The history of What’s in a Name continues to occupy our minds. Dr. Will Cavert thoughtfully considers the significance of a name change from King Charles in 1649 to Prince Rodgers Nelson in 2016.
The people that I study – those living in Britain during the 16th-18th centuries – knew that when beliefs changed, the names of things needed to change with them. So when the Puritan army led by Oliver Cromwell overthrew King Charles in 1649, executing their own king as a traitor, they knew that building a new kind of state – a republic – required some new language. The Kingdom of England itself became a “Commonwealth,” the Court of King’s Bench the less monarchical “Court of Upper Bench,” and the ship of war The Charles was re-christened The Liberty.
England was hardly unique in adjusting names to changing times. A grand square built in eighteenth-century Paris was originally named for the reigning king, Louis XV, but later became the Place de la Révolution. During the backlash against the French Revolution the name was again changed, first to re-honor Louis XV and then his guillotined grandson Louis XVI. Finally, a subsequent revolution again removed the royal name, at last replacing it with its current title, the Place de la Concorde. Other countries offer similar examples: in Florence a piazza once named for a king is now named for the republic; Madrid contains many streets once, but no longer, named for General Franco and his allies; and in Buenos Aires the Avenida del Libertador was originally named for a Spanish Viceroy. Communist countries may offer the most numerous and most dramatic examples of such transformations, from Stalingrad/Volgograd to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. The name of a square in central Berlin has seen its name changed from Augustusplatz to Karl-Marx-Platz and then back again, then back again, and then back once more.
While we have not recently experienced revolution, Americans do seem to be in the process of re-evaluating the way that old ideologies are reflected in the names we use. The debate surrounding the Confederate Battle Flag and the campaign to remove President Jackson from the $20 bill, may be symptoms of a broader trend whereby Americans are now refusing to honor those whom we no longer find honorable. President Obama has announced that America’s highest peak will cease to be named after William McKinley, a man without the controversial legacy of Jackson but who also had nothing to do with Alaska or its mountains.
Minnesota too is touched by this trend. Many in Minneapolis and beyond find it absurd for a beautiful lake to honor John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina champion of nullification and state rights. Calhoun was not merely a conventionally racist nineteenth-century American; rather he made the perpetuation of the enslavement of African Americans, which he called a “positive good,” his life’s work. Furthermore he had no connection to Minnesota beyond sending the area’s first surveyors, who duly named a local lake in honor of their boss. No wonder there is a campaign to change the lake’s name to better reflect its own history and the values of those who now live near it.
Now, as I write this about 24 hours after the death of Prince, there is a new set of campaigns to re-name some significant landmark after the Twin Cities’ most original and popular musician. Twitter includes calls for his name (or his unpronounceable symbol) to grace the airport, the football stadium, Lake Minnetonka, and doubtless other landmarks too. Even Hennepin Avenue itself is a contender. And why not? Father Hennepin probably never set foot on the site of downtown Minneapolis during his very brief visit to Minnesota in 1680. As Mary Lethert Wingerd explains in North Country: The Making of Minnesota, Hennepin did very little to or for Minnesota other than to put it on European maps. If Prince speaks to us in the 21st century more than Hennepin does, changing street signs would an appropriate, and long-established, way to mark that.