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A Town Called Emily?

July 7, 2020 laurawattenberg 19 Comments

A Town Called Emily?

July 7, 2020 LauraWattenberg 19 Comments

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.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • TheOtherHungarian
    TheOtherHungarian July 7, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    I was going to say, if a city can be called Charlotte, it’s perfectly fine for a town to be called Emily. 🙂

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg July 7, 2020 at 3:57 pm

      The best non-royal example I’ve thought of so far is Eugene, Oregon. I’m curious to hear others!

  • SisterJudy July 9, 2020 at 1:52 am

    Emilyville! (Thank my husband for that one)

  • Brigit July 9, 2020 at 3:12 am

    I love this, because I love Emily Dickinson and because it makes me think of Cicely, Alaska in Northern Exposure.

  • nedibes July 9, 2020 at 9:36 pm

    It also reminds me of Cicely, Alaska. As I recall, it was named after one of the two women who founded the town (they were a couple; this was very progressive at the time!). Cicely is less common as a name than Emily, but it shares a lot of sounds, and Cicely quickly sounded very town-ish to me in-context, so I think Emily could eventually be just another place name.

    The internet tells me that Cicely was based on the real town Roslyn, Alaska. Accounts seem to vary on the origins of that name–maybe after a lost love, in which case it is an example of a given name-as-place name. (Alternatively, it could have been named for Roslyn, NY or Roslyn, PA, both of which appear to have non-human namesake origins–the NY town is probably related in some way to Roslin, Scotland, and the Pennsylvania town name is a variant on Roseland.)

    Another royal example is Adelaide, Australia.

    Wikipedia tells me there are actually a number of communities in the US named both Mary and Elizabeth. Most of these are pretty small, but interestingly the largest, Elizabeth, NJ (population ~125,000) was actually named for Elizabeth Cartaret, wife and daughter of some prominent people in the 1600s. I vaguely remember Elizabethtown, the area’s original name, from Revolutionary War history.

    One example I can think of that comes close is another college town–Ann Arbor, named after two women named Ann (Wikipedia describes them as “wives of the village’s founders”, but I have to think that if the “founders” were already married when they founded the town then the Anns were equal co-founders). It does follow the rule of adding a place-specific term, but I think the honor remains very clear, even compared to something like Annton or Annville.

    A place name-turned-given name-turned-place name is Beulah, ND. Beulah was a biblical term for Israel/the promised land and has been a given name for hundreds of years. The North Dakota town was, apparently, named for the developer’s niece.

    Ooh, I just realized Wikipedia has a “list of places named after people in the US”!

    Some notable examples from that list:
    • Angelica, NY,named after THAT Angelica, from Hamilton!
    • Annette, Beatrice, Gertrude, and Lucia CA. These were each named after the first postmaster in the town–so rare examples of towns named for a woman based explicitly on her own achievements, rather than because she was some man’s daughter/wife/other relation, or royal. A LOT of towns were named after their first postmaster, especially in California, a good chunk of whom were female; interestingly, almost all of the towns named for male postmasters used the last name, but maybe a third of the towns named for women used the first name rather than last. The only exception I’ve found for men was Oleander, CA, named for William Oleander Johnson—I think they made the right choice! Texas even had the chance to name a town Pleasant, after postmaster Pleasant Smith “Plez” Humble, but went with Humble, instead. This seems an odd choice for Texas, where humility seems to be a less celebrated virtue than ;-). Rogersville, CA is another missed opportunity—that town’s namesake was Lovely Rogers.
    • Belva, West Virginia, named for Belva Ann Lockwood, first female attorney to argue before the Supreme Court (among many other achievements).
    • Bradley, CA and Bradley, Maine, were both named for men with first name Bradley (their last names were Sargent and Blackman, respectively). And Bradtmoore, CA, was named for a Bradley T. Moore. Is there something about the name Bradley that sounds especially town-ish?
    • One interesting variant is Pylema, CA, named for postmistress Mary Pyle. There’s also Dacono, CO, named for three women named DAisy, COra, and NOna, Daisetta, TX, named for a Daisy and an Etta, Doral, FL named for wife-and-husband Doris and Alfred, etc. I kind of like the mashup approach, though I’m not sure it would solve the problem here: Dickensonem is too much of a mouthful, and options like Emison have the same issue with obscuring the honor.
    • Ira, VT, named for Ira Allen, brother of Ethan Allen. This one sounds about as namey as Emily to me.
    • Jenny Lind, CA, named for the opera singer. A short, snappy name that apparently lent itself well to early merchandising, as witness the Jenny Lind bed style, Jenny Lind soup, etc.
    • George, Washington, and Joe, Montana ;-).
    • Michigan and Missouri both have towns named Napoleon after Napoleon Bonaparte. I’d call this a quasi-royal namesake; I suspect the reason we remember Napoleon by his first name rather than his last is his royal ambition–he intended to be Emperor Napoleon I, with many others of his line to follow.
    • Orinda, CA, named for another female poet, Katherine Phillips, who was often called “The Matchless Orinda” based on her adopted “pastoral” name.
    • Orlando, FL, named after Orlando Reeves.
    • Pierre, ND, named for Pierre Chouteau, Jr. How did this one slip my mind?
    • Sedona, AZ, named for early pioneer Sedona Miller Schnebley. Sedona makes a very pretty place name, but I kind of love the mouth-feel of Schnebley.
    • Selma, CA, was named for Selma Michelson. (But Selma, Alabama was named for a castle in some Scottish poetry.)
    • Some places named for given names can be hard to spot because so many surnames have become given names and vice versa. Examples include Darwin, CA (named for Darwin French), Dudley, which has one town namesake for a given name and one for a surname, and Marion, which is a name for many towns, most based on surnames but a handful for women with given name Marion. A lot of places with names that seem pretty given-name to me are actually for surnames, including Meredith, NH, Shirley (in Maine and Massachusetts), Victoria, TX, and Winnie, TX.

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg July 9, 2020 at 9:42 pm

      @nedibes Standing ovation! That’s an amazing lineup! I agree that there’s a difference between a town naming itself in honor of an illustrious woman and a man naming a town after his wife. It’s fascinating to see examples of the former.

    • HungarianNameGeek
      HungarianNameGeek July 15, 2020 at 7:01 am

      “Is there something about the name Bradley that sounds especially town-ish?” Well, yes: broad-lea “wide meadow”. There are somewhere on the order of 20 of them in England. 🙂

  • Ira Sass July 10, 2020 at 11:23 pm

    Emily, MA. I’m here for it!
    We have Beverly, Lynn, Sharon, Chelsea, and Shirley. Why not Emily?

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg July 10, 2020 at 11:32 pm

      It’s striking that not one of those cities and towns — Beverly, Lynn, Sharon, Chelsea and Shirley — was named after a woman. (In fact, only Shirley was named after a person at all, a William Shirley. The rest were all named after other places.) Which just makes Emily sound better.

      But can we still call Emily Dickinson the “Belle of Amherst” if Amherst is named Emily?

      • Ira Sass July 12, 2020 at 4:35 pm

        Ha, I guess she’d have to be Emily, the Belle of Emily.

        That’s interesting none of the towns I listed were actually named after women. I just looked it up and the only town in MA currently named after a woman is Tyringham, named after a Jane Tyringham. I had never heard of it despite being born and raised here… turns out it’s a town in the Berkshires with a population of 327. So.

        • LauraWattenberg
          LauraWattenberg July 12, 2020 at 4:57 pm

          I had never heard of Tyringham either, good find! From the official town website, it appears that the one woman a Massachusetts town is named after was so honored for dying and thus enriching a man:
          “Tyringham was formally incorporated in 1762 and Governor Bernard chose the name to honor a wealthy cousin, Jane Tyringham, who had just left him an estate.”

          (Bernard, incidentally, was the much-loathed hardline British Governor of Massachusetts during the period of the Stamp Act. John Adams described him as “avaricious to a most infamous degree.”)

  • ab July 12, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Carol Stream, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, was named for the daughter of the town’s founder and developer, Jay Stream. An elementary school (the first one) in the village is named Carol Stream Elementary School and the first middle school is named Jay Stream Middle School. The Wikipedia entry for the village explains the circumstances that influenced the unusual name choice.

  • The Mrs. July 12, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    Perhaps I missed something here, but why is it a particular distinction that a single woman be honored with a town name versus her husband honoring her with a town name?

    Does a married woman carry less distinction?

    Isn’t a town named after ANYONE (male or female) an honor?

    I’ve always seen Sedona, AZ being the fruit of a grateful love story.
    Sorry for my confusion!

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg July 13, 2020 at 3:24 pm

      Thanks for the question, I should definitely clarify! The distinction I was attempting to make had nothing to do with the person being married or single. It was more about who paid the homage and why.

      A name chosen as loving personal tribute from a family member is a different kind of honor from a community’s tribute to a person’s accomplishments and public contributions. Not better or worse, just different. And given the limited public roles women played when New England towns were founded, the latter is exceedingly uncommon.

    • Nicwoo July 13, 2020 at 5:23 pm

      What a good point you made with this article! I am in disbelief that no towns are named after women in their merits… let your town be on the map for a very positive change. And why not? This is America!! What will it lead to? Upvote positivity (even though the argument is exhaustively made that no ones perfect) it could lead to us questioning the abusers in their success with entertainment, politics, athletics and also the aversion to female names because they “sound effeminate” or even further the truthful need to include more women and diversity in school history textbooks. What a wonderful More Complete world…

  • Callie July 14, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    Up in north Louisiana, we have a series of small towns named Ida, Vivian, Rodessa, and Mira: all supposedly named after one man’s daughters!

  • Robin March 14, 2021 at 2:28 am

    Wouldn’t the other big exception to the surname rule be saints? Just here in Southern California, we have (Santa) Maria, (Santa) Barbara, (Santa) Monica, (San) Diego, (San) Clemente, (San) Bernardino, and many others.

    I’d definitely vote for “Emily, MA.” Shorter and more memorable than “Dickinson.” Plus, ya know, it avoids the “Dick.”

  • A de G January 20, 2023 at 2:50 pm

    Emily, Massachusetts is PERFECT! No need to come up with excuses or defenses! It is perfect.

  • Iris January 22, 2023 at 12:12 pm

    Not weird at all.
    There are towns named Charlotte and Adelaide, why not Emily?
    First names are not only for royals to use and lend to towns.
    Also, Emily is a great study case. One of those rare names that, in this day and age, you can’t guess if it’s the baby’s or the mom’s name.

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