment, a likable lad named Harry Kelp, who had done some odd jobs for him, walked into his office, and thus Kelp, Indiana, was christened.


Many place names harbor hidden acronyms, initialisms or abbreviations: Germfask, Michigan, from the last names of its founders -- Grant, Edge, Robinson, Mead, French, Ackley, Shepard and Knaggs; T.B., Maryland, for early settler Thomas Brooke; and Seroco, North Dakota, for SEars ROebuck & COmpany, where its residents ordered most of their goods.

Jiggle the handle of Flush, Kansas, and you find the name of a German settler named "Floersch." Snowflake, Arizona, is a melting of its founders Erastus Snow and William Flake, while Samaria, Michigan, was founded by Sam and Mary Weeks.

In 1993, Ismay in Montana even changed its name to "Joe" to honor the famous quarterback. But don't dis Ismay; it reinstated its original name a year later.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, California, 90254.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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