My hometown has three colleges, a proud literary heritage, and a really sketchy name.
Amherst, Massachusetts was named in 1759 by a colonial governor in honor of Lord Jeffrey Amherst. Lord Jeffrey was a British commander during the French and Indian war whose military techniques included biological warfare and genocide. He plotted to give smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans with the explicit goal to “extirpate” their entire race. When the colonies later battled for their independence, Amherst sided with the British. In short, not the sort of guy you’d want to be named after.
Over the years, many Amherst residents have suggested changing the town’s name. The movement has gained momentum this year, as all of America has been taking a closer look at the ways our public names and spaces reflect history. But what new name should take Amherst’s place? The suggestion I’ve heard most often is to honor one of the town’s most illustrious natives, the poet Emily Dickinson. Goodbye Amherst, hello Emily, Massachusetts.
It’s a bold idea, one that surprises most who hear it. Naming a town after a famous resident is common enough, but it’s usually the surname that gets the honors. “Dickinson, Massachusetts” sounds perfectly natural and unremarkable. In fact, eight other states boast a town called Dickinson. The only Emily I’ve found is a tiny hamlet in Minnesota, named after one of a cluster of local lakes that all have female names. Amherst would become the largest Emily municipality in the world, and the only one deliberately named in honor of a notable woman and her accomplishments.
That very distinctiveness, and femaleness, draws in the name’s supporters. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Emily just doesn’t sound like a town. Part of that may stem from the name itself. While Emily is an old and classic name, it is also a fashionable one. Emily has been a top-20 American girl’s name every year since 1987, including a 12-year run at #1. As a result, it’s hard not to hear the name as a girl or young woman. Emily is also a name that is perceived as extremely friendly, which is not a style usually associated with place names.
A bigger issue is the formality gulf between given names and surnames. Surnames have always been the formal style of address, used in titles and homages. The town named after Jeffery Amherst, for example, was called Amherst, not Jeff. Even in our new informal age, formality continues to carry weight and gravitas. Political campaigns are still run mostly under surnames, and candidates who have had to go first-name to avoid confusion, like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, have arguably suffered for it. What’s more, an academic who studies Emily Dickinson’s poetry is a Dickinson scholar, not an Emily expert.
One historical exception to the surname rule has been monarchs, who are formally referred to by given name only. Place names reflect this. Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, was named for Britain’s Queen Charlotte. Even places named after royalty, though, usually add a place-specific suffix. There are many Williamsburgs and Williamstowns but very few towns called William.
An Emily Dickinson homage could go the same way, with a construction like Emilyville. The multisyllabic result feels cumbersome, though. Lopping off a syllable for a more compact construction like Emilton would introduce new problems, muddling the homage and suggesting the masculine name Emil.
And so, Emily. The more I think about it, the more it grows on me. With so many parents today adopting place names as baby names, it’s about time a baby name returned the favor.