The Culture Verbal Energy Verbal Energy

What’s in a name? Sometimes, a number.

A look at how some odd place names may – or may not – have come to be.

Smog shrouds the Millennium Monument in the Heroes' Square in Budapest, Hungary, on Jan. 23, 2017. The town of Hatvan, Hungary, for instance, whose name means 'sixty' in Hungarian, is 60 kilometers (about 35 miles) from the capital, Budapest.
Bea Kallos/MTI/AP | Caption
  • Ruth Walker

Recently I was about to mention in an email that I had been in touch with someone in the community of Ninety Six, S.C.

Writing out the name forced me to double-check its “styling”: hyphen or no? (Editors are never completely off duty, not even when emailing friends.) Ordinarily a double-digit number written out in words takes a hyphen: “Twenty-eight people attended the meeting.”

But a check of the town’s website showed that no, the people of Ninety Six do not hyphenate. That question settled, another soon arose: What kind of place has a number for a name? Not many places, but a fair sprinkling, it seems, in the United States and abroad. 

Some have fairly straightforward back stories. Hatvan, Hungary, for instance, whose name means “sixty” in Hungarian, is 60 kilometers (about 35 miles) from the capital, Budapest. 

“You can’t argue with logic like that,” travel writer Rick Steves has noted. 

But a good bit of mystery attends the origin of many numeric place names. Take Ninety Six.

The website of the Ninety Six National Historic Site (commemorating local Revolutionary War events) refers to a “romanticized legend” involving “an Indian named Cateechee” and her “British boyfriend” during the Cherokee War (1760), but then debunks the legend with a reference to a 1730 map and segues to a perhaps more critical question: “Are dogs allowed in the Park?” 

Hundred, W.Va., is actually named for a person, Henry Church. 

Mr. Church first came to America as a British soldier to help put down the colonial rebellion. He stayed on after the war, though, and once he’d crossed the century mark was known as “Old Hundred.” He lived to be 109. The community that grew up around his farm was named for him. 

Fifty-Six, Ark., was “reportedly” named for the number of its school district after the US Post Office rejected the settlement’s original name, “Newcomb,” as it was already taken. 

Likewise, Eighty Four, Pa., would have been Smithville, but that name was taken. It went numeric because of a railroad marker, or the year (1884), or the number of marauding Indians killed in one particularly fierce engagement with white settlers, or the number of those settlers who survived an especially tough winter. Pick your legend. The building materials company 84 Lumber has roots in Eighty Four, however: That is a fact. 

Only four integers larger, but about 500 miles away by highway, is Eighty Eight, Ky. The origin legend here is that the community’s first postmaster feared people couldn’t read his handwriting and thought the place would do better with a number for a name. But what number? He reached into his pocket and pulled out 88 cents. 

What to make of all these? I can’t help noticing how many of these numeric place names are US presidential years – even the one in Hungary. Or at least they’re even numbers. 

If they weren’t, I suppose, it would be odd.