Toponymy, study of place names

Published 6:37 pm Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Toponymy is the study of place names and this column explores some of the many interesting and unusual place names in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Haysi in Dickenson County is an example of the variety of ways in which towns can be named. It is not an abbreviation of the word hayside. It is most likely the combination of the last names of Charles M. Hayter and Otis L. Sifers who owned a general store together in which was located a post office. The creation of the post office necessitated an official town name.

Dante, located in Russell and Dickenson counties, is another town name that provokes a lot of speculation. While the origin of the town name is difficult to trace, the pronunciation of this town name does not rhyme with ante ‘before’ nor with the standard pronunciation of the medieval Italian author’s name as one might expect, but rather with paint and ain’t.

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The origin of Buena Vista in Rockbridge County is interesting but not surprising. Before receiving a town charter in 1892, Buena Vista was known as Hart’s Bottom or Green Valley. The town was built on the remains of an iron furnace by the same name and most likely named after a Mexican town which was the site of a battle in the Mexican-American War in which bullets from the iron furnace in Virginia were used. It appears that Vesuvius in Rockbridge County, was built in the 1800s on the site of the Vesuvius Furnace.

A likely explanation is that it received its name from Italian immigrants who noticed the plumes of smoke rising from foundries or iron works in the area. Ben Hur in Lee County is named after the novel written by Lewis Wallace in 1880.

Sweet Chalybeate in Allegheny County owes its name to the natural springs in the area. Chalybeate is derived from Latin chalybs ‘steel’ which came from a Greek word denoting a mythical group of iron workers. In English chalybeate means containing iron salts and is often employed as the name of natural springs with iron salts in the water. In the past, these have been considered especially salutary. Chalybeate springs can be found in Germany, Italy, England and Poland and in the U.S. are found in multiple locations including Alabama, Indiana and New Jersey, as well as various places in Virginia.

If you are traveling to Virginia Beach from Farmville and you take U.S. Route 460 East, after Petersburg, you go through a series of small towns. One of those is Zuni (zoo-nye) in Isle of Wight County. It is not named after (nor pronounced the same as) the Native American people group who share the spelling of the name. In fact, the origin of the town name is a bit of a mystery. No one seems to know for sure how Zuni got its name.

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is