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What's in a lofty name for a hamlet?
On Google (née BackRub), places named "Washington", and the unsatisfying disconnection between a great place name and what turns out to become a great place
When the Internet was new, a sort of digital gold rush took place as companies and individuals raced to stake their claims to single-word domain names. The sagas that unfolded around self-explanatory names like Pets.com were often legendary, and the mad rush also explains why we still misspell an unfathomably large number (googol) to find most of the world's search results. (And, to be fair, Google remains a better name than BackRub.)
■ The thing about domain names, though, is that they are transferable. People have made lots of money through domain squatting or simply capturing clever names before they occur to others, then putting up a "for sale" sign.
■ That .com land rush had a predecessor that doesn't often come to modern attention, though perhaps it should: The far more permanent choice of a municipal name.
■ It should come as no surprise that almost a hundred places in the United States adopted some version of the name "Washington". There are plenty of other well-worn aspirational names, too, like Springfield, Fairview, and Newport.
■ For obvious reasons, a municipal name can only be used once in any state -- so claiming a good name for a town is a lot like snapping up an attractive domain name ending in ".com", rather than one of the lesser top-level domains. And yet, there seems to be very little connection between the aspirational quality of a name and the ultimate disposition of the city. Most of the largest American cities arrived at their names organically (that is, from local geographic place names) rather than through what would sound good to newcomers.
■ Perhaps that is too bad. The USGS says, for instance, that 167 American places take some version of the name "Seneca" -- a worthy choice, especially if it encourages residents to emulate Lucius Seneca (author of such wisdom as "You should close your ears against evil talk, and right at the outset, too; for when such talk has gained an entrance and the words are admitted and are in our minds, they become more shameless"). Yet no single town named for Seneca has more than 9,000 residents. The aspirational name seems not to have paid off.
■ While municipal names can be changed, they certainly aren't traded as easily as domain names. So while certain errors and unfulfilled ambitions of the early dot-com era have been rectified with time, the same can't be said of places that gave themselves names that stirred the hearts of civic boosters but never lived up to their promise. Most probably never will -- but then again, there may be those who simply reply, "Not just yet".