Lost in Translation - Hilarious Bilingual Place Names

by JoHarrington

A clash of languages can leave an amusing legacy in the landscape. You just have to know what all the words mean.

Think of an hilarious book and the pages of a road map doesn't naturally spring to mind.
But if you know your history, then there's plenty to chuckle about in the road signs.

You would be amazed at just how many countries, towns and landmarks get named after misunderstandings.

Let me guide you through some of the funniest place-names on the globe. You will never look at an atlas in the same way again.

Speak Slowly and Loudly, They are Sure to Understand

This is what happens when invaders attempt to ask the locals the name of their land.

"I don't know what you're saying."  The Maya man was utterly bewildered.

He had just met his first Spanish conquistador. Though he didn't know it yet, this was going to prove to be bad news for his country and his people. 

For now though, all he really had to contend with was the fact that they were speaking to him in Spanish. It was not a language he had ever encountered before. Their Mayan was equally nonexistent.

All the pantomime gestures and loud, slow words were not communicating the pertinent question. "What is this place called?"  The Spaniard tried again.

The Maya man grimaced, "I'm sorry, I don't know what you're saying."

The sentence sounded like a single word to the listening Spanish. It was exotic, befitting their jungle discovery in the New World.  Believing that they had their answer, the Mayan phrase was duly recorded on the map as Península de Yucatán.

That's the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to you and I.  It's the 'I don't know what you're saying' Peninsula to the local Maya population.

... Or Maybe Try Some Gestures

Though this can also go horribly wrong, as those left with Christopher Columbus's legacy have discovered.

Across the I Don't Know What You're Saying Straits (more commonly known as the Yucatán Straits) is the country of Soil.

It was home to three different tribes: the Taíno, Guanajatabey and Ciboney.

Christopher Columbus called them all Indians, but only because he was terminally lost by now and remained convinced that he was in India. Nevertheless, he had to check.

The dominant Taíno people had already marginalized the other two tribes, pushing them right to the edges of the land. They were poised to take over the entire island, which they called Caobana.

Unfortunately for posterity, it wasn't a Taíno person who Columbus met first. It was one of the nomadic Guanajatabey communities, right on the Western shoreline. They couldn't conceive of an overall name for the island, let alone what this strange European was trying to ask them.

"What is this called?" Columbus asked, pointing to the ground.  Blank faces all around.  "This!  What is it?"  He grabbed a handful of soil and held it out.  "What is it called?"

"Soil?"  Proffered a wary Guanajatabey spokesperson in the local tongue.

Columbus had heard a word.  "Cuba!  It's called Cuba!"

The Country of Village

Many thanks to my friend (and beta-reader) Sareyva, who found this video for us!

Sometimes the Locals Aren't Even Paying Attention

Or what the Mother of States was very, very nearly called...

It wasn't all Columbus blundering his way around the Americas.

In fact, all around the world, people have historically decided that the first thing that they heard had to be the place-name. What else could those silly natives possibly be trying to say?

"Windgancon."  The British scout duly recorded what he heard in response to his question about what this place was called.

It didn't seem to occur to him that, just as he couldn't understand Powhatan, the individuals grinning back at him weren't exactly fluent in English either.

Others heard it too.  They couldn't decide on the precise phonetic spelling.  Wingandacoa was one variation. Someone else, with slightly less imagination, thought he'd got 'Wingina' out of it.

Whatever the case was, it was soon dismissed. When Sir Walter Raleigh formed a colony there, he promptly renamed the whole area Virginia.  It flattered Queen Elizabeth I, aka The Virgin Queen, back home.

Which must come as a huge relief to the US population of the state, as they would otherwise have been called, "What gay clothes you're wearing!" in Powhatan.

It's All Getting a Bit Repetitive Now

It's all well and good finding out the (totally incorrect) names for large areas, but it's verging on the ridiculous when you start on the landmarks.

Just to prove that it's not only North and South America where it can all go wrong, let's zoom across the Atlantic Ocean to my own country.

Anyone with even a smattering of both Welsh and English can find hilarious clues to ancient conversations dotting the landscape.

Take the River Avon.  That venerable old river is linked with William Shakespeare, as he was born on its banks in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

But look closely at the name and try to envisage the kind of conversation which must have led to it.

The Welsh for river is afon.  It's pronounced avon.  You're looking at River River (or Afon Afon).

Much further north, in the English Midlands, is Bredon Hill.  Very pretty and most definitely a hill. We know this, not only because we can look at it and say, "Yep, that's a hill," but because it tells us three times.

'Bre' comes from the Welsh bryn, meaning hill.   Don is the Saxon word for hill.  Then, just in case we haven't got the hint yet, some more recent topographer added 'hill' at the end.  Bredon Hill could correctly be called Hill Hill Hill. 

Image: Bredon Hill.  It's a hill.
Image: Bredon Hill. It's a hill.

What Amusing Linguistic Errors Will You Find in Your Local Place Names?

Grab a map, grab a place-name origin book and get searching. Trust me, they ARE everywhere.
Updated: 01/24/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/15/2014

Yes! LOL What a fabulous name that would be to encounter.

You're making me wish that I was visiting Glastonbury Tor again. :)

Guest on 01/14/2014

Not a place name but a PC version of a name: Guy Chapman. More precisely rendered: Person Personperson.

And tor is definitely hill - at least in the west country. Look at the number of places with that suffix and the mere fact that the hills are called that on the moors. (cf Ten Tors Challenge).

JoHarrington on 05/13/2013

I'm sorry, Lou, I don't know how I missed this! Pen is Welsh for 'head', as in 'headland'. You might have encountered it in Pendragon, or Head Dragon.

As for 'tor', that's a tricky one. It's usually called Old English, with a Latin etymology in 'turris'. But it's only ever found in British places where the Celts hung on for ages. It could well be something to do with the Welsh 'twrr', which means a heap or a pile, or else the Gaelic 'torr', which means lofty hill or mound.

Either way, Torpenhow definitely counts as a rather repetitive English placename!

lou16 on 07/31/2012

There's another place in England who's name is supposed to translate to hill hill hill and that's Torpenhow where my husband's family (a few generations back) hail from. Tor from Old English, can't remember where Pen is from and How was from Danish.

JoHarrington on 07/23/2012

As a genealogist, I'm forever staring at surnames looking for clues. You're right, there can be some hilarious ones going on there. You can only guess at what caused them to have a name like that back in the mists of time.

Tolovaj on 07/23/2012

Our country is full of hills and valleys, and folk who moved from valley upwards to the hill and vice versa was called by the location they came from, so we can expand this to Valley (surname) from the Hill (village), or Hills from the Hill or Hill from the Valley and so on and on. And than enters their professions and house names, many times named after a relative from centuries ago or old owner's profession...
Many hours of fun, if you want to dig to the depths of the folklore:)

JoHarrington on 07/20/2012

I love that. :D Are there anymore which are funny translations? They never cease to amuse me.

I've found another Breedon on the Hill here. It's in Leicestershire.

EnelleLamb on 07/20/2012

Yes, Canada does mean "Village" :) Most of the names of our cities and provinces are derived from the over 600 First Nations languages, although the majority of Inuit names are found further north in the Territories.

JoHarrington on 07/12/2012

I certainly tittered somewhat, when I first heard that one!

ChrisHugh on 07/12/2012

This was really funny. Yucatan!

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