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Geographer explores place names that offend

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame, By Mark Monmonier, University of Chicago, 215 pp, $25

In the federal Board of Geographic Names Information System , there is the curious entry in Maine's Piscataquis County -- ``Moose Bosom."

``Huh?" you might ask. What's a ``Moose Bosom?" Well, geographically speaking, it's a 3,048-foot double peak about six miles west, and a bit north, of Mount Katadin that used to be called ``Squaw Bosom" before ``squaw" place names -- of which Piscataquis County had some 14 -- were wiped out in the interest of eliminating offensive names.

Such renamings don't just happen, writes Syracuse University geographer Mark Monmonier in an entertaining and enlightening excursion, ``From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow."

The process can be as simple as a city council resolution turning an intersection into a commemorative square -- or, as often happens in Cambridge, into several squares -- or as deliberative as a decision by the Board of Geographic Names.

But whatever the process, and however contentious, Monmonier writes, ``how a nation manipulates and preserves its place and feature names says a lot about its respect for history, minority rights and indigenous culture."

Take the matter of ``squaw" which, Monmonier writes, has become ``the thorniest issue in applied toponymy" -- the study of place names -- with Native Americans arguing that rather than just ``a rude term" for woman, it was ``a hate word" connoting whore or vagina.

But it is not as simple a matter as erasing the offensive name. There must be an acceptable substitute.

The federal board initially balked at a blanket renaming of Piscataquis's squaws to mooses. Maine, after all, does not lack for moose, on the hoof or on the map. But from 2004, the changes, including Moose Bosom, have been accepted, leaving only Little Squaw Mountain still standing.

The war in Iraq provided an intriguing solution to a ``squaw" quandary in Arizona where the search for an acceptable alternative to Squaw Peak near Phoenix had been ``hopelessly stalled" for a number of years -- local lore, incidentally, maintains that its earlier, even more offensive, name was Squaw Tit, one of at least a dozen similar names, all in western states.

In the death of Private First Class Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi tribe, in March 2003, the first Native American female soldier to die in combat, Monmonier writes, Governor Janet Napolitano ``saw an opportunity" to solve the problem. At her insistence, the state's naming board accepted Piestewa Peak, although not without some dissention. Federal consideration, however, will require a five-year waiting period.

Readers who may want to investigate such matters for themselves can Google GNIS for the Geographic Names Information System's database. They'll find, for example, seven squaw places listed in Massachusetts, including Squaw Peak in the Berkshires, Squaw Rock off Quincy, and Squawbetty Hill in Taunton. And they'll find Whorehouse Meadow, a bit of bawdy toponymy in Oregon's Harney County.

In addition to the unresolved matters involving ``squaw" names, Monmonier writes that ``I'll not be surprised if advocates for people with disabilities start challenging" the Cripple Creeks -- 81 listed on the GNIS, only one in New England, a Cripple Brush Creek in Vermont's Franklin County .

But because ``disputes over renaming are as much about control as they are over decency, prudery, aesthetics, or compassion," particularly local control, Monmonier writes, stay tuned for ``vigorous resistance" from residents content with their own Cripple Creek.

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