I started thinking about the word "wilderness" the other day as I drove a friend to his home in the Wilderness subdivision of Tallgrass, and about its applicability to that particular neighborhood. The neighborhood's planners couldn't have meant "wilderness" as that word is commonly used when they named this neighborhood, since you can throw a Frisbee from the very heart of it and, with favorable wind conditions, hit a fourteen-screen theater, an elective-surgery hospital, or an all-suites hotel. "Wilderness" in this context, I speculated, must have a sociological connotation, because the common meaning doesn't fit. For a period of time my friend's family had their car windows damaged regularly by burglars who stole their car stereos, one after another; could this be a kind of moral "wilderness"? Was that what the development's planners had in mind? Could it be that, when the addition was new, no Pizza Hut delivered there? Does the bordering golf course count as "wilderness" since it, unlike the nearby Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, remains unused at night?
Maybe I'm too literal, but to me "wilderness" describes either the far easternmost part of lower Manhattan or the kind of place where there are no Pizza Huts at all. The wilderness is vast and unlit, and its "doctor population" is very, very low. The wilderness is where Hiawatha lived, and I imagine that he had to travel for days and days to find lodging that offered turn-down service and a concierge floor.
The issue nagged at me long after my friend had gone in — I waited to make sure that he wasn't mauled by bears while traversing the space between the car and front door — and I began to see that I had grown up in a similar wilderness in West Wind Lakes Estates in Goddard. I even saw deer once or twice. Are deer as prevalent, I wondered, at the Deer Glen at Buckhead development? Are there actually whitetail at Whitetail and horses at Equestrian Estates? How plentiful are the fox at Fox Pointe Gardens? And isn't "pointe" a kind of ballet shoe?
By the time I left junior high I was embarrassed to give my address because my street name was Wind Rows Lake Drive . You can't imagine the permutations this already inelegant street name underwent on our mail, the most frequent being "Windrose." It sounds like a knock-off cologne: Windrose — Compare to Elizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds. The words "Wind Rows Lake Drive," I felt, didn't especially mean anything except that the original developer was making a hayseed's effort to put on airs, and it made me feel like a pretender to prestige and good breeding to repeat them, as though I were implying that the listener should send a car around or pop in on Sundays for my at-home salon.
It is for these reasons that, as an adult, I can't understand how people maintain eye contact with others as they say that they live at Tara Falls, Harbor Isle, the Pinnacle, the Reserve at Reeds Cove, or the Champions at Willowbend. I know that these names are meant to impart sophistication, but the effort is plainly audible, and even a child might wonder what geographical anomaly accounts for the possibility that a Wichitan lives among mountain peaks, islands, or waterfalls.
And what do they mean? Ideally, I used to feel, a place name should provide an indication of where a place could be found or make an effort at commemoration or description. In West Wind Lake Estates we did have wind (although it almost always originated in the north or south, not the west), but the "lake" and "estates" claims were wildly inflated, and it was these inaccuracies and half-truths that made me feel that the name was without meaning. Maybe I was oversensitive, but then thank god I didn't live at Sierra (meaning "a range of mountains") Hills.
"Glen," incidentally, is defined as a "narrow, secluded valley," a definition that implies, if not mountains, at the very least hills; as for "buckhead," I'm afraid to look it up. Imagine please that a resident at the aforementioned Deer Glen at Buckhead were to make the same claims in unadorned English that the name of his housing development makes for him more fancily: "I live in a narrow valley, tucked away between hills and populated by deer." And where does this idyll exist? "At Buckhead." And where is Buckhead? "I don't know."
The truth is that words have meanings — some of them do — and that it's not possible to bluff everyone out of pursuing those meanings by means of wordiness or sheer force of will. When Tallgrass was a new enterprise I experienced a kind of relief because the name made sense — it referred to a feature historically associated with the land upon which it was being built — and I even chose to overlook the compacted adjective and noun. But before long all the adjectives and nouns had been compacted: Windwood, Plumthicket, and so on, all of them streets that wend their way through maze-like communities between Rockroad and Webbroad over near Twentyninthstreetnorth. And before long, too, Windemere at Tallgrass came along; for fun, I traced the word's meaning and discovered that it's a bastardization of the name of an English lake (that's the "mere" part) once belonging to a Viking warrior and chieftain named Vinandr (that's the "Winde" part). My sure bet is that the fact of this man's Viking pedigree precludes any special involvement with the Kansas plains.
Stealing proper nouns from elegant-sounding sources is still an improvement over making up new words that only sound as though they're arbitrarily stolen from faraway water features and mountain peaks. The etymology of Comotara for instance, defies me. I do know that, in the case of the fake diamonds called Como Diamantes sold on the Home Shopping Network, " como" is meant to mean "like," as in "like diamonds," and that "tara" usually refers to "earth," as in "dirt" or "ground." In real estate first impressions surely count, and mine is that, in Comotara, something is eerily not quite ground. Sure I'm reaching, but didn't Comotara's planners start it when they made it all up?
So my advice to community planners is to use place names that in some way refer to or describe these neighborhoods, and to do it in English, or, lacking that, a language the planners speak. Somewhere on the outskirts of our city a Belle Terré division has arisen — terrific, except that the words "belle terré" have no meaning in any language. Sans l'accent aigu ("without the acute accent" for those of you who, like them, don't speak French) you have a Parisian's "beautiful earth." With it, you have a Parisian's "beautiful terré." (For a time a bridal shop in Wichita operated under the name of La Bride d'Elegance with a rotating line-up of accent marks moving around over the tops of the letters; no matter where those accents fell, "la bride" translates from the French, at best, as "the support," as in a wooden support or scaffolding.)
Other options exist — developers could use existing street names, for instance; it's not necessary for Holyoke or Porter or Poplar to end at the city limits, and none of these names requires that an addressee specify if they're one word or two. Real people and things could be commemorated, although I'm not sure how many of us are ready to move onto A. Haig Drive out in beautiful Reagan Hills.
I know my advice will fall on deaf ears: real estate developers will persist in the belief that fakey, classy-sounding names actually somehow impart class itself. In truth, it's the other way around: Rodeo Drive didn't sound swanky until the swank moved in, just as there was nothing inherently scary about the words "Rosemary's baby" until the book and movie came along, and nothing tragic about "Jonestown" until the Kool-Aid was served. If developers would supply something like real elegance, they could name their dream neighborhood North Pattie Circle and the caché would follow.
But even should these developers insist on wordiness, references to nature, and the forced impaction of nouns, it's still not necessary that they lie outright. Here the utility of my article triples, because I have some ideas for them. If you are among those responsible for festooning Wichita's street signs with horseshit and neologisms, please make note that you may use the following free of charge: Subdivision Terrace. Fancy Acres. Cottonwood Sector. Cul-de-Sac Splurge. Circled Estates. Neighboring Manors. Development at Sandpit. Guardhouse on Twisty Street. Allwhite Court. Fairway Clusters. Smallyards. Windy Lawns.