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Onion or skunk?

Updated: May 19, 2022

The year was 1191 when Berchtold V, Duke of Zahringen, decided to cut down the oak

forest on a kind of peninsula formed by the river Aar (along with the Po, the river most

often found in crosswords) to found a city. A city that had to be given a name, and to do

so he commissioned the hunters of the area to return with the first prey they got, because

that would be the name of the city. They soon returned with a rabbit, but Berchtold did

not like the name and gave them a second chance: the hunters returned with a brown

bear and the town was renamed Berne.

Examples of cities named after animals are not that unusual. We have Los Gatos (the

Cats) in California, Joutsend in Finland (meaning swan) or Astakos on the coast of

Aitoloakarmania in Greece (an "astakos" is a lobster).

And, of course, names like Lyon come to mind. But no. Although the city's coat of arms is

depicted with a lion, the origin is different. The name comes from an important Celtic

deity, Lugus, which the Romans adopted for Mercury / Hermes. We will talk about Lugus

and Celtic deities one day.

After the fiasco of Lyon we go to León, in Spain, a city, an autonomous community and

even a kingdom, the Kingdom of León. But then again, the name of the city does not

come from the feline. It turns out that in Roman times the Legio VII Gemina was

established there and from the word Legion derived the name Leon.

To find the real king of the jungle we have to go to Singapore, whose name comes from

the Malay Singapura and in turn from the Sanskrit Simha (lion) Pura (city). We cannot

avoid going to the Lion King, where the main characters are Mufasa ("king" in Swahili) and

Simba ("lion" in Swahili). That is, in Swahili the film would be called Mufasa Simba.

Another city that seems very obvious in this sense is Buffalo, in the state of New York and

close to Niagara Falls ("thunder of water" in Iroquois). But then again, there have never

been bison in Buffalo. Bison are American and buffalos are African, but that's not the

point. The point is that the French called that area "beautiful river", i.e. "beau fleve", and

apparently that's where Buffalo came from because of an inaccurate pronunciation.

And there is still another possibility when it comes to cities and their nominal origin: the

double choice: animal or plant, or in other words, skunk or onion? The name of the city in

the Algonquin language was "Shikaakwa", which became today's Chicago. And shikaakwa

means "striped skunk" or "onion". The truth is that early explorers found large quantities of

a kind of wild onion (which is actually a type of garlic) in the lakes and streams of the area;

stinky plants, they said, that were likened to the "scent" of skunks. The plant theory, then,

seems to trump the animal theory as the origin of the name. Not surprisingly, another

nickname for Chigago is "The Big Onion" as opposed to New York's Big Apple.

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