Wednesday, 26 September 2012

What’s in a Name?

NOUMEA, NEW CALEDONIA. For a street-name freak, there is no greater thrill than arriving in a city of 60,000 to find that, the day before, two amateur historians published a fat book ($44.50) on the history of their city’s street names. Wowee!!

The Brits were the first non-Melanesians to touch down here (Capt. Cook in 1774). The first thing the French did when they settled in was to change the Brit street names. Adelaide became Strasbourg Street; Auckland, Soissons; Brisbane, Reims; Sydney, Metz. To the temporary winner belongs the onomastic spoils.

1853 is the year of the landing that the French memorialized (with a great ship anchor at a Y in the road), and a street is dubbed for the date, the 24th of September. (The only other dated street is the 18th of June, when General DeGaulle affirmed, from London in 1940, to all the “Free French,” that “La France a perdu une bataille; Elle n’a pas perdu la guerre.”)

But in 1985 France almost lost New Caledonia, an unpleasantness which has just been recounted in Chronicle of the Years of Ashes, New Caledonia 1984-86, by Isabelle Doisy, a pen name, the anonymity of which suggests how high the feelings still run amongst the volatile mix of 61,000 Melanesians, 54,000 Europeans, 17,000 Polynesians and 12,000 Indonesians, Vietnamese and “others.”

An evident difference between New Zealand and New Caledonia place names is the preponderance of Maori monikers in the former. Except for the coastal villages, in New Caledonia there are almost no Melanesian names evident. The Brits ruled by seeming not to conquer; the French prefer to Frenchify everything in sight. Which makes a section of the city called “Motor-Pool” stand out like a sore hitch-hiker’s thumb: Between 1942 and 1946, this was a major American military base where the cars and trucks were kept up to snuff.

“Caledonia,” by the way, was Cook’s idea, because the mountains near his first landfall at Balade reminded him of his native Scotland. Alas, geopolitical hardball being what it is, he gets no street named for him in Noumea.

Outside the Cathedral of St. Joseph, the first bishop, one Guillaume Douarre, is described as “Having given this country to God.” Alas, he died, age 43, in an epidemic, the year the pays became French as well as divine—or is it the other way around?

Curious as to why a certain Dr. Guegan earned a street name, I looked in a new book. He was a naval doctor who settled here and was praised for never having taken a metropolitan (Paris) vacation; the noble doctor died from the infection from “a jet of pus” in his eye while treating a patient.

The book records onomastic waves—in 1933, Zola balanced Peguy; in 1964, there was a binge of artists—Van Gogh, Valasquez, Fragonard, Ingres, Manet, Renoir, Michelangelo and Gauguin; a scientific cultural wave crested in 1971, with Marconi, Lumiere, Voltaire, penicillin Fleming, our own Ben Franklin, steamboat Fulton, Yuri Gagarin and Rousseau getting the name nod of recognition; in 1977, it was the turn of Pascal, Teilhard de Chardin and Douglas MacArthur!

There is no analysis of why these pattens occurred when they did, just the old-fashioned bit-by-bit description. What stories must lie behind Bull Halsey making the cut in 1964, Thomas Alva Edison in 1966, Nimitz in 1973 (in the same honors list as Einstein), while Jack Kennedy seems a very belated afterthought in 1984.

The latest cultural tsunami is U.S.-generated: Pacific Burger sells Big Pacs! Across from the Cathedral is the “No. 1 du tee-shirts” with the American flag worked into their logo (they also sell “sweet” shirts). An obscure graffito complicates their pitch: FLASH DASH SOLO FOSTER.

On the Rue d’Alma you can buy electrical appliances from the O.K. Corral. And next door, furniture from O.K. Dock. But it’s schizzy in this latest onomastic world—a scruffy little shop styles itself “Snack L’Exotic.” If you believe that, you’ll probably buy your tee-shirts at “Tee-shirt a Go Go,” described as “Style in U.S.,” with rodeo, L.A. and football being the icons of choosing.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 11, 1988

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