There was a bridge in Connecticut called the Bridge Street Bridge. I was almost certain of it. But sometimes I remember events that never happened, things that never existed, and conversations that never took place. So I did an online search just to make sure. Not only is the bridge really there, but I was surprised to learn there are bridges with that same name in at least three other states.
This bothered me a little, I guess because Americans have never lacked imagination, especially when it comes to naming places. There are towns in the United States like Slicklizzard, Alabama. Talking Rock, Georgia. Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky.
I understand that what we decide to call things can be a complicated process, and I often wonder how an agreement is ever reached. In the case of the bridge, I imagine there was a meeting. When the subject of the unnamed span came up, it led to a flurry of insightful and creative ideas.
“You know, we haven’t even named the road that leads to the bridge yet.”
“Well, the road has a bridge at the end of it. Why don’t we call it Bridge Street?”
“That’s perfect! And if the bridge is on Bridge Street, maybe we should just name it the Bridge Street Bridge.”
Technically and for the sake of accuracy, the road should have then been renamed Bridge Street Bridge Boulevard, or something. If I were ever invited to one of those meetings, I would push hard for that. And if the Bridge Naming Committee decided to adopt my suggestion, I would then recommend revising the name of the bridge to Bridge Street Bridge Boulevard Bridge. But first I would go into the sign business.
Whenever I look at a globe or an atlas, I wonder how some of those places got named. I mean, if deciding what to call an obscure bridge is difficult, what about really big things? Who named the Dzhugdzhur Mountains in Russia, and how long did it take to settle on the correct spelling? What about the Alps? Were they in a hurry with that one? Was the atlas going to press and they had to come up with something right away? Or maybe the map was really jammed with names and that’s all they had room for. There must have been millions of people living on all sides of those mountains. They couldn’t have all called them by the same name. Who decided? How many meetings did they have? And in what language?
According to my sixth-grade history teacher, an explorer named Vasco Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, and named it. That’s a big ocean. Did it really not have a name until Balboa got there? How did it go undiscovered for so long? There were plenty of people in China and the Philippines and eastern Australia and Hawaii. Did no one notice this big body of water nearby? And if they did, why didn’t anyone think to give it a name? I bet they must have, and a lot of people probably resented this guy Balboa showing up in his fancy helmet and deciding to call it the Pacific. Not much later, Balboa was put on trial, convicted, and decapitated. The history books say his crime was treason, but really, I think he was executed for being too pushy. Before he tried to name the ocean, he should have had a meeting and at least made an attempt to listen to other suggestions. Probably if he had called it the Ocean of Many Equally Valid and Lovely Names, he might have kept his head, and his helmet. (By the way, don’t confuse Vasco Balboa with Rocky Balboa. Both were explorers, but Rocky’s claim to fame was his discovery that if you’re a boxer and you let your opponent punch you in the head hundreds of times, he will eventually get tired and you can beat him, even though your face is purple and bloated and your eyes have fallen out.)
What about the very big places? Who named the Earth? Was there a list of some sort that people voted on? Was Earth really the best they could come up with? I’d hate to see what kinds of pathetic names they rejected. “Earth” seems like the sound you might make when you swallow wrong. Maybe the world’s top cartographers were all at the meeting and when they asked the head guy what they should call the planet, he started to choke on his apple danish and they just misunderstood.
My earliest curiosity about how certain decisions get made occurred when I noticed that plain M&Ms came in a variety of colors, including tan. Peanut M&Ms came in the same variety, except for tan. How many meetings must there have been to make that decision? What were the arguments, for and against tan? Then in 1976, red M&Ms disappeared and were replaced by orange because some people thought red dye number 2 was unhealthy. I’m not sure who these people were, but apparently the green, yellow, brown, and orange dyes seemed nutritious to them. In 1995, blue M&Ms were introduced and tan was discontinued. If I had one chance to travel back in time, I would go straight to that meeting and tell them they had lost their minds. Really? Blue?
While I was traveling in the past, I would also go to the childhood home of the woman who invented speed bumps, and I would assassinate her. Or at least yell at her a lot. (It had to be a woman, by the way. No man would have ever come up with a crazy idea like that, especially one that involved slowing down.)
And what about milk? As far as I know, all mammals produce milk. Yet somehow cow’s milk is the default. How did that happen? When exactly did we vote? Any other milk is identified by the animal that produced it: goat’s milk, horse’s milk, giraffe’s milk. I don’t know anyone who would drink giraffe’s milk. Suggest the milk of any other animal to someone you know and watch the face they make. We don’t even drink human milk once we’re old enough to read labels. And speaking of labels, I bet if you put the words Cow Milk on the carton, we’d think twice about drinking that. Unless, of course, we happened to live in Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky.