Lake Forest and Forest Lake, Forest Park and Park Forest, the names of four Chicago suburbs. There isn’t a forest in all of Illinois. Another dozen Chicago suburbs are called hills or heights Harwood Heights, Glendale Heights, Hickory Hills, Vernon Hills. You can’t see a hill for a hundred miles around Chicago. The highest peak in Mount Prospect (not to be confused with Prospect Heights) is an overpass.
The Indians knew how to name this country. They used original, bold sounds to describe the land‑‑Waukegan, Mettawa, Winnetka‑‑unmistakable names of substance and meaning. Chicago, for example, means the land of the onion, and the name evoked for the Prairie Indians the onion smell. We took their land, and now we’re crowding it with Highlake–neither high nor near a lake–Bridgeview–without either a bridge or a view–and Valley View–since there are no mountains neither are there valleys.
A further twenty-five Chicago suburbs like to call themselves parks: Elmwood Park and Franklin Park and Melrose Park and Villa Park and the oxymoronic Park City.
Linguists tell us that our vocabulary creates our reality. They say calling God “Him” has molded a masculine perception of the Deity. Names become the thing itself, as in, I’m John and this is Mary. That’s why we stopped calling a grown women “girl” and black men “boy,” and that’s why we should be alert to the homogeneity of language since it leads to a homogeneity of thought.
Kankakee. Now there’s a name. It rolls around your mouth three times and comes out sideways, leaving a distinctive and unforgettable taste. Names don’t have to be Indian, just real and descriptive: compare Highland Estates to strong names such as Cicero, Wilmette, Mundelein.
The Chicago area’s old names are Indian, but they’re now less than ten percent of the area’s towns, and the number is shrinking with each new residential development which, with a name like Crest Hill‑‑not too far from Hillcrest, Hazel Crest, and Crestwood–all lacking a crest‑‑is destined to have abundant incidents of wife beating and cocaine snorting. The increasing number of empty names are not a symptom of an increasingly empty culture: the names themselves contribute to the emptying.
Woods are also popular names for towns. Around Chicago, an open prairie, there’s River Woods, Hawthorne Woods, Maywood, Lincolnwood, Glen Woods, and the uninspiring Wood Dale. These names hit the tongue, eek out of the mouth, and fall on a tin floor. This fake niceness makes it easy to see why kids drop Ecstasy, why men make sleazy advances at secretaries, and why old people rot in nursing homes called Pine Grove Rest Center, Bellview Estate, Oak Hill Manor.
Mount Pleasant. The Indians never characterized anywhere in the Midwest as pleasant. Why not names such as Death Valley, Normal, or Eagle’s Landing instead of Oak Dale and Pine Woods?
The names of Chicago suburbs surround Baltimore, Atlanta, Denver, and every American city, sapping regional distinction, breeding an era of mediocrity and tedium. Thirty‑six states have a Springfield. Just as clichés and half‑truths by politicians have reduced politics to clichés and half‑truths, bland names, sham names, create a bland and sham society, robbing our individuality, disguising us as sweet and nice when rough and aggressive would describe us better.
Tedium wins when no one lifts a hand, or a tongue, to stop it. Whereas other countries are being ruined by abhorrently malicious dictators, this country is being broken by the proliferation of fake benevolence, and we end up trying to make up for our banality with hyperbole.