Sunday, August 27, 2023

It’s debatable: Offensive place names

a stream on a cloudy day

This brook near Bloomingdale was recently renamed to John Thomas Brook, for a 19th century Black settler. Photo by Mike Lynch

Editor’s note: This commentary is in the July/August 2023 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine, as part of our “It’s Debatable” feature. In this regular column, we invite organizations and/or individuals to address a particular issue. Click here to subscribe to the magazine, available in both print and digital formats:

The question: Should place names that offend disappear?

Don’t change history

Let us begin with a stout truism: To change a place name is to change history, and there are few things more offensive than that. You see, in New York State alone there have already been many instances of people uneducated in the field of onomastics (the study of origins and forms of words) demanding supposed “offensive” place names be changed. Problem is, seldom do these people take the time to learn the stories behind the names and learn what words mean. They are fueled by emotion instead of intellect, and as a therapist I assure you that is not a good way to go through life. Five quick examples demonstrate the irrational demands of the supposed “offended.”

The most popular target is the word “squaw,” which means “an American Indian woman” and is entirely inoffensive to anyone familiar with its pedigree. Another is “cripple,” which in the world of place names refers to the difficulty of traversing certain terrain and has nothing to do with people with disabilities. Another is “Wappinger.” This case involved a state employee demanding annihilation of this name because the first syllable is pronounced “wop” and sounds like the old-time derogatory term for Italians. It’s the name of an Indian tribe. Another is “Fishkill.” This case involved People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) insisting removal of all “kills” because the word “suggests cruelty.” It’s Dutch for “stream.” My, for lack of a better word, favorite case took place outside The Empire State and involved three schools named “Lynch” within Portland’s Centennial School District. This name, which has never had anything to do with lynching human beings, honored the benevolent Lynch family that donated land for construction of public places more than a century earlier. Talk about no good deed going unpunished.

As a historian I find this fad deeply troubling, and in my books I’ve warned of people unfamiliar with onomastics running amok, beheading innocent place names with their broadswords that were cast in ignorance, sharpened with combativeness. If they demand place names that only honor people who never sinned, and if they demand place names that pacify everyone and all future generations, the only solution will be erasure of every place name in existence. Yet there’s an immeasurably better alternative. That is, the easily offended educate themselves and not attempt to change history.

Erik Schlimmer, Adirondack native and the author of books about New York place name history, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Reasons to change offensive names

Some argue that landmark names are an important part of our history and should be preserved, even if they are offensive to some community members. Others—myself included—argue that when names represent values that are no longer acceptable, they can and should be changed to reflect our current values. All the names we use today replaced names used by past generations of Indigenous Adirondackers. There are at least four reasons to change historic landmark names that are offensive:

1. These labels often represent values that are no longer acceptable in our society. By changing them, we send a message to future generations that we do not condone these values.

2. Such names can be hurtful to communities. Words can stir up intergenerational trauma and perpetuate feelings of exclusion and oppression for members of our community. By changing a name that hurts them, we show we are committed to creating a more inclusive and welcoming society for all.

3. Changing place names provides an opportunity to educate people about our complex history and culture. By explaining why a landmark name has changed, we can help people understand the historical context of the values that were once prevalent and how and why our values have evolved. The process can lead to greater understanding of different perspectives, experiences and histories and greater empathy among different communities.

4. Changing historic names provides an opportunity to celebrate our progress as a society while acknowledging that certain values once acceptable are no longer. This shows we are creating a more just and equitable society. This can be a powerful message of hope for future generations and signal that we are continuously striving to become more understanding and welcoming of all who call our region home.

It is also important to note that changing landmark names does not mean we are erasing history. As Paul Smith’s College Professor Curt Stager eloquently stated after the renaming of John Thomas Brook: “We are not erasing history but unearthing history that was erased.” This means acknowledging the full scope of our history, including the values and beliefs that were once prevalent.

By making these changes, we create a more accurate and nuanced understanding of our past. Changing offensive landmark names is an important and necessary step in creating a more inclusive and equitable society. It shows that we care about marginalized communities, and we create an opportunity to educate.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher, director Adirondack Diversity Initiative, Saranac Lake

Editor’s Note: Since the discussion here is of offensive names being changed, we have edited uses of the N-word in comments on this post rather than deleting them entirely to follow the Adirondack Almanack’s commenting policy “Comments containing language or concepts that could be deemed offensive will be deleted. Note this may include abusive, threatening, racist, pornographic, offensive, misleading or libelous language.”

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at


30 Responses

  1. Zachary Denton says:

    Love the points made in the first article. We should seek to understand named places rather than allow a single word to inspire some kind of positive or negative emotion. Seek knowledge first, and let emotions subside. Usually the truth becomes clearer. No more name changes on the basis of fraudy inclusion, that inherently unincludes the original individuals, even if not originally derogatory.

  2. Peter Odell says:

    so, I read the article by guest contributor. What was offensive about the name of the brook before and for what reason is it changed to the name of an early black settler in the area. Seems you should call it Pander Brook. Some of you do gooders are so full of what makes you feel good but in reality has no merit. Just sayin !

    • Joan Grabe says:

      I think it was called “n*—-” brook. Do you really want to argue against changing the name ?

      • JohnL says:

        I almost never think names should be changed Joan, but in this case this name is so blatantly offensive that I agree that it should have been changed. However, and this is a big however, just changing a name doesn’t change people. This is still America and people can say any kind of dumb, offensive thing they want. Example: As Peter says below, he’ll still call it the name he’s always known. But, again, since it’s still America, he may find himself on his rear end if he calls it that name in front of the wrong person. And rightly so.

        • Balian the Cat says:

          JohnL, for what it’s worth, I felt compelled to write that I could not agree more with or have said better what you write here. Thanks for it.

  3. Peter says:

    A very small percentage of people take offense to things like this, usually outspoken liberals. I do not.
    I fished N*—- Brook 50 years ago and will always call it by the name I learned.
    Also, there’s a lot of recent mispronunciation of historic names. As just one example, and again I learned this 50 years ago, Boreas River is pronounced “ Boris”, not “ boreous”.

  4. Scott Ireland says:

    I’m happy for Eric Schlimmer that he feels John Thomas Brook should have remained with the name “Ni***r Brook”, and that those who wanted it changed are ‘easily offended’ and uneducated about history.

  5. Naj Wikoff says:

    N*—- had a pejorative meaning then when the brook was named, and remains so today; same is true for the word squaw, which is how colonizers used the word, though its based on the Algonquiin word squa meaning an unmarried or younger woman. Thus continuing them forward, shows a lack of disrespect for Black and Native Americans, to our fellow New Yorkers, some of the residents of the region, as well as visitors of the region. Imagine visiting another country or region of the US that used pejorative used about whites to describe ski centers, brooks, lakes etc, words such such as Sheep Shagger, Porrage Wog, Dago, Cracker, Honky or Peckerwood; all historic.

  6. Sandra Weber says:

    Several commentors seem to have missed an important point — the old name was officially changed to Negro Brook in 1963. Was Negro Brook offensive? Is John Thomas Brook a better name? Look up “John Thomas” in the urban dictionary or recall a Monty Python song. Hint: it means penis.

  7. Steve B. says:

    There are easily a dozen or more city streets in Brooklyn, NY named after former slave owners. Lefferts, Ditmas, Nostrand, Cortelyou among many. I have not read that anybody has taken offense and asked that the street names be changed. I can see where it becomes a major headache for the USPS as well as many databases to be changing names like this. Maybe not in anybody’s interest.

    • JohnL says:

      Sadly Steve, there are people who take offense at the very thing you mention. ‘They’ changed the name of my grandsons elementary school in Vermont to some generic vanilla name because the stream it was named for (Thatcher Brook) was originally named for a person (Partridge Thatcher) who owned several slaves at some point in his life…….IN THE 1750’S. Ridiculous!

  8. Boreas says:

    If we are looking to not offend, we should to stay away from using the names of people past & present altogether! What person is without fault that couldn’t offend someone? Let’s just number everything. Tough to find fault with a number, although 666 may want to be given a wide berth.

  9. ADKresident says:

    If people spent even half of their time that they use judging the people in the past through the skewed lens of the present, and used that same energy to imagine and actually ‘build’ a better future, instead of tearing down the past, there’d be hope. You can’t move ahead if you are constantly looking in the rearview mirror & pointing the finger, thinking how much better we are today as humans beings. Pretty arrogant, really. Particularly when many of the words that were used then were not even offensive in the culture like they are today, which actually makes those who make this their mission appear to be ignorant!

    If the motive is to become a social justice warrior, how about directing that same effort to stop human trafficking, the modern day sexual slavery market to which 10s of 1,000s of women/children are now victims? America, is now the #1 consumer in the world of this 80+ billion $ market as it thrives right under our noses, yet here we are ‘offended’ by ‘words’. Seriously, now. We really need to prioritize what’s truly an important cultural/humanity problem because in light of this highly ignored atrocity, the renaming of places, ponds, buildings, etc. is but a distraction, absolutely ridiculous, and a foolish waste of time, money and energy in comparison.

    • JohnL says:

      Thanks AKDr for putting this issue in perspective. Human trafficking should be at the top of our list of things to ‘stop’. In fact, there are literally, yes literally, hundreds of issues that are more important than name changing that we should be addressing.

  10. Peter Heckman says:

    Bark eater. Pretty pejorative in my book. Must be removed from our lexicon forthwith and heretofore

  11. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “Save part of that dump for a pond named Biden. They are both just as bad. Really bad….”

    Yes in a large kinda way Bob, but in varying degrees (which matter in the end game), and not quite near as much as you propose, as the one camp has evil far more down to a science than the other which history continues to reveal, and on a daily basis at that, and which one school will never see due to corrupt vision and an inept thinker. Of course if your value system is that corrupt you will never come to such and so this is the conundrum! Most certainly the evil is more prominent in the one camp than the other, which both camps will say of the other, though only one can be correct. Which one is that? Only time can produce the body of real things Bob. How much more time there is we just don’t know, but be rest assured…the way things are going we will surely find out more sooner than late!

  12. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Peter says: “A very small percentage of people take offense to things like this…”

    Yes! It is always those few extremists who don’t realize we have by far more serious issues to be concerned about! And then there’s a handful, or more, of our wily leaders who take up the cause so as to win political points….as in ‘building a wall’ or ‘wokeism’ or ‘Hunter Biden.’ Roe V Wade! It is less about allegiance than it is about articles to divide us! A ploy! It just never ends!

  13. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “We really need to prioritize what’s truly an important cultural/humanity problem…”

    There you go again making much sense ADK, yet there seems to be a contradiction here, as on the same hand you seemingly support the very people who go against such! People who are all about snatching little boys and girls away from their mommies on the Mexican border and disappearing them as was the case a few years back, etc., etc.. and on and on there’s 999 case examples that can be employed here and which are ‘on the record.’ I’m not trying to pick at you, and I know you’re going to take offense, but it is evident what side of the fence you’re on. Words are fine but you cannot have it both ways! it’s one or the other! You either have a propensity towards humanity as a whole, not piecemeal, or you don’t! You’re either a real person or you go whichever way the wind blows to your advantage, politically or whatnot!

    • ADKresident says:

      No, Charlie, I take no offense with those who talk about something that they clearly have no idea what they are talking about.

      Your reply reveals how clueless you are in regards to what is currently happening now regarding the global and national sex trafficking market. Absolutely clueless, or you wouldn’t have responded with such obvious ignorance and in a ridiculous, partisan manner, to boot.

      • JohnL says:

        Deep breath ADKr. Remember who you’re talking to. And, BTW, thanks for speaking the truth.

        • ADKresident says:

          For sure, JohnL, since there’s so much more important issues, right?
          You know, like the coddling of an adult’s hurt feelings over ‘words’- Oh, the trauma!!! After all, the rescuing of an innocent child or woman from being sold as a commodity and raped 8-10 times a day by perverse, sick, grown men, is regarded at the same level of human atrocity.

          No one, in their right mind, would place in the same category of evil atrocities. NO one.

  14. Charlie Stehlin says:

    ” those who talk about something that they clearly have no idea what they are talking about.”

    You read me wrong which I have come to accept by now as it is, almost wholly, all I know! If I was a woman I would prefer to be called Miss Understood! My response to your post was the first thing that jumped out when you said, “We really need to prioritize what’s truly an important cultural/humanity problem…” which can easily be extended to far more than this one issue ‘sex trafficking’ of which you are correct in assuming how clueless is me on the matter….I am! I’ve got other concerns on my mind which does not imply indifference. To me, there’s no difference between human trafficking (“the modern day sexual slavery market” as you say), and all of the other immoral, savage things which take place the world over on a daily basis, including wars, children & families displaced at borders, crimes against women, children, each other, political divisions, the assault on what’s left of our ecosystems, racism… name it. It’s all relative to me, and I can clearly see wherein the source of our vexations lie! At the very least I know right and I know wrong, and I know who my ‘friends’ are; and I am not one who easily swallows bait as apparently so many shamelessly do!

    We pick and choose our flavors in fragments ADKresident, as if only certain issues matter. It should all matter, because we’re all in this together, one big family on this wee orb Earth! I don’t relate to the hypocrisy, or the picking and choosing of a few items while ignoring the rest! Sorry!

  15. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “Human trafficking should be at the top of our list of things to ‘stop’.”

    I disagree! Until we start accepting science and damning lies, we wont solve any of our woes, and all will keep coming back to haunt us! Until we can look in the mirror and say “therein the problem lies!” nothing will ever change!

  16. Kierin Bell says:

    Re: “All the names we use today replaced names used by past generations of Indigenous Adirondackers” — fortunately, some Indigenous place names are still in use in the region. A few are even officially recognized by the U.S. Board of Geographical Names. The canonical names shouldn’t be blatantly offensive, but perhaps the biggest danger — and the most harmful legacy — lies in the assertion that there should be *one* acceptable name for a place.

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