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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Naming of Places

MIrabel. Photo by Rafi Lewis

Henry Reed produced one of the most poignant poems of the Second World War, a war which, unlike the Great War, was not known for producing great poetry. Naming of Parts skips by anger, pain and pity, the subject matter of many of the First World War poets, and instead contrasts the prosaic topic of rifle parts being named by an instructor with a distracted soldier/poet's lyrical thoughts on spring, nature and perhaps sex. The names in this poem, with their double meanings; the names of the rifle parts and the names of plants and insects; effectively achieve the poet's message, which is that war is futile and ludicrous, and distracts us from what really matters.

Names are indeed important. A rose might not change its character if called something else, but names in themselves have great potency through their associative capacity. In my childhood I lived for a few years in an old Victorian house, a house with hidden rooms, and with a garden that was a wonderland for an imaginative child. It had dark secret passages behind tall hedges and a row of tiny and mysterious wooden sheds. Among the garden plants was a tropical bush with twisted flower buds that unfurled within seconds as you watched and filled the air with a heady tropical perfume. There was a rickety wooden trellis supporting an ancient climbing tea rose with enormous yellow blooms, thorns an inch long and a trunk like that of a tree. And there was a huge magnolia with plate-sized ivory flowers, wonderful for climbing, its trunk plastered with the mysterious shells of tiny, monster-like cicadas. The house and garden no longer exist, but they are engraved in my memory. On the gate at the bottom of the garden there was an old metal sign bearing the house's name - "Silvermead". The name still conjures up for me the magic of that place and time.

The Frankish settlers in the Crusader states brought with them to the East the alluring French place-names, like Belvoir, Belmont, Mirabel, and Beaucayre. The latter means beautiful hill, and was given to a gate on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, perhaps by crusaders from Provence serving in the army of Raymond of Toulouse, who fought in that area in 1099 and who possibly settled nearby after the city was taken. Some of these imported names, having survived through the subsequent seven centuries have undergone a slight Arabisation. The village of Sinjil on the road from Jerusalem to Nablus was once St. Gilles, Latrun was Le Toron [des Chevaliers]. Even single buildings in some Arab villages retain their long-forgotten French roots. Baubariya (بوبرية), a name preserved in several medieval vaults throughout the countryside, was once the French bouverie or Latin bovaria, meaning ox shed or byre. In other cases, the reverse happened. Hebrew and Arabic names were Frenchified by the settlers. The northern town of Akko, erroneously identified with the Philistine Ekron (Accron in the Hellenistic period) which was in fact located in the south, became Acre, Beit Govrin, misidentified with Beer Sheva, became Bethgibelin, Ma'ale Adumim on the road from Jerusalem to the Jordan River became Malduim, the Jewish village of Cochava above the Jordan Valley, which under Islam had been called Kawkab al-Hawa, became Coquet (but was also called Belvoir). These names, along with others like Montfort, Blanchegarde, Beaufort, and Châteauneuf helped ease the no doubt often difficult transition of European settlers from Champagne, Normandy and Auvergne to the Galilee, the Sharon and the Shephelah.

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