Nicknames tend to make a place memorable and leave a lasting impression. However, not all monikers are famous because they’re good. While some are created to disparage a town and its people, others indicate towards a terrible history. Whether nicknames are scandalous or downright disreputable, they tend to fasten themselves to a place’s repute permanently. This list examines ill-famed nicknames, old and new, of places around the world, how and why they were coined and how they continue to be associated with the unlucky chaps even today.
At the end you’ll realize that even bad sobriquets have a story to tell.
- Huáng Hé River – China’s Sorrow
Other monikers – Scourge of the Sons of Han, The Ungovernable
The Huáng Hé River in China (a.k.a. the Yellow River) went from being considered as the birthplace of Chinese civilizations to being referred to as ‘China’s Sorrow’. The River has not only overflowed its banks but has changed its entire lower course, especially its outlet, more than 12 times in the last 40 centuries. The Huáng Hé floods of 1887, 1931 and 1938 ruptured dykes, killed millions, rendered many homeless, and destroyed arable lands. The Chinese have since undertaken extensive flood control programs to keep the fury of the Huáng Hé in check, but the damage is undoubtedly already done.
- Cleveland – Mistake by the lake
The city of Cleveland in Ohio, United States has been christened as ‘Mistake by the lake’ due to a string of reasons that left the city literally miserable. The Cuyahoga River running through the city famously caught fires 13 times between 1868 and 1968 due to rampant pollution that had rendered it noxious. In fact, it was amongst the most polluted rivers in 20th century United States. In 1978, the city’s government defaulted on bank loans worth 16 million dollars and became the first US city to do so since the Great Depression of 1929. Not to forget that Cleveland also has the reputation of being burdened with a ‘sports curse’, as it has failed to win any major professional sports tournaments for half a century. If that wasn’t enough, a 2010 Misery Index named Cleveland as America’s most miserable city.
Do we believe in curses now? A little bit, yes.
P.S: Cleveland has been able to reverse its infamous moniker to some extent by undertaking sustainability programmes and energy efficiency measures in the last two years.
- Bab el-Mandeb – Gateway of Tears
Other monikers – Gateway of Anguish, Gate of Grief, Gate of Scars
“Like some ill-destined bark that steers
In silence through the Gate of Tears.”
- Irish poet Thomas Moore on Bab-el Mandeb
Imagine being a geographically strategic link between two parts of the world and yet ending up with an ill-fated name.
The Bab el-Mandeb strait connects the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea at the point where Eritrea and Djibouti in Africa are closest to Yemen in the Arab continent. The name literally means ‘Gateway of Tears/Grief’ as the strait is treacherous and poses lots of difficulties in navigation, causing shipwrecks too. The strait is only 18 miles wide (earlier 11 miles wide) at its widest point.
An Arab legend tells a different story for the origin of the name, saying it was coined when large numbers drowned during the earthquake separating Africa and Asia.
Today, Bab el-Mandeb is a key location for international shipping, particularly energy and oil, and possible closure of the strait due to the brewing civil unrest in Yemen could pose a serious threat to the world economy. This maritime chokepoint clearly continues to live up to its infamous epithet.
- Toronto – Muddy York
Other monikers – Centre of the Universe, Little York
Toronto has had a long list of nicknames throughout its history. ‘Muddy York’ was one of its earliest nicknames which was assigned because Toronto’s unpaved streets accumulated mud and dirt during rains, and storm drains and sewers were non-existent. ‘Little York’ was another disparaging epithet used to describe Toronto comparing it with York in England and NYC in United States.
A newer derisive epithet used infrequently by the media and the rest of the country’s residents for Toronto is ‘Centre of the Universe’ due to residents thinking that everything revolves around them and their city. Not only this, but some other monikers given to Toronto are Clown Town and Moronto!
- Korea – Hermit Kingdom
Mysterious, baffling, and secretive – that’s probably how the world saw Korea during the time of the Joseon (a.k.a. Choson Dynasty) between the 15th to 19th centuries. This is when Korea was nicknamed ‘Hermit Kingdom’ because it had wilfully walled itself off, physically and metaphorically, from the rest of the world.
After Korea split, North Korea continued self-isolation, thus leading it to be again given the moniker of ‘Hermit Kingdom’. Earlier, the isolationist policy include state-controlled media, limited access to information, limited access to traveling overseas, and even discouraging inter-racial marriages and extraditing non-Korean spouses. Even today, only a small part of the Korean population has access to the ‘Kwangmyong’ (Bright Star) which is the state’s official version of intranet. The people are also ranked according to their economic, social, political background and behaviour (collectively known as Songbun), which determines their employability and the education they’ll receive. Labour camps and executions are still prevalent.
There are some views that things are changing in North Korea, but they haven’t been proven. Moreover, the changing views can only be seen for conglomerates, not in the daily lives of the people. Thus, North Korea’s infamous legacy lives on.
- Guinea Coast – White Man’s Grave
The coast of Western Africa (sometimes called the Guinea Coast) is a beautiful but deadly region and earned the notorious soubriquet of ‘White Man’s Grave’ two centuries ago. A cover of perpetual heat, dark, thick jungles, stagnant swamps, flooded rivers, low-lying shores and a permanent stench left the area diseased. Both ‘white’ men and ‘black’ slaves fell easy prey to many tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, etc. Poor hygienic conditions and lack of proper medical care led to people dying in scores. As a result, many people fled the land, never to return.
Although the term was originally coined for Sierra Leone in 1807, Nigeria, Lagos, Ghana (then Gold Coast), and Gambia came under the purview of the moniker. Whether one was talking about transportation routes or country stamps, as in this 1936 article by I.S. Klein, the name struck fear in the hearts of the people.
- Cape Hatteras – Graveyard of the Atlantic
Situated off the Northern Carolina seashore, Cape Hatteras has seen more than 1,000 shipwrecks since 1526, earning itself the nickname of ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’. Sailing close to the North Carolina seashore (between Nags Head and Cape Fear) was the cheapest way to move cargo up and down the coast, which resulted in ships passing Cape Hatteras. The place, which is known as Diamond Shoals, has linear formations of gravel, silt and sand (sandbars/shoals) submerged just beneath the water. The Cape is also the meeting point of the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador Current. While most ships underestimated the depth of the water and were run aground due to the shoals, some wrecks are attributed to rough seas caused by the meeting of the currents.
Today, Hatteras even has a maritime museum called ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ where exhibits on the shipwrecks, World War II, Civil War, pirates and diving fascinate the public. The Cape is also the closest landmass to the ill-famed Bermuda triangle, where many a ship and airplane have disappeared mysteriously. Although sailing guides today say that 90% of the passages near Cape Hatteras are uneventful, this watery grave is best avoided.
- Tezpur – City of Blood
Imagine saying that you live in the city of blood. The people of Tezpur in Assam, India have no eloquent way of saying it because Tezpur literally means City of Blood (‘Teza’ – blood in Sanskrit, ‘Pur’ – city/town). Legend has it that when the ruler of the Asuras (demons) King Banasur ruled Tezpur, his daughter Usha and Lord Krishna’s grandson Anirudh fell in love. Enraged, Baan held Anirudh captive, which led to a war between Baan and Krishna. The blood that spread over the battlefield and even turned the River Brahmaputra red is how Tezpur came to be named so. This is an unfortunate coincidence considering that the love story of Usha-Anirudh also led to Tezpur being called the City of Eternal Romance.
Talk about irony!
- Afghanistan – Graveyard of Empires
Other monikers – Land of Bones
Although the theory behind Afghanistan acquiring this nickname has many angles, facts demonstrate that no empire has been able to maintain permanent rule in the country. That, along with the much bloodshed that has happened in the land is the reason Afghanistan earned itself the moniker of ‘Graveyard of Empires’. While Alexander the Great’s and the Ghaznavid dynasty’s conquests were marred by revolts and civil unrests, warrior-king Genghis Khan faced resistance from the Ghurids near Kabul. Three Anglo-Afghan wars which were supposedly fought to resist Russian influence left heavy casualties on both sides and the American troops sent to end the Taliban insurgency were also withdrawn. Although fascinating coincidences, the list of defeats have been attributed to difficult geography and severe climate conditions of the country. Afghanistan continues to be stuck with this nickname even today.
- Russell – Hellhole of the Pacific
No one could even imagine the quaint island settlement of Russell, New Zealand (current Maori name Kororāreka) to have once been the infamous, bawdy, and lawless town called ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’. What today is home to cosy bed & breakfasts and trinket shops once housed rowdy, drunk and impudent Pacific sailors and whalers. Russell, in the early 19th century, was a scene of distasteful decadence and debauchery, with bar fights, brawls, prostitution and even duels and orgies being common occurrences. In fact, this once-anarchic town even held the position of the country’s capital for a while! Today, Russell is a tranquil place and one of the most popular tourist spots in Bay of Islands with churches, eating joints, and museums.
Although Russell has long shed its ‘bad-boy’ image, this distasteful moniker comes back to haunt the scenic establishment when the town celebrates Waitangi Day in February every year.