Vulgar Geography: Anatomical Place Names in Utah

by Peter

Note: This post discusses places in Utah named after body parts. As you might imagine, many of these are named after portions of the female anatomy, and are discussed in this post. If you object to references to female or other anatomy, maybe skip this post.

I was recently completing an archaeological survey in southern Utah. My colleague drew our attention to a locally prominent landform, a butte on the mesa above Hurricane. I imagine it's pretty well-known among local high school students. The prevalence of landforms with this name is kind of a running joke among archaeologists, as there seems to be one in sight wherever you are surveying. I started thinking about geography named after the human body.

One of my favorites that turned up in the research are Thumb and Pinky Ridges in Tooele County, next to Ripple Valley. They kind of look like the thumb and pinky of a left hand, if you ignore the other missing three fingers.

Thumb Ridge on the right and Pinky Ridge less well-defined on the left.

There are buttes, hills, or peaks named after nipples. A very famous example of this phenomenon is the Tetons in Wyoming. The Tetons were named by French trappers who thought they resembled breasts. In Utah in particular, and possibly throughout the west, Molly's (or Mollie's) Nipple seems to be quite ubiquitous. Being reminded of the example in Hurricane got me thinking about whether there were other anatomical names used for landforms, and if Molly was the most common name used for these references. If it was, why would Molly be used more often than other women's names? Is it an Irish slur, a reference to various historical women, or something else?

The Washington County version of Molly's Nipple.

As it turns out, there is a group out there called the US Board on Geographic Names who are in charge of naming features. They maintain the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), a database of all names in the United States.

I took that information for Utah and narrowed it down to anatomical references (yes, I skimmed through thousands of place names for this). I eliminated most things that were potentially ambiguous names or double-entendres, as they could not be said to be definitively anatomical.

I was left with around 90 place names. Leaving aside amusing place names such as Boobs Canyon (Millard County) and Butt Canyon (Garfield County) or Cads Crotch (a ridge in Kane County), elbows were actually the most common part of the body used to name geographical places. Elbow Spring, Elbow Hollow, The Elbow. Most commonly it refers to a bend in a stream or river, although it is also sometimes used to refer to ridges or peaks. But elbows aren't so interesting.

Nipples are the second most common anatomical place name. There are sixteen with a personal name attached and a further 11 without a name (The Nipple, Nipple Ranch, etc). Of the sixteen named, there are 7 Mollys, 4 Marys, and 1 each of Fern (Wayne County), Sadie (Garfield County), Elsie (Wayne County), Wash (Duchesne County), and Peter (San Juan County - I'm famous!).

The Mollys are in Kane, Uintah, Davis, Beaver, Washington (see above), and Utah (twice) Counties. The Marys are in Millard, Paiute, Sanpete, and Beaver. That's 13 of 29 counties. Start planning your trips now.

So why Molly and Mary when no one else gets more than a single reference? I spent some time looking into whether Molly had every been used as a short-hand reference for Irish women, but it didn't seem to be the case. Molly is, however, an old English nickname for someone named Mary (following a tradition of replacing Rs with Ls, also seen in Sally for Sarah and other nicknames).

Mary was long the most popular name in the English-speaking world (because of its religious associations), only losing the top spot in the second half of the 20th Century. In a review of the 1850 Census, one website lists Mary as the top women's name, representing over 13% of all women and about twice as many as the next most popular name, Sarah. So, throw a rock in frontier-era Utah and you're fairly likely to hit a woman named Mary.

It seems to me that the name Mary could be used to represent a kind of generic Everywoman. Using the diminutive nickname Molly would also potentially feel more appropriate when making this kind of vulgar joke.

Another option is that each landform was named after a specific woman, either as a reference to their body specifically, or because of its general resemblance to the human body and their living in proximity to it. This seems like a plausible explanation, for example, for Washs Nipple. Naming features after an explorer or resident was common practice in the West. The prevalence of Marys (and presumably Mollys) at the time would mean that every town would likely have several women with that name. This hypothesis could also explain the features named after women whose names were not common at the time (Fern, Elsie, and Sadie).

In any event, start planning your pilgrimage around the state to visit all 16 landforms. But be prepared for some serious hiking. Most are not really close to roads.

Update: I was finally able to accomplish my long-held dream of the last two years and visited Peter's Nipple in person. If you'd like to go yourself, it's just north of State Highway 162, a couple of miles east of Aneth.

Peter standing in front of Peter's Nipple, near Aneth, San Juan County.


Popular Posts