A LETTER from a reader in West New York, New Jersey, the other day got us thinking about some of the peculiarities of place-names in the United States. An obvious one is that so many are borrowed, usually from the hometowns of original settlers, and the relationship between namesakes today seems rather tenuous. Forgive us, but the tie between the city that never sleeps and its English counterpart, best known for its graceful late medieval cathedral, York Minster, is not at once apparent. Nor, for that matter, is the link between New Jersey -- home of Bruce Springsteen, Bill Bradley, and the Meadowlands -- and Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. A second peculiarity is cities whose names suggest they are, somehow, in the wrong state; that but for a fortuitous riverbend, they would be elsewhere, right in Manhattan, in the case of our West New York reader. In a similar predicament are East Chicago, Indiana; East St. Louis, Illinois; and West Memphis, Arkansas.
But for use of the points of the compass to extend the usefulness of place-names, no one holds a candle to New Englanders. Acton, Massachusetts, for instance, is surrounded with a perfect matched set of North, South, East, and West Actons. Indian names blossom abundantly across the map like the lilacs of May. But the place-names brought over from England seem to have been doled out with a certain thriftiness, as if the settlers were afraid they would run out before they could tame the continent.