When I was about sixteen, I was part of a delegation of students from my high school chosen to attend the State Convention of the Texas Future Farmers of America in Fort Worth. For my American readers, many of you will have some idea of what that means, for my internationals- the FFA is the largest student led organization in the US, and the respective State Conventions throw together farming-ly inclined teens from all across the state for a few days’ worth of motivational speakers.
Anyway, on about the third morning of this little shindig, while taking the downtown tram to the convention center, one of the boys from my school looked me dead in the eye and said “Jenni, people say we tawlk funny.”
Sitting there in a rattling tram car, staring across at me, his face was about as earnest as I’d ever seen it and all I could do was giggle and agree. Because yes, we do tawlk funny.
We also spell things funny, and name things funny—both of which were pointed out to me recently by some Irish friends while they perused a map of Texas on Google.
Now I know Texas doesn’t have the monopoly on funny names, Ireland has the delightfully dubbed Dingle Peninsula, and I once spent a summer interning with the Ute Tribe in Towaoc (pronounced Toy-ock) Colorado, but I like to think Texas has more funny names than most.
So here we go:
I was born and raised outside the city of Texarkana (drop the R and say it fast, Tex-ah-kana), a railroad town named after the two states it sits in (Texas and Arkansas) and a third they thought was closer than it is (Louisiana).
If you spend much time in east or south Texas, you’ll run across something named Sabine. The Sabine River runs the Texas/Louisiana border, taking its name from a bastardization of the Spanish word for cypress (Sabinas), and more than one town, street, park, public building, etc. got its name from this waterway. Because of this ubiquity, I thought Sabine was a fairly straightforward name… and then my Google Maps told me to turn on Sah-bye-een street one day.
For those wondering, its Sah-bee-n.
Then, on the other side of the state there’s Quitaque, which is apparently the Official Bison Capital of Texas. They also, apparently, got tired of passers-by mispronouncing their name, because before you even get into town the welcome sign tells you how to say it.
For those of you who see quay and say “key”, we’re talking bastardized Spanish again- it’s Kitty-kway.
My Aunt enjoys telling a story about a teacher she once worked with who chronically mispronounced Bexar (Bear) County.
Then there’s fun letter jumbles like Waxahachie (Wox-ah-hatch-ee), Wichita Falls (Witch-a-tah), or Nacogdoches (Nak-ah-doe-chez), the oldest town in Texas and sister-city to the equally jumbled Natchitoches (Nak-ah-tich) in Louisiana.
As I started writing this, my Dad informed me of Reklaw (Wreck-law) and Sacul (Sack-el), two tiny communities outside Nacogdoches who got their names from the families that donated the land these communities sit on. I don’t know if the Walker and Lucas families got a kick out of seeing their surnames flipped, but I sure did.
Then there are the random German towns: Umbarger, Boerne (Bern-ee), Pflugerville (Flue-ger-vil), Muenster (Mun-ster), New Braunfels (Bran-fells), and Gruene (Green).
Or we name our towns after people: Quanah (Kwan-ah), was named after Quanah Parker, sometimes called the last chief of the Comanche, and a man whose Wikipedia page is frankly awesome. On the other end of the spectrum you have Captain Daingerfield (awful man, awesome name) and the town of Daingerfield (Danger-field) with their improbably good high school football team.
I once shared a cab with a New Yorker who spent most of the ride telling me how much she enjoyed swimming at Bale-mo-ree-ah, and it took me almost as long to realize she was talking about Balmorhea (Bahal-mo-ray) State Park, which has a the world’s largest spring-fed pool built over the freshwater springs there.
Coincidentally, Balmorhea is another place named after people, an awkward conjunction the surnames of Ernest Balcom, H.R. Borrow, and the Rhea brothers, John and Joe. But you already knew we liked to play around with funny conjunctions and people’s names.
That’s how we got Iraan (Ira-ann) too, named for the founding couple Ira and Ann Yates.
We have the giggle-names like Dimmit (Dim-it) and Dumas (Due-mass). We have the mispronounced-real-place names like Palestine (Palace-teen) and the obviously-derived-from-real-place names, like Arlington, New Boston, or Dublin.
Though I was once told Dublin took its name from wagon trains and the way they would “double in” to concentric circles for safety when they camped at night.
We have the banal description names like the Red River (which is, indeed, a rusty red in many places), West (which is west of some things, and east of others), and Prairieland (three guesses what the terrain out that way looks like), the state pride names like Lonestar, the people names like Jefferson, Austin, and Houston, or the Spanish names like Amarillo, San Angelo, San Antonio, and El Paso.
So many, many names.
All pronounced just a little bit funny.
Names that tell me that we came from all over. That we had a sense of humor when it came to making up new words, and that we had a sense of history when claiming old ones.
Our state takes its name from an old Caddo Indian word, táyshaʼ, adjusted by the Spanish to tejas, which means friendly. That’s why when you cross our state borders, the welcome signs remind you to Drive Friendly, that’s why our State Motto is Friendship.
I like that.
I like that we put diversity on our maps for future generations and all the world to see. I like that we built friendship, common humanity, into our very name. I like that we’ve got a town named Happy. I like that the Rio Grande sits on our southern border because at some point a few centuries back, Spanish explorers were wandering north and someone in that expedition said to someone else:
“Hey guys, what are we going to call this big river we have to cross?”
“How ‘bout big river?”
“Sounds good to me.”
It sounds good to me too.