WOULD YOU BELIEVE THAT WACO is so called because the word is an anagram of “a cow”? That McAllen was named for a brand of scotch? That “Dumas” is a sanitized version of “Dumbass”?
You wouldn’t? Good, because I made all that up. Making things up is an old Texas tradition—euphemistically termed “folklore”—and the etymology of town names is particularly subject to embellishment. Since the state currently has more than four thousand cities and communities, and thousands more are long gone, there are plenty of true name-origin tales to tell, even more damn lies, and some stories that blend fact and fiction.
Texas towns range from Happy to Loco, from Sweetwater to Sour Lake, from Early to Goodnight, but the stories behind the names vary wildly, depending on whom you ask, what you read, and how you translate foreign lingo. There are famously wacky anecdotes, like the stories behind “Old Dime Box” (residents once paid 10 cents a week for postal service) and “Bug Tussle” (a swarm of insects ruined a church picnic, according to one tale). Less well-known towns have equally weird stories, like Lickskillet, so dubbed because a cook there was famed for making good gravy, and Frognot, where, some say, a schoolmaster forbade his pupils to bring their pet amphibians to class. Even fairly prosaic names have inspired silly speculation. Historians assert that Galveston was named for Bernardo de Gálvez, an eighteenth-century viceroy of Mexico, but no less an authority than J. Frank Dobie, Texas folklorist extraordinaire, relates an alternate explanation: that the seaside city was the site of early beauty contests, so it became known as “Gal-with-a-vest-on.”
It’s easy to understand where certain town names came from: “College Station” and “Fort Worth,” for example. Regional attributes were common inspirations, as in the case of Big Spring and Surfside. There are obvious reasons for calling a Texas town “Mesquite” or “Cactus,” and you have to appreciate the honesty of “Levelland” and “Plainview.” Agriculture and industry sometimes played a part: Orange got its name because of a nearby citrus grove, Cotton Center because it was one. Other names were more hopeful than accurate, such as