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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Conundrum of Place Names*

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
October 9, 2011
as "What's in a name?"
Every community has place names that are, to say the least, odd-sounding whose explanatory origins have been lost in the mists of time
When I first came to Johnstown, I was looking for a place to live.  I called one landlord asking about the vacancy on  “Men-O-Her.”  The landlord replied, “Menocker.”  I responded, “Geseundheit.”  I heard another person refer to the locale of her apartment as being “in the bucket o’ blood.” 
I’m sure there’s a great story there.
One of the hardest things to figure out was the ward system.  A ward is a political subdivision of a city.  I know this.  But the real estate ads are full of locations like the “8th Ward” or the “6th Ward.”  Being new to the area, I had no idea where these places were. It didn’t help that nobody ever bothered to publish a map.
For a while, Giant Eagle grocery stores ran a video outlet called “Iggle.”  It only took me three years to figure out that “Iggle” was how people in Western Pennsylvania pronounce “Eagle.”
But there are three place names that really set my mind to itching: Scalp Level, Tire Hill, and Paint Township.
It is my understanding of human nature that when people who live in a certain place bestow a name upon it that they understand that the name is also an identity.  In most cases, it is a name the locals can speak with pride, one that reflects positively on the area and the natives. There are exceptions to this, however. 
Kansas City, Missouri is possibly the only major city named for a state it doesn’t exist in.  Why would a city in Missouri be named for Kansas?  To add to this confusion, there is a Kansas City, Kansas as well.  But while geographically inaccurate, that’s still way better than the original. 
Possum Trot. 
I’m not kidding.
So…why Scalp Level?   As a noun, it is that layer of skin beneath your hair.  As a transitive verb, it can mean the traumatic removal of same.  My first instinct was that it might refer to the tree line on a particular hill.  But the heights around here don’t go up that far.  When you look at the land, there’s nothing that suggests how this name came about.  And when I ask around, nobody seems to know.  I’ve entertained several theories.  The only one that makes any sense to me is maybe it was once the home of a really bad barber.
Tire Hill is another odd one.  I asked around, thinking that at one point it was a place where people dumped old tires, but the name apparently pre-dates the invention of the automobile.  One local scholar postulates that the hill is so steep that to climb it would wear a horse completely out, especially if the poor animal was hauling a wagon.  “Tire” was a corruption of the word “Tired,” which is what the horse (or hiker) would be after struggling up those slopes.  Thus, “Tired Hill.”  That’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose.  It wore me out just thinking about it.
Paint Township is another mystery.  Out west, there is the Painted Desert, and Painted Rocks, both referring to the colorful nature of the local geology.  But that doesn’t seem to apply here.  The rocks I’ve seen there are the same dull motif as any other in Western Pennsylvania.  Maybe there was a paint factory there at one time. Or the person that named it saw the area in autumn when the trees “painted” the landscape in those incredible reds and golds.  Or, maybe that’s where all the hot bars were, where people would go on Saturday nights to “paint the town.”  Again, nobody around here seems to know for sure.
Yes, I know this a world full of more important things to chew on, but a brain itch can be hard to scratch.  Surely at some point in the past, someone knew the secret of how those places were named.  Did the last of those sages die without sharing that local lore?  The Knights Templar apparently carried a dark secret for a thousand years.  Maybe their descendants came here and needed a secret to keep.  Perhaps there’s a secret society that meets somewhere in Cambria County on dark moonless nights to tell the stories and swear the oath of secrecy. 
But for a writer, there’s always another option.
In the absence of fact, just make something up.

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