America’s 50 Countries
Our wildly varying place names are a living compendium of history.


All of this, of course, is before we get to the rich parade of designations that European settlers simply assumed from the indigenous population. It rarely crosses my mind that much of the country is labeled in a variety of ancient Native American dialects. That most American of musicals? Oklahoma! The state that has provided the most presidents? Ohio. Home of Elvis Presley? Tennessee. Around the world, teenagers singing along to popular music and watching movies have unconsciously thrilled to the romance of Indian place names that we mostly take for granted. Who sees My Own Private Idaho and thinks of Plains Apache? Who wonders about the origins of the appellation “Appalachian”?

As you go farther west, you find that things become rather prosaic, a testament to the difficulties of tagging such a vast space in a hurry. Big Creek, Twin Peaks, Little Rock, and so forth are hardly imaginative. But they were brutally necessary. The British-turned-American broadcaster Alistair Cooke (alas, no relation) points out in his masterpiece, America, that when the families back East wanted to know where their brethren had died, the settlers on the frontier were forced to name places that they would otherwise have just left in their wake.

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.

Searching for History, the divers pushed their heads under water and rushed toward the sands; meanwhile, a few feet in from the shoreline, history stands in abundance — in plain and unmistakable sight.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.