From: GeomorphList

Landform names

Respond to: Jonathan Phillips, Department of Geography, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858-435

I recently asked Geomorphlisters for some help with a "trivia question" regarding Native American names for landforms. I appreciate the many who responded. A number of you asked for a report on my findings, so here goes.

POCOSIN, a peat-filled upland depression on interfluves of the South Atlantic Coastal Plain, got it started. It's an Algonquian word (and yes, there were Algonquian-speakers on the Carolina coast, though they are more often associated with other areas) for swamp-on-a-hill.

The most common reply was PINGO, an Inuit word for ice-cored hills in permafrost. NUNATAK (mountain surrounded by glacial ice), TALIK (unfrozen layers within permafrost), and SASTRUGI (?) are also Inuit.

BAYOU (a slow-moving creek, mainly in the Gulf Coastal Plain) apparently comes from French adaptations of a Creek word, and HAMMOCK (a higher, drier "island" amongst otherwise marshy terrain) is Seminole in origin. The peat-filled basins called MUSKEGS were named by either Algonquians or Athabascans, depending on whose E-mail you read. Also MIMA (small rounded hillocks), PAHA (loess-draped surfaces in the midwestern U.S.).

TAFONI (cavernous weathering features) were cited by one respondent, but my dictionary sez they were named after features in Corsica.

Some landform names are derived from place names, which in turn were given by Native Americans. These include YAZOO (a tributary running parallel to the main channel for some distance), MONADNOCK (residual hill on an erosional plain), UNAKA, and CATOCTIN (?).

Finally, it was pointed out that a number of place names are derived from Native American landform terms. For example, Mississippi = big river; Apalachicola = long river; Alachua (county Florida) = sinkhole; Poquoson (Virginia town) = pocosin.

Note that I have passed along some unfamiliar terms. Due to time constraints if I could not find a definition in three sources or less, and if one was not supplied to me, I gave up.

And finally, special thanks to Ben Marsh, who playfully suggested the unlikely but fascinating hypothesis that pocosins are giant collapsed pingos.

An addendum to Native (North) American landform names . . .

In my summary message, I failed to note that my question and subsequent responses were limited to native NORTH American names, and I did not include Hawai'i -- the native Hawaiians have many cool names for volanic features. Also note that Native American names are also used occasionally for geologic formations. Sastrugi, by the way, are wind-formed microtopographic features in crusted snow, although one informant suggests that zastrugi is an alternate spelling and that it comes from Russian.

Anyhow, thanks again to all who responded. This shall be my last word, as a collaborator and fellow geomorphlister has just E-mailed me with orders to get off my butt and quit worrying about word origins, so that we may complete an article so that he can get tenure.

Jonathan Phillips

The Association of Polish Geomorphologists