Talking Texan (when pronouncing the names of places)
By LONN TAYLOR
The first Texas town whose name I can remember being aware of was a place near my grandmother Taylor’s home town of Wharton that she pronounced EYE-a-go. I was a teenager before I realized that it was spelled Iago, and that it was named after the wily Italian in Shakespeare’s Othello. Another Texas town associated with my family history was a crossroads in northern Collin County where my great-great grandmother Eliza Roberts was born in 1839. Everyone in the family called it MAN-chu-way. If you tried to find it on a map you would discover that it was named for a city in Italy called Mantua and was spelled that way. Some people might say that Texans are no good at pronouncing town names derived from Romance languages, but I would say that they have simply provided their own pronunciation, and since everyone in Texas knows what they are talking about, no harm has been done.
The most famous place name in Texas, San Jacinto, has always been pronounced by Texans with the hard “j” sound, rather than the soft Spanish “j”, which sounds like an “h”. The first Anglo settlers in Texas had a terrible time with the soft Spanish “x”s “j”s, and “g”s. The town of Mexia, named after the family that held the original Mexican land grant there, became May-HAIR. Refugio is still Re-FUR-io to most Texans. Bexar, BE-har in Spanish, was elided into BEAR in English, a pronunciation which found its way into the name of a butcher shop on South Alamo Street in San Antonio called the Bear Meat Company. When I lived in San Antonio the Bear Meat Company was located next to the headquarters of a German singing society called the Beethoven Mannerchor, and the parking lot shared by the two establishments had a sign at the entrance that said, “Bear Meat and Beethoven Parking Only,” words that I think have a uniquely poetic quality.
Texas is the only place I know of where towns that are named after people are given both their namesake’s first and last names, presumably to prevent confusion with someone else with the same last name. Ben Arnold, in Milam County, was named for a three-year old child who was a passenger on the first train to pull into the new railroad station there. Tomball, in Harris County, was named after Texas congressman Thomas Henry Ball. Burkburnett, in Wichita County, took its name from rancher Burk Burnett, whose Four Sixes Ranch was nearby. For some reason, it is always pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, Burk-BUR-nett. When settlers in Coke County wanted to honor the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, they named the county seat Robert Lee, rather than just plain Lee. They wanted to make sure that everyone understood that it was not named for Billy Bob Lee, or Cornelius Lee, or any Lee but Marse Robert. Iraann, pronounced EYE-ran, is a combination of two first names. It was named in honor of Ira and Anna Yates after they struck oil on their nearby ranch, bringing in the Permian Basin Oil Field.
Some Texas town names are examples of frontier humor. Bugtussle in Fannin County and Lickskillet in Fayette County were both references to the hard times endured by early settlers. Cut and Shoot in Montgomery County may have reflected a popular Saturday night pastime there. Concan in Uvalde County is definitely named after a pastime, a card game called Con Quien that was regularly played there.
Some Texas towns are known by nicknames. Fort Worth is Cowtown, Dallas is Big D. Nicknames can sometimes be confusing. Years ago, when the late Congressman Charlie Wilson was representing an East Texas district in the state legislature, I heard someone ask him at an Austin party if it wasn’t boring living in Lufkin, which at the time was legally dry “Oh, no,” he replied. “If we get bored we can always drive to Big D for a drink.” “Isn’t it a little far to drive from Lufkin to Dallas for a drink?” his questioner asked. “Oh, I don’t mean Dallas,” Wilson replied. “I mean Diboll.” Diboll, pronounced DYE-ball was a small town about ten miles south of Lufkin, one of those places near a county line that are emphatically wet.
Many more towns in Texas than Ben Arnold and Tom Ball owe their names to the whim of a railroad executive. Edna, Louise, Inez, Mackay, Telferner, and Hungerford in Wharton and Jackson counties were all named after relatives of the builder of the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railroad, Count Telferner, who explained “My family must live in perpetuity.” He would have given a family name to the station on the Pierce Ranch, but the formidable Shanghai Pierce told him that the track ran over his land, “and town naming must not be done to the exclusion of my perpetuity.” The ranch station was named Pierce.
Marfa was apparently named by the wife of an official of the Galveston. Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railroad. The article on Marfa in the New Handbook of Texas says that she named it for a character in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which she was reading at the time, and that has long been the accepted wisdom. Recent research by etymologist Barry Popik has shown that story to be unlikely because Dostoyevsky’s novel was not translated into English until twenty years after Marfa was established. Popik proposes instead a character named Marfa Stogoff in Jules Verne’s thriller Michael Stogoff, Courier of the Czar, which was translated into English in 1880 and was quickly turned into a popular melodrama. What’s more, Popik has turned up an article in the Galveston News for December 17, 1882, that says as much. I hope Popik’s version is true, because I read Michael Stogoff as a boy and had nightmares for a week about being thrown to the wolves from a sled crossing the Siberian tundra. It is quite a novel, and is far better suited to be the source of Marfa’s name than the dense Brothers Karamazov.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk