Olympic Summary

Yesterday I posted the last post, (at least for another four years), in my series on the Fascinating Names of Winter Olympic Host Cities. It was a fun, although sometimes frustrating, exercise, and along the way I learned a bunch, and came across a lot of fascinating names to write about.

Did you know that James Bond, in some form, has appeared in Chamonix, St. Moritz, and Cortina d’Ampezzo? With the way he gets around I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been to some other winter olympic host cities and I just missed him. More trivia: You can follow, (at least in theory – I might not want to try it on an innertube or anything), the Inn river from St. Moritz to Innsbruck, and the Olympic Flame wasn’t part of the winter games until 1952 in Oslo, (although there was a symbolic fire lit in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936).

Now that the Olympic exercise is over we, (much like the TV networks), will be going back to our regularly scheduled programming of funny and interesting names. I have a whole whiteboard full. Stay tuned, and follow @fascinames on Twitter.


A nighttime scene of Chamonix, France, at Christmas.
Photo by Sébastien B. (flickr)

Chamonix, France, hosted the very first Winter Olympic Games ever. This small town in a valley beside Mont Blanc, and a bunch of other mountains, (and I mean a bunch – the valley is surrounded), was “discovered” by modern tourists in 1741 when a pair of Englishmen showed up there and published their account of the incredible glaciers they found. However, they were far from the first people to visit the valley. They weren’t even the first to write about it.

Sometime around the year 1090, a Benedictine convent was founded in the Chamouny valley, and in the documents that granted the land for the convent can be found some clues to the origins of the name of the valley. The words used to describe the valley are campus munitus which translate, roughly, to “fortified field.” Since it was incredibly hard to access the valley at the time, (remember the mountains it’s surrounded by? they’re some of the highest in Europe), it appears that the mountains are the fortification, and the valley is the field. A community, albiet a small one, grew in the valley, so when those two Englishmen arrived in 1741 they met people, not just rivers of ice.

There is a second possibility of the origin of the name Chamonix. Placenames of the World says that the name “derives from a pre-Celtic, possibly Ligurian root, kam, meaning “rounded height.” I think that the fortified field may make more sense, but that’s just my opinion. Anyone is free to send me their arguments for the pre-Celtic root. Maybe we can discover history!

I don’t know exactly the city of Chamonix was founded, (the town created around 1090 was called Le Prieuré), but it seems like a fairly direct line from Chamouny to Chamonix. Maybe it’s even a difference between how a valley should be named and how a city should be named that I’m not aware of.

If you’re interested historical maps, here’s a good one of the area from 1881. Also, the origins of the word Chamonouy were quite difficult to find. It’s on Page 407 of the 1811 edition of A Handbook for travellers in Switzerland and hte Alps of Savoy and Piedmont.

St. Moritz

A photo of St. Moritz in the Evening
Photo by ForsterFoto (flickr)

St. Moritz, Switzerland, hosted both the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympic Games. The first record we have of the town is around the years 1137-39 as ad sanctum Mauricium.

St. Moritz is named for Saint Maurice, (Moritz is a form of Maurice), patron saint of, among other things, armies, armorers, clothmakers, dyers, and he is invoked against menstrual cramps.

The city was originally known for its therapeutic springs, in fact, one part of the town is called “Bad,” which is German for “Bath.” Winter tourism didn’t start until 1864 when a hotel owner bet some British tourists that they would love St. Moritz in the winter. They came back to the town that winter around Christmas, (he promised to pay their return if they didn’t enjoy themselves, and their hotel bill if they did, so they couldn’t really lose), and that was the dawn of winter tourism in not only St. Moritz, but the whole Alps.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: the source of the River Inn is near St. Moritz, so, at least in theory, it would be possible to follow the River Inn from the Olympic City of St. Moritz to the Olympic City of Innsbruck.


Christmas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Photo by Tania Ho (flickr)

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, host of the 1936 Winter Olympics, used to be two towns, Garmisch and Partenkirchen. This is probably not a surprise when looking at the name of the city. The two towns were combined by Hitler in 1935 in preparation for the 1936 games and have remained together to this day.

We’ll look at each of the two names, (Garmisch and Partenkirchen), separately, starting with Garmisch. One source tells me that Garmisch translates roughly to “Germar’s district,” and another tells me that the first mention of Garmisch is as around 815 AD as “Germaneskau” meaning “German district.” If the second source is correct, then some Germanic people settled in the area. If the first is correct, we should figure out the origins of the name Germar, and that is not easy to do. There are people named Germar, including a famous holocaust denier, but I haven’t been able to find any reference to someone named Germar who ruled the district, and am wondering if perhaps Germar’s district is just another way of saying German District.

Partenkirchen was originally a Roman town called Partanum, founded in 15 AD. I’m not sure when the name got changed to Partenkirchen, but I’ve read that Partenkirchen means “Parthians by the Church.” Assuming that Partanum and Parthians are the same word, this would make sense since the German word for church is Kirche.

I’ve exhausted my resources on this one, so if anyone knows more about the history of either Garmisch or Partenkirchen don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.


A photo of the Opera house in Oslo, Norway
Photo by Kris Taeleman (flickr)

Founded by King Harald Hardraade sometime around the year 1050, Oslo, Norway, was the host of the 1952 Winter Olympic Games. The Oslo Winter Games were the first winter games to feature the Olympic torch that we have become so accustomed to seeing.

The origins of the name Oslo seem to be the source of quite a bit of disagreement. There are several theories. Some people think that it means “Mouth of the lo river” but at least according to Wikipedia, parts of the theory that suggest this naming were probably made up by the guy who originally published it. It is also possible that, since Oslo was once spelled Áslo, and there is a ridge called ås near the city, that the name means “Meadow beneath the ridge” or, since “Ás” may also be a reference to the Æsir, (the group of gods that includes Thor), Oslo may also mean “Meadow of the Gods.” Finally, the “os” part of Oslo may be mean “estuary” or “river mouth” and refer to Oslo’s location at the end of the Oslo fjord, (although, interestingly, no rivers actually enter the fjord at Oslo).

So, basically, there are a bunch of different stories that lead to Oslo being called Oslo, and many of them are believable, but we don’t have a definite answer about which one, if any, is the real story.

Cortina d'Ampezzo

Cortina d'Ampezzo Centre
Photo by Leo-setä (flickr)

Cortina d’Ampezzo, an Italian city surrounded by the Dolomite mountains, hosted the 1956 Winter Olympic Games. Because of its location, Cortina d’Ampezzo has been part of both Austria and Italy, but since the end of the first world war it has been part of Italy.

So, how did Cortina d’Ampezzo come to be called Cortina d’Ampezzo? That is difficult information to find if you don’t speak or read Italian – there’s a whole section on the origin of the name on Italian Wikipedia. I, however, don’t speak or read Italian, so I had to look elsewhere.

The name Cortina d’Ampezzo has two parts, and, at least according to Placenames of the World, the first part, Cortina, means “little court,” cortina being the diminutive of corte, the word for “court.” Some places seem to suggest that there may be a small fence or curtain involved, but that may simply be a result in translation errors. And for the second part of the name, Ampezzo, Cortina d’Ampezzo is in the Ampezzo valley, (hence the d’ part of the name, in English we would say “Cortina of Ampezzo”), and Ampezzo comes from the Italian in pezzo meaning “piece of land.”

Squaw Valley

Squaw Valley under a blanket of snow on Christmas Weekend 2006
Photo by UnofficialSquaw.com via flickr

The smallest place in the world to ever host the Olympic Games, Squaw Valley is actually a ski resort, not a town, however because the resort is so popular, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot else in the area, the whole community is known as Squaw Valley, (the official name is Olympic Valley, California). Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1960.

So, how did Squaw Valley come to be called Squaw Valley? Much like Lake Placid we’re not 100% sure, but we do know a little more about Squaw Valley. According to Historical Notes by Hal V. Hall:

Before the white settlers migrated and established their homes and way of life in the valley. During late summer and early autumn, prior to the migration of the abundant deer herds and before the winter snows, it was the ancient custom of the Washoe men, the hunters of their tribe, to harvest winter food with an annual hunt in the high ridges radiating from the Squaw Pass area. While the men were thus engaged, the Squaw camp remained in the valley. The first white men to visit Squaw Valley found it occupied by a camp of “squaws” and children, engaged in food gathering.

So, when the first white men came to Squaw Valley, they found the valley occupied by only “squaws,” (at the time, “squaw” simply meant “native woman”), and their children, and, we assume, called the valley Squaw Valley. We need to speak about the word Squaw. It comes from the Algonquian family of languages and translates roughly to “woman” in english. Its origins are not derogatory at all, but unfortunately it has come to be viewed as a derogatory term by many. To learn more about the history of the word I highly recommend reading Reclaiming the Word “Squaw” in the Name of the Ancestors by Marge Bruchac.

So, to recap, when white people first came to Squaw Valley, the only native people they found were women. Since, the word that was being used by white people at the time for native women was squaw, the valley was named Squaw Valley, and the word Squaw is borrowed from the Algonquian languages, and means, roughly, “woman.”

Special thanks to Katherine at Squaw Valley USA for filling me on on some historical details of Squaw Valley.


Photo of the river in Grenoble, France.
Photo by Lady_Elixir (flickr)

Host of the 1968 Winter Olympic Games, Grenoble, France, is situated at the foot of the alps and the junction of the Drac and Isère rivers.

To find the origins of the name Grenoble, we have to cast our gaze back through history. Grenoble is derived from the name Gratianopolis, latin for City of Gratian. The name Gratianopolis was bestowed upon Grenoble in the year 381 after the Roman Emperor Gratian visited the city and was pleased by the welcome he received from the people, (Gratianopolis was originally founded as Cularo in 43 BC).

So, if Grenoble comes from the name Gratianopolis, then we need to find out where the name Gratian comes from. Gratian, (or Gratianus in Latin), simply means Grace, so, we could say that Grenoble is the City of Grace.


A photo of a huge snow sculpture of a palace.
Photo by Christopher Chan (flickr)

Sapporo, Japan, hosted the 1972 Winter Olympic Games, the first winter games ever held in Asia. Many of us know the Sapporo brand of beer, which comes from the city of Sapporo, but how did the city get its name?

Sapporo is in a Ishikari Plain, a wide flat plain in an otherwise mountainous region. Before the city was established the Ainu people lived there, and when the city was created the name was taken from the Ainu phrase sat poro petsu, which translates roughly to “dry, great river.”

Not only did Sapporo host the winter olympics, but it is also home to the yearly Sapporo Snow Festival, one of Japan’s largest winter events, featuring amazing snow and ice sculptures.


Buildings along the river, Innsbruck, Austria
Photo by Leo-setä (flickr)

Innsbruck, Austria, host of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic Games has a fairly straightforward name. You see, there’s a river, the river Inn, and there’s a bridge over the river. In Austria they speak German, and the German word for bridge is brücke, so, Innsbruck means, simply “Bridge over the Inn.”

Innsbruck is at an historically important crossing point for the river Inn, it is the easiest way across the Alps by land, (these days an airplane is pretty easy too). In Roman times it was called Oeni Pontum which is Latin for Inn, (Oeni), bridge, (pontum), so, it seems that Innsbruck has always been called Innsbruck, at least in whatever language was being used at the moment.