What's in a Name?

When we recently inspected an ordination certificate issued from the SGG cult center, we noticed, in addition to some screaming blunders of Latin grammar, that someone had Latinized the phrase “at West Chester” as Castri Occidentalis. Let us simply state that Latin toponymy is not something for the feeble-minded or the uneducated.

Pistrina has remarked before that, unless a city has a Latin name assigned by the Church or sanctioned by history, then its modern place-name should be left in the vernacular, preceded by the preposition in or perhaps the phrase in urbe. (For the tiny ’burb West Chester, Ohio, we would certainly accept in vico.) The practice avoids pretense and is safer dicis causâ. However, since we’re dealing with some really challenged individuals here, we must ask, What would have been the safest course, so that traditional Catholics didn’t look like abject fools?

To start with, they should have looked into the origin of the name of the Ohio town. We didn’t want to spend too much research time on this, so given that the name of the township was changed by vote to West Chester only in June 2000 (after 100 years as Union Township), we suspected an upwardly mobile electorate had hoped to identify its community with Westchester County, New York, fabled among many nouveaux riches for its old-money cachet.  However, no one in West Chester, Ohio, is really sure of the provenance. (We heard it was something about a Post-Office directive.) Still, if the “aspirational” name is indeed the source, then we know that the county in New York State was named after the city of Chester in England. Apparently in the late 17th century, when the General Assembly created the county in the Province of New York, Chester was commonly called Westchester because of its prominent position in NW England. (According to an 1851 "Notes and Queries" article, maps of Cheshire in 1670 identified Chester as Westchester.)

The English city Chester dates back to Roman times, when it was known as Deva, from the name of the river Dee (the city was situated at its mouth). In the ad 70s, there existed a massive Roman legionary fortress vital to the frontier defense, which was called the Castra Devana, ‘the Camp belonging to the Dee,’ the headquarters of the renowned XX Legion Valeria Victrix. (The celebrated 2nd-century-ad astronomer Claudius Ptolemy even catalogues the place in his Geography.) In Old English, the Latin castra, originally neuter plural, became the feminine singular ċeaster (ċeastre, ċæstre), ċæster, ċester or –ċaestir, ‘castle, fort, walled town’; in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the place is called Lēgaċeaster, i.e., Legionum Castra (or Castrum as the early-modern antiquary Leland records), ‘fort of the legions.’ In the Domesday Book we find Cestre. (As almost everybody knows, ‘chester’ or  ‘caster’ [the form without palatalization] is a common element in English place-names, especially those that had once been a legionary station.) The monastic historian William of Malmesbury, writing in Latin, explains, Cestra legionum civitas dicitur, “Chester is called the city of the legions” (Gesta Pont. Ang. iv, §172).* In his 1909 Orbis Latinus, Grässe also gives Cestria, Devona Vetus, and Denana, and John Field (Place Names in Great Britain and Ireland) reports Deoua in c. 15.

So, now, what name would we select if we were so vainly stupid as to want to Latinize West Chester Township, Ohio? Obviously, we can forget the “West” element, which was never officially part of the name of Chester and from all accounts is quite accidental to the suburb’s current name. (That’s why we suppress our many [morphemic and otherwise] comments on Occidentalis.) William’s Cestra, though tempting, may be a peculiarity of monkish learning.

Pistrina, then, reluctantly recommends starting with the ancient and historical Deva, inasmuch as the 1674 Lexicon Geographicum of Ferrari, Baudrand, and Magri confirms that Deva in their time was “Chester, & Vveschester.”  However, the Ohio town should be differentiated from the English cathedral city. Coming first to mind are the ancient (and imprint) styles for Paris, Lutetia Parisiorum or Cologne (Köln), Colonia Agrippinensium or Trier, Augusta Trevirorum. Accordingly, West Chester, Ohio, might aptly be styled Deva Cincinnatensium, ‘Chester of the Cincinnatians.’ The locative for the certificate would then be Devae Cincinnatensium.

We said we were reluctant because the invented name is, candidly, a bit over clever. It cannot substitute in clarity, simplicity, and accuracy for plain old in [urbe] West Chester, Ohio. All this proves that the archbishop knew best, at least in matters toponymic.

*Our Latin-challenged lamebrains (and a few other traditional clergy and prelates as well) will find William of Malmesbury instructive for learning that -ensis is a adjective form, as Pistrina vainly attempted to do on April 3. Just a glance over to §173 will show the phrase in diocesi Cestrensi