From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrow: Unusual Kentucky Place-Names

From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrow: Unusual Kentucky Place-Names

Nicolaisen, W F H

From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrow: Unusual Kentucky Place-Names. By Robert M. Rennick. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Pp. ix + 80, introduction, map, illustrations by Linda Boileau, list of sources, bibliography, index.)

W.F.H. NICOLAISEN

University of Aberdeen, Scotland

There is a small, but active, band of scholars whose interest in the study of place-names is matched by their expertise in ethnological research, especially in folk narrative. Names like Francis Lee Utley, Kelsie R. Harder, and Ronald Baker come to mind. Presumably it is primarily their practical involvement in the collection of items transmitted through oral tradition and their realization that the people who give and use names are the same people who tell and listen to stories that lead to an engagement in these twin pursuits: onomastics and folkloristics. Robert Rennick is an additional example of someone whose scholarship straddles both these intellectual endeavors. In 1984, the University Press of Kentucky published his definitive dictionary Kentucky Place Names (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984), which was intended to be part of a series of volumes planned by the American Name Society to cover the place-names of the United States, state by state, a project that unfortunately has never come to fruition. Now the same publishers have given us Rennick’s account of “unusual Kentucky place-names,” as the subtitle of the book under review indicates.

The difference between the academic sobriety of the title of the 1984 volume and the humorous, eye-catching quality of its 1997 successor points up nicely the difference in both content and treatment of the subject matter. Without Rennick’s previous publication, which persuasively establishes his credentials as a serious name scholar, the more recent and much slimmer volume might well have been regarded as yet another attempt at pandering to public demand by selecting a corpus of names that draws attention to and exploits the quaint and the curious in our place nomenclatures and which overemphasizes their ludic aspects. This is, however, not the case with Rennick’s collection, and, although a twinkle in the eye and a wry smile are not inappropriate reactions to certain stories attached to some of the names and to their popularly suggested origins, there is no reason why From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrowshould not be taken as seriously as Kentucky Place Names.

In his new publication, Rennick directly discusses just over sixty names and indirectly several more. As is to be expected, many of these are also to be found in Kentucky Place Names, and it might be profitable to glance briefly at their contrasting treatment in the two volumes. In general, it is probably correct to say that, though the author discusses “folk accounts,” “inspired legends,” “local tradition,” and the like, the origins of names are usually referred to in summarized form in Kentucky Place Names, within a framework of factual information. In From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrow he concentrates on the narratives themselves in the shape of his own retellings of versions recorded from oral tradition.

Here is a typical example of this contrast in presentation (with reference to the name Rabbit Hash). The Kentucky Place Names entry in 1984 contains the following account:

The story is told that in 1816 [two] travelers proceeding in opposite directions met at Rising Sun. One asked the other if he could get anything to eat at Meek’s Ferry Landing on the Kentucky shore. The other said “Yes, plenty of rabbit hash.” The river was receding from flood stage and rabbits by the thousands had been driven to the hillsideswhere they were killed for food.. . . [p. 246]

In From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrow, the narrative goes like this:

Two travelers met at the Ohio River town of Rising Sun. One was going to cross there into Kentucky and, having learned that the other had just come off the ferry, asked about the accommodations at Meek’s Landing. “They’re all right,” said the other, “if you like rabbit hash. There’s plenty of that at Meek’s table.”

The river had been at high tide for many days, and only the day before the water level had begun to recede. Thousands of rabbits had been driven to the hillsides by high water, and Meek set his men to hunting them down to replenish his pantry.

As the traveler indeed discovered when he crossed the river and boarded at Meek’s tavern, rabbit hash was the order of the day–and of the week, and the month. It was so plentiful, in fact, that after a year Meek’s guests were still being served healthy helpings of rabbit hash-for breakfast, dinner, and supper. It was used for midnight snacks, as appetizers, even as feed for the live-stock, and in picnic baskets for lovers.

Rabbit hash-people got plain sick and tired of it. It seemed it just couldn’t be used up. Travelers were asked to take some with them when they continued on their trips. Many an empty stomach was filled when ample portions of rabbit hash arrived at distant places courtesy of the generous humanitarians at Meek’s Landing. This Boone County town on the Ohio River is still called Rabbit Hash. [p. 34]

Narrative attempts at explaining the origins of place-names are, of course, among the most popular of short folk narratives. Additional examples can be found, among others, in From Red Hot to Monkey’s Eyebrow under the entries for Tearcoat (p. 8), Red Hot (pp. 23-24), Lickskillet (p. 33), Torchlight (pp. 26-27), and Decoy (pp. 47-48). The tale concerning Rabbit Hash, just quoted, belongs to a particularly common subcategory of such stories, insofar as names are said to derive from something someone has said. In Rennick’s collection, the entries for Monkey’s Eyebrow (pp. 39-40), Whynot (p. 51), Ono (p. 51), Allagre (p. 52), Stop (p. 57), and Uno (p. 57), as well as some others, are further instances ofsuch derivations that, in reality, never occur even among the very small group of names that can actually be shown to have arisen as the result of some incident or other. On the other hand, they should not be dismissed by name scholars as “mere folk etymologies,” for they may well have been instrumental in the shaping of the modern forms through their secondary reinterpretation of names that had become meaningless; they are, of course, ready grist to the folklorist’s mill. Rennick is well aware of all this, and his 1997 publication is therefore more than just a spinoff of his 1984 place-name dictionary.

It is perhaps also worth noting that practically all the names in question refer to minor features in the landscape or to very small settlements, which may no longer exist. Many of them have lost their post offices, the establishment ofwhich created the need for unique, identifying names in the first place. In principle, Rennick’s discussion of “unusual names” proves that, as is the case with “usual” names (whatever they may be), any sequence of pronounceable sounds can function as a name, whether transparent or opaque, colorful or bland. It also serves as a reminder that the people who give names and use them not only also tell stories but in particular also tell stories about names-and that consequently each name has its own story to tell, if we are able to hear it and prepared to listen to it.

Copyright American Folklore Society, Inc. Fall 1999

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