Looking at a map of Stockholm’s suburbs, you find a swarm of place names denoting housing areas. The housing is almost entirely 20th century. But many of the names go back a thousand years or more. Today they’re all just suburbs. But not so long ago, all of these names were part of a hierarchical nomenclature, a ladder of names. The names on the ladder’s top rung denoted parishes and were used throughout the county. On the second rung down were the names of farmsteads, used among the surrounding few parishes, and among wayfarers in cases where a farmstead happened to be located on a major road. But many of Stockholm’s suburbs are on the third rung down: their names denoted parts of a farmstead’s lands and were only used among the surrounding few farmsteads.
I’m reading Per Vikstrand’s new book about the place names of southern Öland. Today I learned a good word for the names on the third rung: närhorisontnamn, “names of the close horizon”. Two farmsteads in a parish can’t have the same name, because that would lead to confusion. But as long as their lands don’t abut, there’s no reason why they can’t both have plots of land named “Old Man’s Meadow”, “Rye Field” and “Baker’s Bog”. They’re names of the close horizon. Few people have reason to talk about each place, and so there’s no risk of confusion. Sweden has tens of thousands of places named “Lake Meadow”, “Horse Pasture” and “Sandy Field”.
Farmsteads must lie some ways apart, and their locations are largely determined by access to resources such as arable land and pasture. Exactly what resources a farmstead needs is in its turn determined by the agricultural technology of each era, and so the settlement sites of each millennium are found in different characteristic locations. Modern housing estates, however, follow completely different rules, largely having to do with communication with the nearest city but also with aesthetic concerns such as views from hilltops and proximity to lakes and woods.
The 20th century suburbs of Stockholm were rolled out like a carpet over an age-old agricultural landscape. Housing estates were built in locations that would have seemed absurd to the farming generations who came before. Why build housing on Pine Crag, in Baker’s Bog and at the disreputable Purse Torment roadside tavern? Still, thousands of people came to call these places home.