Aina and I live downtown in Toronto (something of a change from my cowtown hometown of youth), and most weekends we stay in town, maybe go out on the town (I’m not really a man-about-town, but sometimes it’s nice to just go to town), maybe stay in (on Sunday evenings it’s Downton Abbey, which many people call Downtown Abbey). But sometimes we get out of town to visit family who live in some other town – a medium-small town on the shore of Georgian Bay, or a suburb of a border town that’s really just across the river from town but is much more like country, or a village near a small city in southwestern New York. This past weekend we visited the latter two, and we had occasion to discuss the word town.
The word town has an official meaning in New York, as in most American states, that may seem a bit odd to those not used to it. I don’t mean the Manhattan-originated distinction of downtown versus uptown, which arose because Manhattan rises towards the north (when you’re far uptown, it’s all pretty elevated, with steep escarpments down to the river). No, it’s this: just as the state is divided into counties, each county is divided into towns (in some other places these sorts of subdivisions are called townships, but New York is not in that boat). The only part of a county that is not a town is any part that is a city. Within the towns are incorporated settlements called villages and hamlets, as well as unincorporated settlements.
For instance, Chautauqua County (the westernmost county of New York State) is divided into 27 towns plus two cities – Dunkirk and Jamestown. (Yes, that’s right, Jamestown is a city, and is not a town or part of a town.) The city of Dunkirk is surrounded by, but not part of, the town of Dunkirk. Dunkirk is often referred to in the term Dunkirk-Fredonia, because it has a twin city, Fredonia, except that Fredonia is about half as big and has the status of a village; it’s in the town of Pomfret. Dunkirk is an industrial town of sorts; Fredonia has a campus of the State University of New York, so it has a little bit of a town-and-gown divide.
My grandmother used to live in Fredonia, but now she’s in a different town, Gerry (pronounced “garry”). She lives in a little town, more of a village or a hamlet, also called Gerry, but though it has a name, it’s not incorporated, so while we might think of this little town as a village or a hamlet, it’s just part of a town. (Every town in Chautauqua – and throughout the state – has quite a few of these little named places. Some are closer to ghost towns now, though they may have been boom towns in their heyday.) But it’s a quick trip from there into town – that is, into Jamestown, which of course is not a town or a part of a town, but is the local business and market town, and it has plenty of nice townsfolk, though it’s not too uptown – very towny for the most part.
So what she’s living in is probably too small to be thought of as a town, except it’s in a town, but that’s a different sense of town. And for me, the whole thing is just plain odd, because growing up I learned that a town was something bigger than a village but smaller than a city, while town (no article) was what you called your largest local settlement, and if you’re in a city you refer to it as town in a variety of phrases. As it happens, this is generally true in common usage, even in the US, so they have the added complexity in most states of the official town along with the colloquial uses of town.
Town really is one of English’s elementary, or should I say elemental, words. Just as chemical elements can combine to make a variety of different things with different characteristics – for instance, a reactive metal (sodium) and a poison gas (chlorine) combine to make an essential dietary component (salt), and different combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms can make molecules that you can drink, that you can fuel your car with, that you can scrape your car windows with, that you can clean your car windows with, and quite a lot of other variations, gas, solid, and liquid, safe and dangerous – elementary words likewise mix to have different meanings in different contexts.
I’ve put a number of those in action already in this note. There are also the compounds, such as townhouse (which means one thing in New York City and something a bit different in Western Canada – but always a narrow multistorey residence), hometown, Chinatown, and all those city and town names ending in town or ton – but make sure you get your town and ton straight, or a country manor could become a business district.
And where does town come from? It’s an old Germanic word, showing up in Old English as tuun, which meant “walled settlement” or “enclosed place”, but the original root referred to a wall or hedge – it came by transference to refer to what was enclosed by the wall or hedge. (Imagine a hedgehog being a townhog!)
And how does it taste to us now? It has all the resonances of its many collocations and compound uses, of course; as a word to say, it is quick and stays on tongue tip with the consonants (crisp start, warmer finish), while the vowel closes to rounded and raises the tongue in the back. For some reason, for me, town has a sort of windy or dusty feel to it, perhaps due to the aspirated /t/ and the rounded vowel. And the letters? You can see own but you can’t hear it; you can also anagram to wont (habit) and nowt (nothing). You may even see a hidden two lurking, and a little hint of twin… but I’m not used to hearing talk of twin towns, just twin cities.
But on the other hand, no one talks of city and country; it’s town and country, and a nice pair they make. After all, a country has parts that are country and parts that are town or city. There is much land in the land, though not all of it is landscape. Oh, yes – land, like town, comes from Germanic roots via Old English, while city and country come from Latin via French. There’s so much flavour and fun available with these words… you can really go to town with them.