Sunday, December 5, 2010

States with Places with English Names (or, How Much More English is New England?)

New England comprises six states in the northeast corner of the United States: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Here you’ll see so many English names on highway signs—New London, Cambridge, Glastonbury, Gloucester, Ipswich—that you might as well be driving on the left side of the road.

Of course, other parts of the United States have English names for their places too. For example, 27 states have a Manchester. So let us ask: How much more English are the place names in New England states versus others?

To answer this question, I found lists of English and U.S. place names—place name being a generic term for cities, towns, townships, villages, boroughs, and such. I then intersected the lists so each U.S. state’s place names were reduced to those that matched English place names. The names needed to match exactly except for the prefixes “New,” “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West.” That allowed matches like “New London” to “London” or “West Manchester” to “Manchester.”

I then calculated the percentage of each state’s names that matched English names. By this measure of relative Englishness, the winner was Rhode Island: 45.3% of its place names matched English place names. New Hampshire, Massachusett, and Vermont were only a few percentage points behind. At 39.4%, Connecticut was a few points further behind. More important, Connecticut was 15 points ahead of the next contender, Delaware, at 24.4%.

This 15-point gap between between the top five, which are all New England states, and the rest confirmed that the New England states have significantly more Englishness in their names.

But wait. What happend to Maine? It was on the other side of the gap, below Delaware. (Maine, you’ll be hearing from the Queen about this.) Still, even with that laggard Maine, the New England states averaged 36.9% English place names, whereas the rest averaged 12.77%.

So, to the question of how much more English are New England place names, we can say roughly three times. For the specifics on each state, see the chart below, after which are notes on my sources and methods.

The list of U.S. place names was from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 U.S. Gazetteer Files. I merged the names in the Places file with those in the County Subdivisions file.

The UK Office for National Statistics did not seem to have equivalent files, so I ended up using Pandemedia’s UK & Ireland Town and County Database, filtered to only include places in England.

The intersecting process yielded this file of states’ place names that match English place names. Browsing the file showed the names were indeed English, although close inspection revealed some quirks. For example, it’s safe to say that Washington, present and accounted for in 30 states, was not named after the English town Washington. And the 18 states with an Eagle probably weren’t inspired by the English village of that name. However, to keep this project doable in a few hours, I declined to venture onto the slippery slope of special-casing such situations. I assumed that their errors were distributed evenly enough across the states to not be a problem.

Also, as a final sanity check, I looked at the place names for a sample state (Connecticut) that were not matched. The first time I did this, I found I was missing obvious names like Avon. At the time, I was using only the Gazetteer “Places” file for the U.S. names. Merging the additional names from the “County Subdivisons” file corrected the obvious non-matches.

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