One Name, Two Parts
Charlottesville … the name conjures up images of a beautiful, historical community at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with iconic features such as Monticello and the Rotunda. Like most place names, people associate the name with visual images of the place, such as the Eiffel Tower for Paris or the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco. In doing this, the origin of the name is lost.
Although it is a single word, the name “Charlottesville” is actually composed of two parts. The two-part pattern is typical of names in the English-speaking world, for example, Albemarle County, Rivanna River, and Carters Mountain. Each name has a generic part, which describes the type of geographic feature (County, River, and Mountain), and a specific part, which identifies the precise feature (Albemarle, Rivanna, and Carters). In the case of Charlottesville, we have the two parts combined into one word, the generic term “ville” and the specific reference to “Charlotte.”
The Charlotte in Charlottesville refers to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), the wife of King George III and the British Queen consort (and Electress of Hanover). She was an amateur botanist, philanthropist, and sponsor of the arts. That said, she is most widely known as the wife of King George III, the Mad King.
Charlotte’s name is found in locations across the British Empire, including the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia (now known as Haida Gwaii); Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand; Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island, Charlotte County, VA; Charlotte County, FL; Charlotte, Vermont; and Charlotte, NC … which is known as the Queen City.
The “ville” in Charlottesville comes from the modern French word meaning “city” or “town”, although in the Middle Ages the term referred to a “farm” and later a “village.” In Names on the Land: The Classic Story of American Placenaming, George Stewart observes that the name became especially popular after the American Revolution, noting that the “sudden popularity can thus be simply and surely credited to the enthusiasm for the French which swept the county.”
He notes that Charlottesville, which was established in 1762, is an exception of a “ville” placename named prior to the American Revolution. According to the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), Virginia has 356 “ville” names for populated places, 13 of which are found in Albemarle County.
Batesville / Boonesville / Brookville Manor / Brownsville / Covesville / Doylesville / Earlysville / Earlysville Heights / Everettsville / Howardsville / Nortonsville / Owensville / Scottsville
“Ville” names are spread across the United States, with most east of the Mississippi River and the heaviest density falling in the Midwest and along the coastal states from Virginia to Massachusetts.
The GNIS lists 8247 names across the United States and its territories, including some well-known cities.
Asheville, NC / Fayetteville, NC / Gainesville, FL / Huntsville, AL / Jacksonville, FL / Knoxville, TN / Louisville, KY / Nashville, TN
As for Charlottesville, there are only two other populated places named Charlottesville in the United States, both are small crossroads in Indiana. The Charlottesville in Hancock and Rush Counties, with a population of 631 in 2012, is believed to have been named for Charlottesville, VA. The other lesser known and poorly documented Charlottesville is located Union County.
The next time you see a placename, take a look at the name and look beyond your mental image of the place. Break the name down into its specific and generic parts. In addition to the “ville” generic, you may see other common generics, such as “burg,” “burgh”, “bury”, “chester,” “don,” “field”, “glen,” “ham,” or “ton.” These generic terms once had a meaning that is largely lost today. In populated placenames, these individual words are now combined with the specific term into a single word, losing their distinctiveness. And with all placenames, you will often find two stories, one about the name itself and a second about how the name came to be.
Baker, Ronald L. (October 1995). From Needmore to Prosperity: Hoosier Place Names in Folklore and History. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-32866-3.
Stewart, George R. (Reprinted July 2008, originally published in 1945). Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. New York Review Books Classics. ISBN 978-1-590-17273-5
Geographic Names Information System (U.S. Board on Geographic Names)