No other country on earth has such wildly varying place names and international influences as does the United States. America is named after a Portuguese-employed Florentine explorer who had almost no impact on its history at all; it operates under a constitution that was written by Englishmen in the Greek-named capital of a colony named in Latin; and the majority of places and people in what is now its most populous state were named during Spanish rule of what was then a neighboring country. It is a living patchwork quilt: California is largely Spanish; upstate New York is ancient Greek and Roman; most of Connecticut, although the state itself is possessed of an Indian name, is filled with names lifted straight from England — as is much of Virginia; Louisiana, obviously, is French, as is Vermont; Pennsylvania is Dutch and German. And then there are the host of odd names, micro-products of those who just happened to settle there. When my friend goes home to Bismarck, North Dakota, I don’t bat an eyelid; if someone lived in a town called Bismarck in England, I would be perplexed. Which other country boasts such a rich nomenclatural tradition?
In an astonishingly short period of time, America has played host to some markedly different civilizations, while carrying out its vast expansion into the frontier. As my colleague Kevin Williamson likes to point out, those who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony were as different from, say, those who populated Texas as Victorian Britons were from 17th-century Germans. What has allowed these divergent strains to flourish together is the backbone of classical liberalism, which seeks to provide the structure without informing the nature of the flesh.
I thought of all this as I stood in Pensacola. I was a few miles away from a sunken aircraft carrier that was named after an Iroquois town in which the British and Indians fought the American rebels; and I was looking up at French balconies that stand next to a Spanish-inspired theater and above a restaurant serving German hamburgers from a menu written in English. I thought, too, of the Austinites’ much-publicized desire to “Keep Austin Weird.” Sure, let’s keep Austin weird. But that seems a petty and parochial aim. Homogeneity being the virtue of the banal, let’s keep everywhere else weird, too.