2006 Philadelphia Annual Meeting (22–25 October 2006)

Paper No. 9
Presentation Time: 10:35 AM


WEDDLE, Thomas K., Maine Geol Survey, 22 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0022, thomas.k.weddle@maine.gov

Most students in introductory geology class hear the term monadnock, defined as an upstanding rock, hill, or mountain rising conspicuously above the general level of the surrounding landscape. The type locality is Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire; the Monadnock State Park website identifies the word as an Abenaki term meaning 'mountain that stands alone.' Other sources interpret it to mean 'at the mountain which sticks up like an island', or 'at the most prominent mountain.' Alternatively, the Western Abenaki Dictionary by Gordon M. Day, defines it as a 'smooth mountain' and provides the locative spelling 'menonadenak.' Here we encounter one of the pitfalls of interpreting place names in New England, in particular those names given to areas or places by the people who were living here before the European arrival. There are many Algonquian language-based words for mountains, rivers, and communities in Maine. The names were given to specific locations for their geographical characteristics and their importance to the Indian people. However, many of the names used by the Colonists do not apply in the same way as the original speakers intended them. To quote Day:

"Let us admit at the outset that Indian place-names are fun. They combine the romance of history, real or spurious, with the challenge of a detective story. And this is part of the trouble. Indian place-names seem to have had a greater attraction for the untrained than for the competent students of ethnolinguistics and ethnohistory. As a result we have all too many examples - both amusing and exasperating - of names which have been enthusiastically analyzed by the following procedure: (1) assuming that the name as spelled on a modern map and pronounced by the analyst himself is just what the Indian said: (2) segmenting the name in any way which seemed most convenient: (3) assigning a meaning to the... words from dictionaries of an Indian language in the same region, assuming that it is the same as the language of the place-name: and, (4) having ignored the Indian grammar altogether, rearranging the bits of English meaning into a grammatical phrase."

Having been forewarned, let us plunge headlong into a geological detective story. Day's definition of monadnock is not quite the same as the geological definition. Let's look at some of the place-names in Maine and see how they fit with their landscape, bearing in mind Dr. Day's four points.