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 “Eden” and “Eldorado,” elegant choices for scrubby little towns in West Texas, and some were intentionally ironic, such as “Zephyr,” in windy Brown County, chosen by a group of surveyors who got caught in a blue norther.
Inevitably, lots of Texas settlements paid homage to their founder’s hometown. Some borrowed the names of established American cities, like Detroit and Atlanta; other places, particularly ones settled by immigrants, borrowed those of foreign metropolises: Paris, Dublin, Odessa, Athens. And, as befits a rootin’, tootin’ state, Texas has no shortage of town names worthy of a John Wayne western: “Gun Barrel City,” “Point Blank,” “Spur.” Most frequently, though, towns were named after pioneers and statesmen. The state capital, as even non-Texans know, is named for the Father of Texas, “Stone Cold” Stephen F. Austin. Alamo heroes gave the towns of Crockett, Bowie, and Bonham their names. Some choices were less successful: In 1920, for instance, a now-defunct community in Atascosa County adopted the surname of resident Alec Dobrowolski, which didn’t exactly roll trippingly off the tongue. (“Dobro” might have worked, though.)
Sometimes the story behind a town name was so boring that natives embroidered it a bit. In the late nineteenth century Judge Roy Bean, who styled himself the “Law West of the Pecos,” was the resident potentate and curmudgeon in tiny Langtry, which lies along the Rio Grande in Val Verde County. Bean boasted that he had named the town after the woman he most admired, English actress Lillie Langtry. Certainly he named the Jersey Lilly, his combination saloon and courthouse, after her (misspelling her name in the process), but in fact the town itself was named after an early railroad engineer, George Langtry, before Bean arrived. Of course, adoration of a sexy redhead makes a far better tale.
Other women, pretty or not, graciously donated their names to dozens of other Texas towns. Electra was named for ranching heiress Electra Waggoner and Lolita for Lolita Reese, a great-granddaughter of a San Jacinto veteran (in the fifties locals debated ditching the name because of the scandalous Vladimir Nabokov novel). According to a popular post-war story, a motel in the Hill Country burg of Comfort invoked the names of two others towns to create a risqué billboard that urged “Sleep in Comfort between Alice and Sonora.” Many names sound endearingly dorky to modern ears, such as “Daisetta” and “Maypearl,” both of which are blended names to honor two women at once.
That type of word melding was always popular. The West Texas town of Iraan combined the first names of ranchers Ira and Ann Yates. Similarly, “Dalhart,” in the northwest corner of the Panhandle, was created from the names of the two counties the town straddles, Dallam and Hartley, and Texarkana’s name reflects the two states it belongs to. I’m particularly enamored of this naming style; think of the possibilities. A town between Loving and Winkler counties could be “Lovewink” and between Washington and Brazos counties, “Washbra.” Other types of wordplay also inspired town names. Acronyms were popular—”Weslaco” came from “W. E. Stewart Land Company.” And the occasional odd-duck town founder opted simply to spell a name backward; hence there are Texas towns called Notla and Reklaw. (Dallas could have been “Sallad”!)
Spanish inspired tons of Texas town names, with “San Antonio” being perhaps the best known. In 1691 the original village and the river were both named on June 13, Saint Anthony of Padua’s feast day. Saint Tony was an all-around Catholic hero, serving as the patron saint of, among other groups, paupers, swineherds, American Indians, expectant mothers, and seekers of lost articles. “Amarillo,” which in Spanish means “yellow,” supposedly refers to the color of the local mud. (One questionable source says the “yellow” was because the locals were cowards, but I know folks in Amarillo, and believe me, you don’t want to mess with them.) Español was often spelled correctly but pronounced horribly. The coastal community of Palacios got its name from the Spanish word for “palaces,” perhaps because of the castlelike outlines of shipwrecks along the shore. But Texas-speak mutated those melodious syllables into the god-awful “Puh-lash-us.”
Spanish wasn’t the only language white settlers borrowed from. Dozens of Indian dialects gave them lots of ideas for town names and lots more pronunciation and spelling challenges. A classic is “Waxahachie” (“Wocks-a-hatch-ee”), which some sources claim means “cow creek” but others say translates as “buffalo droppings.” An old joke goes that a state trooper stops a speeder on Interstate 35 near the Ellis County town, and while writing out the ticket asks his partner, “How do you spell ‘Waxahachie’?” The other trooper replies, “I don’t know—let him go, and we’ll stop him again in Waco.”
Miami also got its name from an Indian language; it was either the name of a specific tribe or the word for “sweetheart.” The little Panhandle burg is near my hometown of Pampa (whose name is Spanish for “prairie”). To this day, when people ask me where I’m from and I reply “Pampa,” half the time they’ll say, “Tampa, Florida?” I always say, “Well, it’s near Miami.” (Up there it’s pronounced “My-am-uh.”) But the linguistic influences of many town names aren’t always what they seem, in part because Texas early on boasted many ethnic groups. Thus “Nada,” the name of a town in Colorado County, doesn’t mean “nothing,” as it does in Spanish, but is adapted from a Czech word meaning “hope.” And Quitaque (“Kitty-kway”), in the southern Panhandle, was named by cowman Charles Goodnight, who thought it was an Indian word for “end of the trail.” I’d rather believe the name comes from Spanish, because then it would mean, roughly, “Remove what?”
Yet another strange tongue affected Texas towns: federalese. Thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, many places ended up with names considerably different from the ones they wanted. One post-office goof changed the proposed name of “Good Earth” to simply “Earth,” which still inspires travelers passing through Lamb County to stop for a photo op at the city-limits signs. Best of all is the oxymoronic Nameless, in Travis County, where local lore has it that after the P.O. rejected six suggestions for the community’s name, p.o.-ed residents wrote back, saying, “Then let the post office be nameless, and be damned!”
Nameless was named in 1880, when most town names tended to be serious and highfalutin. Noble ideals and patriotic references were popular, like “Liberty” and “Jefferson.” Marfa was named for a character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and there’s an Ivanhoe and a Tennyson (but no hamlet called Shakespeare). Lowbrow interests gave us town names that are much more fun. Diddy Waw Diddy (officially Juliff) was named for a song; Mutt and Jeff because two leading businessmen—one short, one tall—resembled the characters in a popular comic strip; Jot ‘Em Down after a country store that was the setting of a twenties radio show; and Tarzan for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional ape-man.
Because of Texas’ sheer size, hundreds of towns inevitably ended up with curious appellations that are flat-out funny (or hard to resist making fun of). I long had family living in Munday, a fact that allowed me to torment co-workers by informing them, “I’m going to Munday Sunday and I’m leaving Munday Tuesday.” The town of Magnet has not proved that attractive to new residents, and the village of Fate was obviously meant to be. There is no longer a Zulch, just a North Zulch, and West, Texas, isn’t in West Texas. If you want to keep playing the name game, you can move on from towns to mountains, creeks, and other landmarks. But if you’ve had enough, you may want to holler at a certain columnist a name shared by three West Texas canyons: Shutup.