A series of books is helping to conjure up a whole new image of the world’s most famous cities – some of them not too favourable. The Atlas of True Names collection provides a translation of the names of cities, states and countries by uncovering the etymological roots of the titles.

Compiled by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust, the series includes a map of the world, along with atlases dedicated to Europe, the British Isles, Canada and the USA individually. Reading like something out of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the maps make discoveries, including that the true name of Wales is ‘Land of Strangers’, while Birmingham becomes the exciting-sounding ‘Bear Guard Home’.

The authors explain that they arrived at their “true” place names by studying the origins of the terms and what the words they have evolved from once meant. For instance, Chicago’s true name is ‘Stink Onion’, as it is derived from a word in a Native American language that means ‘wild onions’. Not only did wild garlic once grow freely in the area but the settlement was also founded on marshland, which may not have had the most pleasant of aromas.

Meanwhile, Great Britain’s true name is ‘Great Land of the Tattooed’. Prettanoi is the Greek word for ‘tattooed people’ and it is this that’s combined with the Celtic word ‘brit’ to form the modern name. ‘Brit’ means speckled, which cements the ‘true name’ of ‘Tattooed People’ further still. Within the UK, Liverpool’s true name is ‘Choked Pool’, while the moniker ‘Plymouth’ comes from ‘mouth of the plumb’.

Across the pond in the US, many of the states have names that sound like they were penned by Tolkien himself. New Mexico becomes ‘New Navel of the Moon’, Louisiana is ‘Land of the Famous Warrior’ and Idaho is ‘Light on the Mountains’. These true monikers originate from a mix of European and Native American names. Among the most surprising is ‘Snowy Land’, which is actually Nevada – famous for being mainly desert.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Mr Hormes says: “The names give you an insight into what the people saw when they first looked at a place, almost with the eyes of children. Through the maps, we wanted to show what they saw.” However, the authors remind readers that the names are not definitive, and are open to interpretation.

It is much the same case as translation. Sometimes certain words or phrases do not have an equivalent in the target language, and the translator has to use their language skills, cultural knowledge and common sense to select the best term to use in the translation. The authors reveal that this is true of the process of coming up with the original names of places for the maps. Indeed, the study of etymology itself involves a good degree of interpretation.

Studying languages and words helps to uncover their origins and provide an insight into what these iconic places were like in their earliest incarnations when people first settled there. So, the Orkneys have the ‘true name’ of ‘Isles of the Sea Monsters’, because ‘orc’ is the Celtic for ‘sea monster’. Dolphins and whales are often spotted off the coasts of the islands and there is a healthy seal settlement, which makes it easy to see why it earned this name.

Language Insight’s favourite ‘real names’ include:

  • Farm of the Elf Counsel’s People – This sounds like something straight out of Middle-earth. In fact, it is far less mystical and is the meaning of the name Arlington in Texas.
  • Land of Hair People – Rather than this being the native country of Cousin Itt from the Addams Family, this is actually the origin of the name Pensacola; a city in Florida.
  • Place to Find Gold – The magpies among us would probably be inclined to book a holiday to this glittering place. In reality, it is the origin of the name Cuba.
  • Islands of the Monkey God – If you saw this destination name in a travel brochure, you’d be forgiven for thinking you could find King Kong there. In fact, the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean are home to no such giant apes.
  • Home of the Thunder God – Comic book fans may want to book a trip to Trondheim in Norway, as the city is named after Thor, the god of thunder.
  • Dominate the East – This ‘true name’ certainly throws down the gauntlet. Today, we know it as Vladivostok, but the Russian city has been known by its fair share of weird and wonderful names. In Chinese, it was once called Sea Cucumber Cliffs.

Do you know the origin of the name of your home town or country?