Some podunk town in the middle of nowhere (2023)

Cows graze in a field in the Podunk section of East Brookfield, Massachusetts.Christopher Fitzgerald/AP hide title

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Christopher Fitzgerald/AP

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Some podunk town in the middle of nowhere (2)

It happens on every road trip: you're driving from city to city, from natural wonder to natural wonder. Every hour is a magical combination of rustic beauty, historic landmarks and fascinating people. Until, one day, things change: the landscape turns gray; people lose their charm. You find yourself at a toilet paperless rest stop, where the vending machine consumes your last single. It is 90 miles to the nearest motel. Small but menacing-looking rodents run along the road.

You, my friend, are in Podunk. Or as some people say, "Some Podunk town in the middle of nowhere."

Like the "fly states", "nowheresville" and "hicksville", people use "Podunk" as a stand-in for any place they feel doesn't have much going on.

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It's a depressing place: dark, empty, isolated. The people there are probably a little scary. The food is suss. Everything good that happens there is highly unexpected.(I was in some Podunk town in god knows where when I heard my grandson got engaged!).

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A common implication of Podunk is that it's such a dark and remote place that it's not even worth locating on a map. One of the most famous people to refer to Podunk was Mark Twain, who in 1869wrote that a certain fact was knowneven "in Podunk, wherever."

But there are some things that people who use the term probably don't know. First, Podunk is the name of some real cities. There's a Podunk in Connecticut, one in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts. The Connecticut Podunk is well known (OK, nowhatwell-known)to an annual bluegrass festival🇧🇷 And people who live in the various Podunks have enough practice to reject their common usage. In 1981, someonecriticized The New York Timesfor posting a Podunk cartoon. The cartoon, wrote Francis H. Schaefer Jr., "is an insult to the real Podunk... Our Podunk may be nothing more than a road junction with a population of about 30 people, but it is definitely a real place. ."

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The other thing people probably don't know? Podunk was a place name long before it became a joke. Podunk is an Algonquian word. Quick explanatory comma: The Algonquian languages ​​are a family of indigenous languages ​​spoken from New England to Saskatchewan and the Great Plains. These languages ​​include Fox, Cree and Ojibwe. There are many words in English that have Algonquian roots: skunk, moose, caribou. And according to Arok Wolvengrey, professor of Algonquian languages ​​and linguistics at First Nations University of Canada, many of these languages ​​are threatened with extinction. "Half of these [languages] could disappear in a hundred years," he says. "And we've already suffered great loss over the last 500 years in the Americas."

But aside from its Algonquian roots, much of Podunk's linguistic history is somewhat obscure.

"We have no idea what the word means," says Ives Goddard, senior linguist emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and a leading expert on Algonquian languages. "You can find assumptions in the sources if you look around you. Don't believe any of that."

(I actually found a few definitions; the most plausible is that of the Nipmuc Indian Association of Connecticut.)quarterly newsletter: "Podunkobang, means 'where you sink into the mud', a swampy place, in whichNipmucdialect. But thePodunkcalled his place of originand wash, 'Between rivers").

But, according to Goddard, when it comes to Native American place names in the eastern United States, much of what we think we know is actually misinformation. He says the standard source for these definitions is a man named William Bright, a linguist who in 2004 wrote a book calledNative American place names of the United States."He was a good linguist, a smart guy," says Goddard of his colleague, who died in 2006. "But when he got to the eastern areas, there was no information."

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Rather than saying he didn't know the meaning of certain place names, Goddard says: Bright quoted a man named John C. Huden, who in 1962published a bookI callNew England Indian place names.But Huden, adds Goddard, didn't exactly have undisputed definitions.

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Huden "would go through all this hobby literature and find a [place] name, look up a translation, and pick one that he liked," explains Goddard. "And this book was considered authoritative. So if you're looking at Bright, as I just did, he quotes Huden, and then he quotes three or four people after Huden who are just copying Huden, of course, and are equally uninformed. "

Goddard said the story could be told from many Native American place names in southern New England, New Jersey, all the way to Virginia. There are exceptions; for example, we know that "Connecticut" means "long river". But with many others, he says, "we have no hope of solving them."

I asked Goddard if he found it offensive when people used an Algonquian word to describe places they considered insignificant. "I think the joking use of Podunk isn't really connected. The fact that it's a Native American name to begin with is irrelevant. I don't think anyone knows," he said. "Someone had seen the name of this place through the bus window or somewhere they spent their summers or something and it became a funny word for them."

Wolvgrey seemed to have a similar opinion. He didn't know that Podunk was an Algonquian word before we got in touch, but he said he didn't think there was anything particularly sinister about its usage. "If it was, I suppose, directed negatively at a certain cultural group, that would be more concerning," he said. "This appears to have a specific name, and again, unless someone from a place called Podunk is particularly offended by it, it does not appear to have been done with any malicious intent towards any particular person."

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Wolvengrey says there are obviously words that "reflect a racist attitude towards indigenous people", but Podunk doesn't seem to be one of them. And, he adds, there are all kinds of place words, both negative and positive, that stem from their original meaning: Shangri-La, for example, or Xanadu: "Words have interesting histories. They can deteriorate, and sometimes , can become much stronger than they were in the first place.

It looks like there is hope for Podunk. Perhaps one day we will use the word to refer to a center of culture or a luxurious New England getaway. Or maybe it's still that place where you pray you don't run out of gas. Regardless of how you use it, remember, it doesn't matter much as long as the path to Podunk is paved with good intentions.

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