Bestowing names is an act of great significance. Names are not mere labels to be pasted on a map or word to populate the vocabulary. They define the essential qualities and features of a location, and communicate the thoughts and aspirations of the namer. They are a conceptual launching pad for future generations to build their own relationship with a place. Or so goes my theory about names.
After riding the Munda Biddi for 21 days in West Australia, my concept of place names has been a little challenged. I might have to re-work this part of my world view.
I thought I was prepared for West Australia’s up-names . I’d even developed a pronunciation strategy. Say the word, add “up”, and you are done. My theory had the locals smiling with amusement. “Up” is an add-on in Dwellingup, and not too many other places. Mostly it attaches itself to the final consonant of a place name, giving endings of nup and lup and bup. Problem solved – just pronounce the last three letters with confidence. I happily talked about Nannup and Manjimup and even Beigabup. The theory came unstuck with Cow-ara-mup. Seems I had the em-PHA-sis in the wrong syl-AB-le. There are no cows in Cowaramup, I was told. So what were all those statues of big black and white things with udders around town?
I desperately wanted Nornalup to be Normal-Up, to distinguish it from all the other up-words I had butchered, but it was not to be. It definitely is an N in the middle.
Riding the Munda Biddi only made matters worse. We were treated to night after night in wonderful shelters in exotic locations with unpronounceable names. Kwokralup Beela, Karta Burnu, Yirra Kartta, Nglang Boojar, Jinung Beigabup – I did my best to say them out loud, trying not to assume that they were not local language for “you are so pooped after riding a bicycle up here you wouldn’t have a clue where you are anyway” or “here try this with a mouthful of marbles”.
I like to think that the task of naming some parts of the country was delegated to a particularly taciturn labourer one day when the official name-giver was a bit busy. In a burst of monosyllabic protest, he reached for whatever noun was immediately available, with Dog Road, Weld Bridge and Bull Road being the result.
On another day, I imagine that two blokes were building signs high up in the Valley of the Giants. Even they could see the irony of having to climb up hills for hours to get to a valley. As they carved the sign for Tingle Road, one of them had a great idea for a quick way home. They formally bestowed a name on their find and carved a sign. “You reckon we will get away with it?” they asked as they hustled back bown the newly-christened Brainy Cut Off.
Maybe they shared my ill-ease that those enormous and majestic trees were called Tingles. Its like calling your Great Dane Fifi. Or a beautiful beach Madfish Bay.
There is a functional backlash to all this whimsy, probably by a very conventional and practical place-namer. He started the trend for names that immediately give recognition of purpose, and so we passed numerous Boundary Roads and Scarp Roads. This practice seemed to get a bit out of hand with the naming of the River Road Bridge, even if it was a bridge over a river at the end of the road. In desperation, I looked for the river’s name. It was Deep River.
I tried to work with the concepts attached to some place names, dutifully taking my smoko at Break Road. I didn’t feel so compelled to comply when Break Road intersected with Romance Road. I even skipped a stop when I encountered Cake Road in the pouring rain, thinking that the road-namers should have provided a seat and shelter shed if they were serious about their business.
So has this experience left me struggling to find the generosity of spirit that usually has me smiling with satisfaction as I discover a new place name? Has it hindered my journey of exploration into the soul of a place, or clouded my ability to share the perspective of the one who undertook the sacred task of choosing its eternal label? I pondered all of these things as I sipped my free “congratulations-you-have finished coffee” at the Bay Merchants cafe, at peace with the ambience of place, even though I couldn’t see the bay.
18 September 2016