An Atlas of the Imagination

An Atlas of the Imagination

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[1] originally meant a hidden[2] place. The word is related to Norse[3] Hel, one of the underworlds. The distinct[4] advantage of Hel over Valhalla is that there were women in Hel but only men in “the Hall of the Slain[5]. Evil[6] Norsemen[7] – 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[8] of the unisex dead and applied it to[9] their concept of the Inferno. Interestingly, the Latin cognate[10] 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[11] 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[12] – 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[13] – 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[14] in the Middle Ages the land of plenty[15] was Cockaigne, a place where it rained cheese! This name may or may not be related to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a calque translation[16] of the aerial realm[17] (Nubicuculia) in Aristophanes’ play The Birds (414BCE[18]).

Shangri-La from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) seems to mean something like “mountain pass beyond[19] the sun”. It contains the Tibetan word la (= a mountain pass), combined with the Mandarin sháng (= above) or shán (= mountain) and (= sun).

[1] hell – inferno

[2] hidden – concealed, out-of-sight, unseen

[3] Norse (adj.) – Viking

[4] distinct – (in this case) clear, big

[5] the slain – (in this case) men killed in battle

[6] evil – malignant, malicious, wicked

[7] NorsemenVikings

[8] land – domain, realm

[9] to apply sth. touse sth. for

[10] cognate – etymologically related word (in another language)

[11] just – (in this case) simply

[12] Oh, OK, it means ‘land of wonders’ (= marvels)

[13] backwards – reversed

[14] further backgoing deeper into the past

[15] plenty – abundance

[16] calque translationword-for-word translation, verbatim rendering

[17] aerial realmkingdom in the sky

[18] BCE – before Common Era, BC (= before Christ)

[19] beyond – past, further than, above


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