Some cities have names that mean something obvious, like Portland, Little Rock, Long Beach, and Salt Lake City. If you take a moment to think about them, these names are awfully boring and plain, especially when compared to city names that seem rather exotic: Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Reykjavík, Tokyo…
But plenty of these romantic-sounding names mean something in the language spoken by people who live in these cities, and sometimes what they mean is a little less charming. Here are a few good examples of city names that just don't sound as fascinating when translated.
1. Muddy Confluence
This city grew up at the place where two muddy rivers flow together. That place happens to be in Malaysia, so when they named it Muddy Confluence they did so in Malay: Kuala Lumpur.
2. On the Sea
This city used to be on the sea (now it's a bit inland). Specifically, it was on the sea in China. In Mandarin Chinese, the way to say On the Sea is Shanghai.
3. Sheltered Bay
Yes, this city has a very nice sheltered bay. Most people who live there now speak English, but some of them still speak Hawai'ian, and the name is in Hawai'ian too: Honolulu.
4. Smoky Bay
Another bay. This one isn't really smoky, it's steamy from geothermal activity. But the name originally given to it stuck — in the local language, Icelandic: Reykjavík.
5. Northern Capital
Can you imagine calling the capital of your country Northern Capital? Seems kinda basic, no? And why Northern? Well, the older capital was in the south and is now called Southern Capital, though it's not a capital anymore. Who has these plain capital city names? More than a billion people — in China: the northern one is Beijing (the old transliteration is Peking) and the southern one is Nanjing (the old transliteration is Nanking).
6. Eastern Capital
China isn't the only country with a really plain name for its capital. In Japan, they have Eastern Capital — or, as they call it, Tokyo. The former capital of the country is even better: Kyoto. Does that mean Capital of the East? Nope — it just means Capital City.
OK, this is not bad for a name. But it's pretty simple. And it's another capital. The country is Bolivia, and the language they speak is Spanish — which uses a definite article ("the") in a name like this: La Paz. Actually, the full name is Nuestra Señora de la Paz: Our Lady of Peace.
Paz may sound like Pass, but this city's name actually means Pass. Or, since it's in Spanish, The Pass. And in west Texas, there are plenty of Spanish speakers who know that's what they mean when they say El Paso.
9. Spring Mound
To be fair, "mound" here refers to the kind of mound or hill that has resulted from towns being built on towns built on towns — very archeological. That was a deliberate choice when this city near an old port was given a new name… in Hebrew: Tel Aviv.
10. January River
This is almost a cool name, really. It would sound OK in English. But it sounds like more fun in Portuguese: Rio de Janeiro.
11. New Flower
Another reasonably charming name. But not exotic. Put it in Amharic, though, and you get Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
12. Red Stick
To be fair, not that many people in this city speak French anymore. But once upon a time French was the dominant language here, as throughout Louisiana — which is where you find Baton Rouge. (In French, you add a circumflex and, for place names, a hyphen: Bâton-Rouge.)
This is another little cheat — I don't think too many people in this city speak Portuguese now. But I had to include it because it's such a plain, plain name… for a massive, not-at-all-plain city, the capital of Nigeria: Lagos.
This is a funny name for this city. You'll know why when you find out what the Spanish word for Meadows is. Yep, another city with a Spanish name, and although most people speak English there, you'll still find Spanish speakers in Las Vegas. Not so many meadows, though.
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