Friday, January 30, 2009

The Atlas of True Names

I’m coming to this late, but as it’s right up my alley, I couldn’t resist. Has anyone here seen the Atlas(es) of True Names — published by Kalimedia? These are beautifully produced, and not very expensive, etymological maps of the World and Europe. The Frankfurt Review said of them: “Middle Earth [sic] is alive!” And indeed, I think Tolkien would have approved of the idea very much; and of course, seeing these etymological maps of the real world have put it into my mind to produce a similar one for Middle-earth (if nobody has done this already).

As you can see from the snippet above (click to enlarge, slightly; visit the link above for some larger illustrations), the maps are really quite fascinating. Like Bilbo, I love maps and could easily stare at them for hours. In fact, here in my office at work, I have a large map on my wall. No, not Middle-earth; it’s a January 1970* map of the West Indies and Central America. (Why? Because I’ve traveled to several places represented on this map, and I like to look at them from time to time. And like I said: I love maps. That’s reason enough, isn’t it? I have a map of the British Virgin Islands in my bathroom at home, too.)

Language Log has examined the Atlas of True Names, back in November, with a more thorough post than this one. They note (as I would have) that “the cartographers [of the Atlas] have accepted a good number of disputed derivations and folk etymologies.” The creators of the Atlas have acknowledged that “not all translations are definitive,” and anyway, it’s still great fun.

Shortly after Language Log, the Strange Maps blog posted on them too, with this amusing observation:
The Atlas was first published in German as Der Atlas der wahren Namen, and in that version all the original etymologies are of course rendered in German. If like most people you are at least mildly conditioned by movies, literature and other media dealing with World War II to associate the German language with fascism, this ‘germanified’ version of the world is a bit disconcerting.
I’ll bet! If you’re interested in the German versions, there are actually three: the World, Europe, and Germany (plus Austria and Switzerland). Considering the richness of toponymic etymology in England, I hope somebody is working on that atlas now. I’ll be sure to let you know if I come across one (or if I decide to take a stab at Middle-earth).

* Belize is identified as British Honduras. :)


  1. Fascinating, Jase. Thanks for posting. That map puts the Hereford Mappa Mundi to shame! :)

  2. I’ll be sure to let you know if I come across one (or if I decide to take a stab at Middle-earth).

    That would be a cool but very time-consuming project!

  3. A great article, and I love the idea for a M-e map! But I must say the line that stuck with me the most was you mentioning something about having a map of virgins in the bathroom (or something like that).

  4. @Gary: Thanks. The most interesting thing about the Hereford Mappa Mundi, though, is all the monster hybrids and “mungrell forms” depicted as populating Africa. The other thing I like about the HMM is the subtle prejudices it reveals about the people of its age. For instance, it would have been very obvious to even a medieval cartographer that Wales was completely contiguous with England, yet the HMM shows Wales — and Scotland — almost completely severed from England by water; almost islands, like Ireland. This is clearly informed by the fact that Welsh basically just means “foreign” (as in OE þá welisce menn “the foreigners”, applied to the Normans in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). So, keeping the “foreign” land of Wales at some remove was evidently more imnportant than cartographic accuracy. Fascinating.

    @Cat Bastet: Thanks, and you’re right. Very time-consuming indeed. Probably much too much to make it worthwhile. (And I doubt the Estate would like it very much.)

    @Jeremy: Thank you, and LOL. I’m going to try not to jump to any too racy conclusions from your “Freudian reading”. :)

  5. BTW, on the subject of whimsical world maps, here are a couple more to stretch the imagination. :)

  6. Thanks, Gary! I’ve seen some of these before, but not all of them. Reminds me of that Swedish subway map with the (very strange) names of the stops all translated into English. I think it was you who sent that to me, too, ages ago. I’ve meant to write about it, but haven’t made the time. Perhaps this post is just the segue I need ...