America Is Just Like Westeros!

The new Atlas of True Names USA reminds us that the United States, like the environs of Game of Thrones, was once a wild and woolly place.

My husband isn’t a Game of Thrones guy. When he comes home from work, he really just wants to watch a movie he’s already seen a number of times, so it’s easier for him to follow. I came home the other night and found him sitting in front of The Prince of Tides. “Doug,” I said. “We just watched this freaking movie. Wednesday night when I came home, you were watching The Prince of Tides.”

“So? It’s a good movie,” he said, and that was the only defense he made.

So when he finally agreed to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones with our son Jake and me, it was under duress; he hadn’t seen any of the other shows of any of the three seasons. It helped that Jake told him the female characters frequently get naked. Well, it helped in that it kept him watching, though it also kept him asking, “Is she going to get naked?” He was sorely disappointed in the finale’s lack of nakedness. The only other question he asked was, “Is this supposed to be taking place on Earth? I mean, on Earth in some other day or time?” He was confused by the geography in the opening credits—that succession of towns and towers and walls rising up as the theme song swells.

My husband grew up outside Johnstown, not far from where Flight 93 went down in Shanksville. His “people,” as they say out there, were farmers, and they had a different sort of relationship with the land. They knew it in a way my more peripatetic family never did—the connection was more intimate, more familiar. We knew towns; they knew the spaces in between towns, and had names for all those spaces. The space where his house stood was in Gobbler’s Hollow, named that back God knows when for God knows what reason: a big turkey? A vicious turkey? Lots and lots of turkeys? Something happened there once, and people remembered that something with a name.

I thought of his old house and of Westeros the other day when I saw a blog post about the Atlas of True Names USA, a new map of America, designed by cartographer/linguists Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust, that translates the names of states, cities, rivers and the like back to their original sources. The results are fascinating. Names like “Ohio” and “Illinois” and “Mississippi” are so familiar to us that we never give a thought to just how odd they really look and sound. As Hormes and Peust put it on their website, “Once the names have been taken back to their roots and translated into English, it is immediately apparent that our world has an extraordinary affinity with Middle Earth, the mythical continent where the events of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are played out.” Or to Westeros, home of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. Hormes and Peust say their atlas “restores an element of enchantment to the world we all think we know so well.” The prosaic “Utah” becomes “Land of the Sun”; South Dakota is “Southern Land of Friends.”

Hormes and Peust have also made such atlases for Canada, Europe, the British Isles and the world, and the same sense of strangeness pervades those familiar outlines on paper when they’re matched with these poetic, evocative names: Ireland is “Westland”; Great Britain itself is the “Great Land of the Tatooed.” If you like words, their atlases are wonderful places to explore. Just for fun, see if you can match these Atlas of True Names USA state names to the list of actual states that follows, then scroll down for the answers and see how well you did.

1. “Land of Friends”
2. “Land of Folks”
3. “New Navel of the Moon”
4. “Land of Those Who Speak Normally”
5. “Light of the Mountain”
6. “Land of the Paleface”
7. “South Wind People’s Land”
8. “New Isle of Spears”
9. “Land of the Thicket Clearers”
10. “Beautiful Land”

A. Maine
B. Alabama
C. Oregon
D. New Jersey
E. Illinois
F. Texas
G. Iowa
H. New Mexico
I. Idaho
J. Arkansas








1. “Land of Friends”: F. Texas
2. “Land of Folks”: A. Maine
3. “New Navel of the Moon”: H. New Mexico
4. “Land of Those Who Speak Normally”: E. Illinois
5. “Light of the Mountain”: I. Idaho
6. “Land of the Paleface”: G. Iowa
7. “South Wind People’s Land”: J. Arkansas
8. “New Isle of Spears”: D. New Jersey
9. “Land of the Thicket Clearers”: B. Alabama
10. “Beautiful Land”: C. Oregon