I was trying to plan a fishing trip the other day, with my official state map of Oklahoma spread before me on the table. There were more than enough streams and lakes. But the more I studied the map, the more I got distracted by all the place names and the mystery of how places are named in the first place.
Some must have been named after those who founded them. They seemed prouder of their first names: Hugo, Thomas, Tom, Albert, Erick, Graham, Oscar, and Jumbo. Bessie, Maud, Martha, Isabella, and Narcissa were staked out by the ladies. The founders of Smithville and Plunkettville wanted to include family, as did those of Jones, Grant, and Monroe. Gene Autry left nothing to chance. I have given all the thought I can spare to Frogville. It fits here as well as anywhere else.
Another load of Oklahoma place names are those meant to honor the ancestral stomping ground. Prague comes to mind, as do Piedmont, Panama, and Stroud. That Oklahoma has been taking in newcomers from the corners of the globe and for a considerable stretch of time, is apparent in the names of Delhi, Agra, and Bengal, also Miami, Disney, Albany, St. Louis, Arcadia, New Lima, Kremlin, and Troy. Why people will abandon one El Dorado to go off somewhere to build another will always be a mystery.
The third type of Oklahoma place name, which should have been mentioned first, are those that pay respect to the great Indian tribes and their chiefs who were the first to recognize Oklahoma as a good thing or were brought here by white men who had not yet figured it out. Their names are a distant and haunting music: Apache, Arapaho, Kiowa, Anadarko, Tupelo, Kaw, and Calumet.
Other Oklahoma names remind one of the Indian tradition of naming a babe for the first thing the mother sees after the big event. Some of the Eighty-Niners must have gotten the bug: Gray Horse, Snow, Rose, Sand Creek, Deer Creek, Fox, Bison, and Hunter. A good number of towns have been styled after the trees which were cut down to make room for them: Locust Grove, Elmwood, Ashland, and Red Oak.
All these local names have their charm and each makes a kind of sense to anyone who is sufficiently flexible. But, if you will picture in your mind’s eye the map of the State of Oklahoma and mentally erase the name of all the Indians and Chiefs, bankers, and real estate developers, as well as all the pastoral and woodland images, you will be left with a geography you didn’t expect. The names left on the map make no sense at all when read front first and right side up. Try these: Rubottom, Kenefic, Vanoss, Retrop, Zafra, Gans, Devol, Nicut, Vian, Porum, Copan, Foyil, Soper, Rexroat, Balko, Milfay. Let’s not forget Swink and Sugden. I have studied and I have asked around, but the origins of these peculiar place names were no clearer to me until I had a chance thought which brought the first faint shaft of light. I recall looking at my list of towns, thinking to myself they looked like the gibberish a Scrabble player makes while waiting his turn. I began to rearrange the spellings and found them to be anagrams! Gans, for example, can be unsnarled into Sang. Devol becomes Loved. I untangled Vian and was rewarded in Vain. I went to work on Reydon and was delighted to find Yonder. Idabel yielded Bailed. Eakly decoded to Leaky. Things were beginning to make sense!
At this point we must leave the firm ground of fact and enter the soggy fens of speculation. Who was responsible for scrambling the names of so many Oklahoma towns? It requires a leap of faith, but I am now convinced the job was done in some remote time and for some even more remote reason by heretofore unknown people I shall call the Anagram Indians. My suspicions were aroused when I first noticed that the town of Copan is an anagram for Ponca City, just up the road a piece. Just as I began to wonder if these could not be the sister cities from some long forgotten culture I was struck by the clincher which had escaped my eye. There they were, diagonally straddling this great state of ours, the twin capitols of the Anagram Nation, Altus and Tulsa.
If indeed the Anagrams once inhabited this place, all that the elbowing and shoving of history has left of their memory is a trace of their obvious love of humor and wordplay. I site the example of Soper. Or was it Poser? What about Sugden and Swink. Were they once just Nudges and Winks?