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If you look at a map of Africa today, you’ll find the Cape of Good Hope at (almost) the southermost point of the continent. It is the point at which a ship navigating around Africa starts to move more easterly than southerly, and for Bartolomeu Dias, it was a tremendous discovery. Up until that point, no one was sure that there was a sea route around Africa that would lead to Asia, but he confirmed it with his own eyes during his expedition of 1488.

There was just one problem, though. Dias gave it the accurate yet foreboding name of the Cape of Storms, based on the rough weather he encountered down there. King John II of Portugal thought this might turn people off from making the trip in the future, so he renamed it the Cape of Good Hope. And as a marketing tool, this was stunningly effective, compelling explorers and traders from all over Europe to follow suit, beginning several centuries of trade and, unfortunately, colonization and exploitation of the East.

The Cape of Good Hope, from the Waldsemuller’s map (via http://www.educarepress.com/images/Waldsee/map_10.html)

This isn’t the only time that locations have been named and renamed to encourage other people to visit or settle. One of my favorite examples is Greenland, which the Vikings began settling in the 10th Century. Despite the fact that it was, by and large, a giant block of ice, they named it Greenland so others would think it was fertile and warm. But it wasn’t difficult to see through the trick, and the island remains sparsely populated today.

Not very green.

Another example of a place with an inaccurate name is Liberia, the African country which began as an American colony for freed slaves. Liberia means freedom, yet when the free former slaves began governing themselves, they enslaved the native-born Africans and a long period of ethnic division ensued for over a hundred years, resulting in an extremely brutal civil war. Sadly, a country named after freedom had become the exact opposite.

Political map of Liberia (via http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/liberia.html)

On a more positive note, the cities and towns of the American West show how all it takes is a name to convey a spirit of optimism and happiness to all would-be visitors.  Places such as Paradise, CA or Happy, TX indicate a prosperous new city full of opportunity and hope for the quintessential American dream. My personal favorite, though, is Carefree, AZ, for when someone is tired of striving for the American dream and just wants to relax with a lemonade.

Although the frontier has been closed, American towns are still changing their names, often just temporarily, to drum up publicity or be rewarded by a corporate sponsor. In 1999, a town in Oregon changed its name, unofficially, to Half.com for a year, in exchange for a cash prize and twenty new computers for the school. It seems awfully gimmicky, but when you think about it, they were really just following in the time-honored tradition of place-name marketing that has been used by kings and explorers for centuries.

But as Greenland and all those deserted Western towns with positive names show, people are not always so easily swayed, even by the cleverest marketing.

Happy Mapping!