Review: From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame
by Mark Monmonier
University of Chicago Press, 2006. Hardcover, 229 pp. ISBN 0-226-53465-0

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow (book cover) When I was living in Edmonton, I heard the story of Chinaman’s Peak. In 1886, a Chinese labourer named Ha Ling, working as a cook in a mining camp near Canmore, Alberta, climbed a nearby mountain on a bet. The peak he scaled became known locally as Chinaman’s Peak; that name was given official status, based on historical usage, in 1980, but shortly thereafter a campaign began to have the name changed, on the grounds that “chinaman” was offensive and derogatory. By 1997, after a long debate, that name was dropped, and the peak — the northwest summit of Mount Lawrence Grassi — is now known as Ha Ling Peak.

It’s long since defunct, but a Canadian Pacific Railway station along its Kettle Valley line had its name changed in 1940: originally named after Field Marshal Philippe Pétain, the “Hero of Verdun” in the First World War, the station of Pétain was renamed Odlum due to Pétain’s role as head of the collaborationist Vichy government. (Ironically, the Pétain Glacier, in Alberta’s Kananaskis region, kept its name — but then its name was not under the purview of the CPR.)

Neither of these anecdotes is in Mark Monmonier’s latest book, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame, but they came to mind while I was reading it; there are many examples just like them throughout the text. This book is about contentious placenames — troublesome toponyms, as it were — and how mapmakers handle them. Though the title — and some of the media coverage — suggests a focus on the politically incorrect, such as derogatory ethnic epithets, gross anatomic or scatalogical references, or both, Monmonier’s focus is in fact much broader.

Besides the chapters on pejorative names and dirty words, there’s a chapter on replacing “white” toponyms with more traditional native names (e.g., Mt. McKinley vs. Denali, or Frobisher Bay vs. Iqaluit) and several chapters on contested toponyms — countries that erase the other’s names from their own maps in disputed regions like Cyprus, commemorative names that arouse controversy, and even campaigns to change or preserve the names of international bodies of water — like Iran’s vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf or, notably, Korea’s vis-à-vis the Sea of Japan, about which a letter-writing campaign is under way to have it renamed the East Sea.

That last one triggered a bit of déjà vu: I actually got one of those letters, from a Korean student who got confused about a map I linked to that called it the Sea of Japan and wrote me about it. Here’s an excerpt that may sound familiar to some of you:

Such an error in a well known website as yours comes as a surprise since we regard you as one of the world’s best.
Using a proper name for the body of water between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago is not simply a question of changing the name of a geographical feature.
It is rather a part of national effort by the Korean people to erase the legacy of Japanese Imperialism and to redress the unfairness that has resulted from it. It is an absolutely mistaken thing to hear one side of story and follow. If we let this kind of things alone, it brings about a serious problem to disturb order of International society. …
As a member of VANK, I urge you to use “East Sea” to describe the body of water in question or both Korean and Japanese designation simultaneously (e.g. “East Sea/Sea of Japan”) in all your documents and atlases.

(Too bad I don’t actually make any documents or atlases.)

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow is, at its root, all about what happens when placenames are contested, and how mapmakers respond to controversy. Much of that response is not only a result of changing mores — dealing with “Nigger,” and later “Negro,” in placenames as the terms became unacceptable — but also a result of changing how toponyms in general are being managed: for example, from state-level gazeteers to a national-level database that must bow not only to present-day sensitivities (reflected in government policy) but also include, as historical references, the very names that have been changed. It’s also about mediating interests: not only between the Koreans and the Japanese, for example, but also between those for and those against a name change. Dildo, Newfoundland and Swastika, Ontario kept their names; Whorehouse Meadow was eventually restored. It’s also about standardizing the naming process, both nationally and internationally.

Those expecting a bit of cartographic sniggering might well be disappointed by this solid and serious work, but I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a fascinating topic, and Monmonier’s writing is as engaging as ever. The University of Chicago Press clearly feels that this book has an appeal beyond academe: it’s priced quite aggressively. I think they expect to sell a few copies of this book, and I think it deserves to.

Read an excerpt online — it’s from chapter four, “Body Parts and Risqué Toponyms.”

I received a review copy of this book. More about my book review policy.

See previous entries: Mark Monmonier Does NPR; Book Roundup; Review: How to Lie with Maps; Mark Monmonier.