Mystery Names…Decoding Airports and Towns

As you’ll remember from a post earlier in the week (or perhaps not…maybe you had big nights out on Friday and Saturday), Historicalness received two requests last week to detail the meanings behind some of those bizarre three-letter airport codes and one of the more colorful town names out there.

After days of extensive work performed by Historicalness’s top-notch research team, we’ve uncovered the following morsels.

Airport Codes

Not all airport codes are illogical.  No doubt it’s a source of infinite pride that New Yorkers can say that theirs actually make sense: “LGA” for LaGuardia Airport and “JFK” for John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Sadly, not every other part of the country can say the same.  LA’s code used to be “LA” and Phoenix’s used to be “PH”, but then the world got bigger and everyone moved to three-letter codes to allow for more combinations.  So they picked a random third letter — “X” — and slapped it to the end, leaving us with LAX” and “PHX”.

Some airports have three-letters that refer to prior names — and no one has gotten around to updating them.  So we have Chicago’s O’Hare as “ORD” after its name in the 1940’s of Orchard Field.  And we have New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong International Airport as “MSY” after “Moisant Stock Yards”, the site of aviator daredevil John Moisant’s 1910 fatal crash.

So if you’ve ever scratched your head about codes that seem to make no sense, you’re not crazy — but a little history will clarify the mystery.

Town Names

Historicalness was asked to track down the history behind the colorful name of “Intercourse, PA”.  We’ve had worse assignments.  The town of 1,500 in the heart of Amish Country (Harrison Ford’s Witness was filmed here) was founded in 1754, originally as Cross Keys.

Gotta see it to believe it

No one seems to know exactly how the town got its name, but theories range from the intersection of two main cross-state roads to the meaning of the term two centuries ago when it connoted the ideals of fellowship so important in the community.

If you’ve come across any other theories, please let us know!

Auld Lang Syne….eh?



Other than where it’s located and that I like its single malts, I know essentially nothing about Scotland.

So I was fired up when an old friend (who happens to be engaged to a Scot) suggested attending Euan Morton’s  “Songs of Scotland” concert at the Morgan Library, held last night in conjunction with the museum’s exhibit “Robert Burns and ‘Auld Lang Syne'”.  (By the way, for those of you in New York, if you didn’t already know it, the Morgan Library has great evening events — for more info, click here).

Euan — part brilliant singer, part aspiring comedian, and 100% gifted entertainer — mixed in bits of Scottish history through the evening, including poems and songs of Robert Burns.

For those of you who don’t know who Burns is (and I must admit I didn’t until last night), he’s Scotland’s master poet from the late 1700’s who also happened to write ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the song many of us associate with New Year’s eve (“should old acquaintance be forgot”, etc. which Euan got the entire theater singing together by the end of the evening).

Robert Burns -- the pride of Scotland!

In that context, it was with wide eyes that I came upon an article in the Times today called “Scots Begin Bid for Vote on Independence” which highlights the struggles between those seeking independence and those content as part of the UK (which is 60% of Scottish voters).

The Scottish Nationalist Party’s announcement today of its plan for a national referendum on independence was deliberate: today is the anniversary of Robert Burns’ birthday (1759).

What’s more, the Nationalists want “a referendum to be held in the fall of 2014 — the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.”

Tracing back to a battle which occurred so long ago the Renaissance had barely begun? I don’t even know where to begin with that one — it’s just awesome.

No ID, No Problem

Wow.  What a week.  In the history of, we’ve never had a week quite like it.

First, the Giants and Patriots both win in dramatic fashion to set up a rematch of the Super Bowl four years ago.  I know who I’m cheering for even if we don’t have David Tyree.

Second, we received not one, but two (!) requests from you, our great readers, for future posts — both were related to last week’s “naming” theme.  One, from an ol’  college roommate (and Pats fan) who expatriated from the east coast to a country far to the west called Los Angeles, was to detail the meanings behind some of those bizarre three-letter airport codes.  The second, from another fellow alum (football allegiance unknown), was to describe the meanings behind some of the more colorful town names out there, and in particular, Intercourse, PA.

We’ll tackle both of these requests this week.  And if you have a request of your own or a suggestion for a post, feel free to email me at matt [ at ] historicalness [ dot ] com.

But today I wanted to share a travel experience from this weekend which hopefully saves you from panicking next time you arrive at the airport only to realize you don’t have your driver’s license.

So it was that I found myself in the security line at Newark Airport without any photo ID.  I figured that they would automatically reject me from passing through.  But 45 minutes later, after getting to know 12 TSA agents, including bomb specialists who didn’t like the looks of my contact solution, I was waived on through to my gate.

More importantly, the process worked the same way getting home (actually, it was even easier — I didn’t have to deal with any extra security checks at all).  So I was back in NY to catch the Giants’ victory in its entirety.  What a week.

What’s In a Name #2? Top 10 Cities Worldwide Edition

Last time we looked at the meanings behind the names of the top 10 US cities.  I thought it would be interesting to do the same for the top 10 cities globally.

(Note: There are many lists that rank the largest cities, but who’s on the list and who falls where depends on whether suburbs/greater metro areas are included in the population counts.  For our purposes, we’re counting just the city proper.)

Top 10 Cities Worldwide

  1. Shanghai, China: named in the 11th century, it’s a combination of the Chinese characters “above” and “sea”.  Extra credit if you can write both the characters.
  2. Istanbul, Turkey:  derived from Greek meaning “in the city” or “to the city”.  The name has been around since the 10th century, and became the city’s official name in 1930 so foreigners would stop calling it Constantinople.
  3. Karachi, Pakistan: the city’s name is a distortion of the last name of a fisherwoman, Mai Kolachi, who headed the village there a long, long time ago.  Date unknown.
  4. Mumbai, India: named in 1995 (formerly Bombay), it’s a combination of “Mumba”, the name of a goddess, and “Aai”, meaning “mother”.
  5. Beijing, China: exact date of naming unclear, but the site has been settled for 3,000 years.  Name means “northern capital”.
  6. Moscow, Russia:  named in 12th century after the Moskva River
  7. Sao Paulo, Brazil:  named in 1554 after Saint Paul
  8. Guangzhou, China:  exact date of naming unclear, but the site has been settled for 2,500 years.  Name means “vast state”
  9. Delhi, India:  exact date of naming unclear, but the site has been settled for 2,500 years.  Meaning of “Delhi” has many possibilities, including after a King Dhillu and the Hindi word “dhili” or “loose”
  10. Seoul, South Korea:  named in 1945 after the Korean word for “capital city” (although the site has been settled for 2,000 years)

Two things I find interesting about the cities’ names are:

  • Some of them are old.  Really old.  Not geologic time old.  But still old enough that the derivation of their names is unclear or has multiple possibilities
  • In the US, the date a city was settled at scale (i.e. excluding indigenous populations) matches the date that it received the name we know today (or it’s pretty close…e.g. New York was only New Amsterdam for 50 years before it changed).  However, for these cities globally, the sites may have been settled at scale for centuries before they were renamed as the places we know them today.

If you have any insights, please feel free to email me at matt [ at ] historicalness [ dot] com.

What’s In a Name? Top 10 US Cities Edition

I had to be in Seattle last week for work, and there’s nothing like travel to make you curious about everyday things you usually ignore at home.  I got to wondering about the origins of the city’s name — turns out it was named in 1853 after Chief Seattle (actually spelled Si’ahl) who led tribes local to the area.

Here's Chief Seattle. I'm just impressed there's even a photo of him. Source: Wikipedia

This got me thinking about where the names of other US cities come from.  I’ll start with the top 10…Letterman-style…although I’m actually a Conan guy:

Top 10 Largest US Cities

  1. New York: named in 1664 after England’s Duke of York who went on to become King James II (England’s last Catholic king who had daughters Mary and Anne…Mary being the one who married William and together overthrew James, Anne being the one who succeeded them and was the final monarch in the House of Stuart).
  2. Los Angeles: named in 1781, derived from the original Spanish name for the town — in English, “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels” (“Queen of the Angels” being one of the Virgin Mary’s Roman Catholic titles)
  3. Chicago: named in 1679, derived from the Miami-Illinois (Native American) word for “wild onion” which is “shikaakwa”…sound it out-loud…it’s pretty cool
  4. Houston: named in 1876 after Sam Houston, a general and later President of Texas
  5. Philadelphia: named in 1682 after a city in what was Asia Minor (and is now in modern-day Turkey) whose name means “brotherly love” in Greek.  Now I know where the slogan comes from.
  6. Phoenix: named in 1865 after the mythical bird
  7. San Antonio: named in 1691 after Saint Anthony when Spanish explorers came upon the site on the feast day of “St. Anthony of Padua”
  8. San Diego: named in 1602 after Saint Didacus (aka San Diego de Alcala) by a Spanish explorer (also the name of the explorer’s ship)
  9. Dallas: named in 1844, unclear after whom as there are a handful of likely candidates with that last name
  10. San Jose: named in 1777, derived from the original Spanish name, “El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe” (“San Jose” or “Saint Joseph” being Jesus’ earth dad)

Two items I find interesting here:

  • Three of the top 10 cities got (and have maintained) the names that we know today as far back as the 1600s despite not being located on the east coast.  I guess the US really isn’t a Saul Steinberg cartoon.

  • There’s extensive diversity of language origin — above, we see names rooted in four languages: English, Spanish, Greek, and Miami-Illinois.  I wonder if any other country’s largest cities have as extensive a mix.

Next time I’ll do names for the largest cities globally.

Befuddled Puppy

Customer service matters in most competitive industries that I know (the cable companies’ government-sanctioned monopolies being the exception that proves the rule).  So it still surprises me that many traditional universities don’t get this.

The other week I was looking at some of the continuing education options at NYU (yes, history courses…but I was also considering stats and computer programming…launching this blog has done wonders for my interests!).  There’s terrific breadth to NYU’s offerings, all listed online. In fact, relative to other local universities like Columbia and the New School, NYU’s online continuing ed site is a breeze to navigate.

Problem is, there’s no resource I know of out there to understand how good any one course is at any university (if you know of any, please email me at matt [at] historicalness [dot] com).  There’s no detailed course syllabus….or student reviews of the professor…or student reviews of the course overall.  So how do you know what you’re getting for your money?

I called NYU, trying to get a sense at least for a detailed syllabus.  After three phone calls and two emails to the instructor, I still hadn’t gotten anything.  I was one befuddled puppy.

How about some love!

So instead I went looking for alternative resources and found some learning materials at and Khan Academy (both of which I’ve described in an earlier post).

Here’s the tale of the tape:

  • Price: $25 (for 1 month subscription to; Khan Academy is free) vs. at least $500-$1,000 for a university program (and much more if you’re taking it for credit)
  • Time to start: Immediate vs. Waiting for course to start (could be months as in my case)
  • Class schedule: When my schedule permits vs. Mandated evenings or weekends.

I certainly miss the class setting that a university program provides.  But for me the cost/benefit trade-off of the online sites more than compensated — and at the very least made the barrier to trying them negligible.

With an increasing number of university and non-university options out there, some institutions have figured out what good customer service looks like.  Many, however, are caught in the past.

Today’s Old School Political Strategy

Ahh, the budget deficit.

Not exactly the most riveting topic, but in terms of importance, it’s gotta be right up there.  (By the way, if you’re looking for an easily digestible primer on what’s going on, check out these two brief videos on Khan Academy: “Deficit and Debt Ceiling” and “Government’s Financial Condition“.)

Part of the frustration about all of this is that we find a Congress — and even special committees within Congress — unable to compromise on solutions, from cutting existing spending to changing existing revenue policies (i.e. taxes).

In that context, I was struck by this quote from Alexander Hamilton from 1790.  Here’s a founder who probably wouldn’t be that surprised by what’s occurring some two and a half centuries later:

 “Whoever considers the nature of our government with discernment will see that though obstacles and delays will frequently stand in the way of the adoption of good measures, yet when once adopted, they are likely to be stable and permanent.  It will be far more difficult to undo than to do.”

In other words, once a policy (cuts or revenue) is approved, it’s more than just enacted, it’s entrenched.  Due to our system of government, this is a highly effective political strategy.

It’s why spending one seems to go in one direction.  And why it’s so hard to get tax reform.

A Royal PR Move

I struggled to find a good pickle photo

History is chock full of monarchs who haven’t cared much about public opinion. But what to do when you’ve got a royal PR problem that you just have to take care of — the kind of issue that isn’t about some rogue prince doing something dense or a queen causing some minor embarrassment?  What do you do when your whole family is in a pickle?

Such was the predicament of England’s ruling House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (a German name) during World War I.

Victoria & not the most well coordinated photo I've ever seen

“How did British royalty get a German name?” you might ask.  Well, to help solidify strategic alliances between powers, European royalty often intermarried.  And so it was that Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840 (and that their children and grandchildren married extensively into royal families across the continent, earning Victoria the nickname ‘the grandmother of Europe’).  But since royal heirs take the surname of their father, Victoria was the last monarch in the House of Hanover when she died in 1901, and her kids inherited Prince Albert’s House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

A Gotha bomber...old school

At the time, this wasn’t a problem.  But then World War I happened. And with anti-German sentiment already high, King George V (Victoria and Albert’s grandson) really had a PR issue when the Germans began launching bombings of London using an aircraft called the Gotha G.IV in March 1917.  Add to that the abdication of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II (George’s first cousin you won’t be surprised to learn!), and the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha felt under enough threat to divest the surname and “all other German degrees, styles, titles, dignatories, honours and appelations”.

“Windsor” had a nice ring to it, so they switched to that.  And that is the House to which Queen Elizabeth II belongs.

So I think the lesson here is if you’ve ever got a PR issue, don’t panic– try rebranding the problem (if possible with a patriotic sounding name) and you should be all set.

A Toast to Muffins

I’ve always been a fan of nooks.  I’ve also always been a fan of crannies.  So imagine my delight when I was just a lad to come across a food so amazing that it had both.  For the uninitiated, feast your eyes on the goodness that be Thomas’ English Muffins (and the nooks and the crannies):

Makes me hungry just looking at ’em

Meandering through the neighborhood of Chelsea a few months ago, I came across a plaque fixed to a townhouse at 337 West 20th Street (between 9th and 10th Aves) that revealed I’d inadvertently stumbled upon morning muffin holy ground.

The plaque commemorates the location of what is now called the”Muffin House” (a duplex unit inside was recently listed for $1.1million…or ~950K muffins at today’s dollar/muffin exchange rate).

His mama would be proud

In the early 1890s, Muffin House served as the second of two bakeries run by Samuel Bath Thomas (his first bakery was around the corner at 163 Ninth Avenue) who, after arriving in 1874 from England with the dream of bringing his secret recipe to the masses, had quickly made that a reality. Yet although these muffins have been baked on domestic soil for well over a century, I’ve found no records that Sam ever considered amending their name.

Next time you’re in the area, whip out a TEM and toast where it all began.

New York’s Grid…Take 2

In’s last post for 2011 (see below), we highlighted the terrific exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York entitled “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011”.

Given the massive influence and readership of this blog, we don’t think it’s any surprise to see in today’s New York Times a favorable review of the same exhibit entitled “The Grid at 200: Lines That Shaped Manhattan“.  Sadly, no credit or attribution was assigned to us in the article.

The Times even used a photo that caught’s eye as we wandered through the gallery.

Looking a bit sparse...view south from Park Ave and 94th (circa 1882). Source: Museum of the City of New York

Coincidence?  We (prefer to) think not.