"Excellently researched and informative." -Kelsie B. Harder, Professor of English, SUNY Potsdam and an Executive Secretary of the American Name Society
"The readers of this book will find much to pique their interest in the origins, histories and founders of New York's classically named communities." -Donald H. Mills, Professor of Classics, Syracuse University
"A vivid and historically important book, not only from a classical and geographical perspective, but a political one as well. It gives compelling insight into the mindset of New York settlers." -Amanda Dobbins, Latin Teacher, The Dalton School New York, New York
"A fascinating and useful book for the reader or teacher who wants to explore connections between contemporary New York State and its history, language and mythological heritage. Latin, English, Social Studies and Mythology teachers- here is a real find!" -Georgia Gillespie, English Teacher, C.W. Baker High School, Baldwinsville, New York
By Tom Virgina, PhD, President Classical Association of the Empire State (CAES): Fall 2003
William Farrell, a retired history and Latin teacher (and faithful CAES member) has maintained a four decade long interest in toponomy (i.e., the study of placenames) of New York State. As a young teacher, he realized that the placenames of Central New York seemed full of allusions to the ancient world. With his curiosity piqued, Farrell began a long investigation into the reasons for the abundance of classical toponyms in his area. (Mr. Farrel had a long teaching career in the Fayetteville-Manlius school district.) Eventually, the scope of his work extended not only to Central NY, but all 62 counties of NY State. The end product of Farrell's exhaustive (and, no doubt, exhausting) research is the very informative and entertaining book, Classical Place Names in New York State: Origins, Histories and Meanings.
Farrell begins his work with Introduction which explains that, although primarily focuses on "Greco-Roman appellations" it also discusses names of places that had contact with the Greco-Roman world through "cultural diffusion, trade or colonization." He also explains the book's discussing of words that have a direct or indirect connection to the classical languages. In this broad, more general category, he includes biblical names, names from mythology and other related topics. He then gives a thumbnail sketch of NY State history, and the classical symbolism of the art work on the state seal and flag.
The book proper is divided into 13 chapters. The first chapter, ("the military tract: cradle of classical naming") explains how the very young US Government had promised land to veterans of the American Revolution. Large tracts of land were preserved in Central NY for those who had served. More than 25 townships were put together, named and subdivided into 600 Acre lots. Many of the names given in these townships were of ancient provenance. Two men were associated with the abundance of old world names: Simeon DeWitt, the New York State Surveyor General and a great classics "buff," and Robert Harpur, a one time secretary of the state land board, who had also taught Classics at King's College (now Columbia University). The spate of classical naming by one (or both) of these men seemed to make it fashionable to give new localities an ancient name; there was a certain cachet in having a Greek or Roman name in the one's settlement. According to Farrell, this fashion spread throughout the state from 1790 to 1850 (the age he refers to as the Period of Classical Naming.")
Chapters II-XII of the book function as a kind of dictionary of Placenames, with the names of places arranged alphabetically, according to different theme in each chapter. For example, chapter II is entitled "Greek Personalities as Population Centers;" III is "Roman Personalities as Population Centers;" chapter IV is titled "Non-Greco Roman Personalities as Population Centers" (e.g. Hannibal), and so on. Every entry in these chapters is arranged along similar lines: the name of the place is given the type of locality is stated (e.g. town, hamlet, village), population data is included, as well as the county in which location is found. There is also a small map of the state for each entry with the place in question represented by a black dot. Farrell then traces the origin of the placename (if known) and gives background on the ancient person, place or concept for which the locale was named. He also often gives anecdotal information from local historians or publications in regard to given locale. The anecdotes can often be amusing. For example, in speaking of Euclid in Onondaga County, Farrell quotes a local newspaper report which read "Euclid never heard of the village...and most of the residents of the hamlet never heard of him."
Farrell's first chapter is in an interesting exercise in cartography. He gives some 24 pages of state maps, with each map exemplifying some thematic principle. For instance the first map gives all the places named for the Greek authors; the next one gives those named for Roman authors; the third and fourth maps give Greek placenames in NY State; the fifth and sixth give Latin placenames in the state, and so forth. Sometimes there is additional text given beneath a map. All the maps are clearly drawn, and certainly useful for those of us interested in the geography of the Empire State. After this chapter, Farrell gives a glossary of important terms (e.g., hamlet, municipality, village) and an extensive bibliography.
The value of Farrell's book is obvious. Elementary and Middle School teachers of New York's geography and history will find it of value, and teachers of Latin on every level will be able to show it to their students to prove that "Lingua Latina Vivit." However, there are a few errors or misprints that should be noted. For example, on page 20 Farrell states that Hannibul took a poison at age 70, but gives the great generals dates as 247-183 BC (meaning that Hannibul only lived 64 years). On page 55, Farrell seems to be establishing a linguistic link between the Latin word for vengeance (poena, from Greek poine), and the Latin for Phoenicians (Poeni). I do not think this is the case, because the word for vengeance is an Indo-European root and the word for Phoenician is not. However, these are small matters, and should not deter those interested in New York's classical heritage from reading the book. The book is available through Mr. Farrell. His website is www.namesnplaces.com. The copyright date is 2002 and the ISBN number is 1-890691-08-9 (softcover) or 1-890691-11-9 (hardcover).
Vinnee Tong, The Associated Press: What's in a (place) name? Strange or classic place names have long been topics of discussion, now books: July 13, 2003
Athens--Major landmarks in Athens, N.Y., established 1805: A riverfront park, a historic lighthouse, a ramp big enough for a medium-sized boat.
Major landmarks in Athens, Greece, circa 3000 BC: The Parthenon, the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena.
The tiny village nestled on western bank of the Hudson River share little by way of physical attribute, population or culture with its Greek twin.
But New York's Athens shares plenty with hundreds of other upstate places that borrow names from far-off, far-flung or far more famous locales. Since the first Europeans came to NY in the early 17th century, place names have guided by the classics, by American Indians and by a sense of whimsy and delight.
"People were competing for names," said Bill Farrell, a teacher turned researcher who wrote a book about classical place names in New York State. "They wanted fancy, easy-to-spell, easy-to-pronounce names."
One of the more amusing, Surprise, caught the attention of a photographer who traveled 38,000 miles in search of unusual names in the United States.
Gary Gladstone of Carmel, NY, made Surprise his first stop as he worked on his book of photographs, "Passing Gas: And Other Towns on the American Highway." Gas straddles route 54 about 75 miles south of Topeka, Kansas.
Just 5 miles from Surprise is Climax, one of the 14 such named places around the country, Gladstone found.
An atlas of New York contains several gems. Some have Latin or Greek influences: Plato, Aristotle or Cicero. Still others are inspired by modern Europe: Cambridge, Hyde Park or Florence. And many carry references to the American Indians who proceeded European contact: Saratoga, Salamanca or Cheektowaga.
Then there are the descriptive: Big Moose, Little Valley and Horseheads. And, to the uninitiated, the downright puzzling: Flackville, Five Corners and Coxsackie.
The intriguing etymologies and histories are not limited to the little, off-the-highway towns and villages. Albany was named for the Duke of Albany who became King James II. Syracuse means swamp but was named for the city in Sicily. Rochester was named for Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, who owned much of the land nearby, and Buffalo comes from the French beau fleuve, meaning beautiful river, according to Farrell.
Among folks in this Athens, 30 miles south of Albany, few have been to the more famous one in Greece, thought of as the birthplace of Western civilization.
Robert and Lynn Brunner went there in 1971 with a group of other officials from American places called Athens.
"We went to places people did not normally go," Robert Brunner said. "We were greeted by the whole council in Athens. I could imagine what it is like for celebrities."
Gethen Proper, 61, has lived in Athens, N.Y., since she was a child. Unlike the Brunners, she doubts will ever make the trip to Greece.
"I may make Athens, Georgia one day," she said with a smile. As for the name, Proper said: "To me, it just means lazy, little river town."
The meanings of the names have become more than a topic of idle conversation for Farrell.
After fielding questions from his high school students, Farrell made it his mission to uncover the origins of New York place names. The result was his book, "Classical Place Names in New York State."
Farrell, who lives in Fayetteville (named for the Marquis de Lafayette, a French statesman and soldier in the Revolutionary War), said residents of Rome, Utica and Athens may thank Robert Harpur for their towns' names.
Historians believe Harpur, a classical scholar at Kings College (today's Columbia University) named about 30 New York towns and village in what Farrell calls "the cradle of classical naming."
Harpur, who was a member of the state land board, surveyed the area and left his mark by igniting a naming trend that spanned from 1790 to 1850.
Today, naming a town or changing its name involves some legal hurdles. For villages, residents must file a petition and then let voters decide whether to change the name. Those living in towns and cities must get approval from the Legislature, according to the New York Department of State.
In 1996, the village of North Tarrytown, 30 miles north of New York City, changed its name to the more poetic Sleepy Hollow.
Harpur's influence resulted in New York having more classically influenced names ---300--- than any other state, according to Farrell.
Farrell said Harpur's influence spread as people did. "As settlers went west, they took their names with them," he said.
Case in point: Athens, Texas.
Origins, Histories and Meanings of New York State Communities