12 Words That Come from Place Names

Virtually everyone knows that the drink “Champagne” is made from grapes that come from the Champagne region of France – but how many other place name-related words can you name?

We’ve picked 12 of our favorite obscure words that come from place names – explaining what they mean, how the word is commonly used, and how the name came about!

1. Tuxedo

Even though a tuxedo is seen as being very formal today, back in the 1880s it was actually a fashion statement that broke from the formal norms of the day.

A tuxedo jacket is a dinner jacket without the long tails at the back. This was a rebellious statement started by young men in the village of Tuxedo Park, around 50 miles north of the Manhattan district of New York.

Soon after, this style of jacket picked up the name ‘tuxedo’ and the name has stuck ever since.   

2. Lesbian

Just like a Canadian is someone from Canada, a Lesbian was originally used to describe someone from the Greek Island of Lesbos. 

So, how did it become a word that described a person’s sexual orientation?

To understand this, we need to take a quick glance at Greek poetry. The famous poet Sappho lived on Lesbos and wrote a series of poems about relationships. Some of these verses focused on women who had passionate relationships with other women – and, as such, the term lesbian came to mean a woman who is sexually attracted to other women. 

3. Denim Jeans

The words “denim” and “jeans” are closely related – and they both come from place names.

You might be expected the material used to make one of America’s favourite garments comes from the U.S. – but it’s actually French. The material was originally created in the city of Nĭmes – and “of Nĭmes” translates into French as “de Nĭmes”. Over time, this has become shortened to “denim”.

So, what about “jeans” – another French place name? In fact, this word actually comes from the Italian city of Genoa. Genoa was originally called “Genes” and denim trousers were popular with the sailors of the Genoese navy stationed there.

4. Marathon

Today, there are thousands of popular marathons around the world, including the New York marathon, the London marathon, and the Boston marathon – where competitors run 26.2 miles in the shortest possible time.

The origin of this word also involves running – but it wasn’t a race against the clock. According to Greek legend, the Greek messenger Philippides was taking part in the Battle of Marathon against the Persian army in 490 BC when he saw a Persian ship change course and sail towards Athens. To stop them getting there and falsely claiming victory over the Greeks, he is said to have dropped his weapons and run to Athens without stopping.

The accuracy of the story has been questioned over the years – but the name “Marathon” was used to describe the long-distance race that was debuted at the Athens Olympic Games in 1896. 

5. Tequila

It’s a drink that’s responsible for lots of headaches – but few people realise that Tequila was originally distilled in the Mexican town that bears its name – Tequila. 

The drink was created in the 16th Century from the fermented juice of the agave plant. It’s also considered to be the very first distilled alcoholic drink created in North America.

6. Badminton

It’s a fast-paced game that’s enjoyed all over the world – but the very first “Game of Badminton” was played at the Duke of Bedford’s residence in the southwest of England – Badminton House.

The game was created there by combining an Indian game called “Poona” and the children’s game “Battledore and Shuttlecock” and quickly became popular with the English upper class.  

7. Bikini

In 1947, a French fashion designer created a two-piece bathing suit and decided on naming it the ‘bikini’. 

The garment doesn’t have any traditional connection to the Bikini atoll island in the Pacific Ocean – but it’s thought the name was launched into the public consciousness after the US detonated two nuclear bombs there in July 1946, just a few days before they used similar weapons to bring about the end of WWII.

8. Arabesque

If you’re interested in the ballet or know anyone who’s been to ballet classes, you’ll know that arabesque describes a posture in which one leg is extended backwards at right angles, the torso bent forwards, and the arms outstretched, one forwards and one backwards.

The elegant dance takes its name from an equally beautiful and elegant type of Islamic art that stretches back hundreds of years – which Italian scholars described as “arabesco” – meaning “in the Arabic style”. The dance is thought to reflect the intertwined flowing lines of this art.

9. Cologne

If you splash on a little cologne before you go to work or a date, you might not realise that the scent you’re putting on is named after the German city of Köln.

Köln is the original German name that’s known as Cologne in English – and it’s here where this scent was originally formulated. A slightly more subtle scent than French perfume, Kölnisch Wasser (Water from Cologne) has become a popular day-to-day scent for millions of people around the world.

10. Bayonet

If you watch old footage on the History Channel or you’re a fan of war movies, you might be familiar with the bayonet – a dagger fitted to the underside of rifle barrels for close-quarters fighting. 

Although the weapons are now rarely used, the originals were first created in the French city of Bayonne and originally termed “baionette”.

11. Bunk

If you’ve ever thought that it’s only today’s politicians that could be accused of talking “bunk” you’d be mistaken! The word – meaning “nonsense” – actually came from a North Carolina congressman who wasn’t exactly an expert at delivering rousing public addresses.

Instead, his speeches were considered tiresome – and since they related to Buncombe County, they were often created “for Buncombe”. Over time, this was shortened to “bunkum” – and, unlike his speeches, shortened again to simply “bunk”. 

12. Spaniel

Today, a Spaniel is a type of gun dog – and popular breeds include the Cocker Spaniel, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and the often-energetic Springer Spaniel. Although popular in England in the 17th Century, the word spaniel is derived from the Old French “espaignol” which simply means “Spanish dog” – with later breeds developed in the UK.