Utopia drawing coloured by Przykuta
Where do we get the names of famous places that don’t exist – like Hell, Narnia and Utopia?
The English word ‘hell’ originally meant a hidden place. The word is related to Norse Hel, one of the underworlds. The distinct advantage of Hel over Valhalla is that there were women in Hel but only men in “the Hall of the Slain”. Evil Norsemen – what did you have to do to be considered an evil Viking?! – went to Niflheim when they died, not Hel.
On arriving in England, Christians took the Germanic word for the land of the unisex dead and applied it to their concept of the Inferno. Interestingly, the Latin cognate of ‘hell’ is celo, which gives us Spanish cielo (= heaven) and English words like ‘celestial’. So, etymologically heaven and hell are the same place! In fact, Hades (Aides in Ancient Greek) meant ‘unseen’, so it originally just referred to a hidden place, too.
Norse mythology also gives us ‘Middle Earth’, which Tolkien recycled for his Hobbits. Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis seems to have taken the name of his imaginary world, Narnia, from that of the Roman city of that name in Umbria (modern-day Narni). Barrie’s Neverland seems to combine a childish pronunciation of ‘Netherlands’ with the idea of ‘never’. The name of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is self-explanatory – like El Dorado – but that of the almost contemporary Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler requires a little more effort. It is, in fact, ‘nowhere’ backwards – but treating the digraph -wh- as a single letter. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) may have a similar meaning; it means either ‘no place’ (ou topia) or ‘good place’ (eu topia) in Greek. Further back in the Middle Ages the land of plenty was Cockaigne, a place where it rained cheese! This name may or may not be related to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a calque translation of the aerial realm (Nubicuculia) in Aristophanes’ play The Birds (414BCE).
Shangri-La from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) seems to mean something like “mountain pass beyond the sun”. It contains the Tibetan word la (= a mountain pass), combined with the Mandarin sháng (= above) or shán (= mountain) and rì (= sun).
 hell – inferno
 hidden – concealed, out-of-sight, unseen
 Norse (adj.) – Viking
 distinct – (in this case) clear, big
 the slain – (in this case) men killed in battle
 evil – malignant, malicious, wicked
 Norsemen – Vikings
 land – domain, realm
 to apply sth. to – use sth. for
 cognate – etymologically related word (in another language)
 just – (in this case) simply
 Oh, OK, it means ‘land of wonders’ (= marvels)
 backwards – reversed
 further back – going deeper into the past
 plenty – abundance
 calque translation – word-for-word translation, verbatim rendering
 aerial realm – kingdom in the sky
 BCE – before Common Era, BC (= before Christ)
 beyond – past, further than, above