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Names

"Look at that one covered with snow, and that one with the high, pointed rocks. What are their names, Peter?"
"Mountains don't have names," he replied.
(Johanna Spyri, Heidi, Chapter 3)

Spyri may have been wrong in suggesting that a simple goatherd like Peter thought that all mountains were nameless, but it is certainly likely that he wouldn’t have been able to identify every one. Until the advent of climbing and tourism the high mountain peaks had no economic value. If a peak was used as a point of reference, then it had had a name. Mountain passes and alpine meadows had a value, and therefore had names, and very often those names later "migrated" to the peaks. But until the 18th century, when scientists, scholars and mountaineers started taking an interest in them few mountains had names that were known outside their local area, and many had none at all.

This led to some confusion for early pioneers. Indeed, on their 1811 expedition which made them the first climbers to conquer the Jungfrau, the Meyer brothers spent two days looking for the way up on the wrong mountain. In 1841 a group of eminent explorers thought they had climbed the Schreckhorn when in fact they were on the Lauteraarhorn, and even their local guides did not realise the mistake. A couple of weeks later one of the same climbers was aiming for the Jungfrau, but having arrived at the Konkordia Platz, where several mountains meet, he set his sights on the wrong peak. When finally persuaded of his error, he named the second one the Trugberg, or Deceitful Mountain.

So, how did the mountains get their names?

Alps and Jura

The name Alps has a long history: the Latin word "Alpes" was already in use in the first century BC. One theory is that it was derived from "albus", = white, and referred originally to the snowy peaks. But others take it back much further, to an ancient root "al" or "ar" indicating a high place, and thus not only the mountains, but also the mountain pastures, a meaning the word "Alp" still has in German and Rumantsch, and "alpe" has in French and Italian.

The word Jura is of ultimately of Celtic origin, but has come via Latin "juria" meaning "forest." 

Piz Nair, Graubünden (in new window)

Piz Nair, Graubünden© Roman Koch

The sharp peak of the Wetterhorn in the Bernese Oberland (in new window)

The sharp peak of the Wetterhorn in the Bernese Oberland© swissworld.org

Colours

Many names refer to the appearance of the mountains, including their colour. Three main colours are distinguished. They may be white from the snow; red could refer to the reflection of the sun at dawn or sunset or to the colour of the rock; black often refers either to the forests darkening the slopes or to the rock colour. Examples include:

White: Weissenstein (G), Wysshorn (G), Dent-Blanche (F), Pizzo Bianco (I) Sassalbo (R)

Red: Rothorn (G), Mont-Rouge (F), Monte Rosa (I), Piz Cotschen (R)

Black: Schwarzhorn (G), le Noirmont (F), Tête-Noire (F - the same mountain is also called Tîta Nâire in patois), Sasso Nero (I), Piz Nair (R)

Others are named after a time of day - usually noon - according to the hour at which the sun reaches a certain point. Thus the Dents du Midi (French), the Mittagshorn (German) or Piz Mez (Rumantsch) all refer to midday.

Anyone who is familiar with the Swiss mountains knows that the same elements crop up over and again in their names. Here are some examples:

French

  • Aiguille = peak (literally: needle) (Aiguille-du-Midi)
  • Arête = ridge (literally: fishbone) (Arête de Sorebois)
  • Bec (Becca in patois) = peak (literally: beak) (Bec d'Epicoune, Becca de la Lia)
  • Col = pass (col de la Forclaz) (Forclaz is the patois equivalent of German Furka)
  • Dent = peak (literally: tooth) (Dent-d'Hérens)
  • Roc = rock (Roc d'Orzival)
  • Rocher = rock (Rochers-de-Naye)
  • Six, Sex = rock (Sex de l'Aigle, Six Blanc)
  • Tête (Tita in patois) = head (Tête Blanche)
  • Vanil = rocky summit (Vanil Noir)

German

  • Balm - overhanging cliff (Balmhorn)
  • Eck, Egg, Eggen = slope, summit (Scheidegg, Egghorn)
  • Fluh, Flüe = cliff (Bachflue)
  • Furka, Furgge = literally: fork. Indicates a pass leading between two high points. (Furkapass, Furgg)
  • Gipfel = summit (Vorgipfel)
  • Grat = ridge (Gornergrat)
  • Horn = peak (a pyramid, in which back-to-back glaciers have worn down three sides) (Matterhorn)
  • Joch = saddle (it actually refers to the dip in the middle of a yoke, and is used exclusively for some high Alpine passes) (Jungfraujoch)
  • Kulm = top (Harderkulm)
  • Spitze = peak (Dreiländerspitz)
  • Stock = literally: tree stump (Stockhorn)

Italian

  • cima = summit (Cima Bianca)
  • corno = peak (Corno Rosso)
  • filo = ridge (literally: thread) (Cima di Filo)
  • forca, forcola, forcoletta, forcellina = literally: fork (see German Furka) (Forca di Casséo)
  • monte = mountain (Monte Moro)
  • muotta = hill, slope
  • passo = pass (Passo S.Jorio)
  • pizzo = peak (Pizzo Bianco)
  • sasso = rock (Sasso Nero)

Rumantsch

  • bot, botta = hill (Bot digl Uors, Botta Bruonza)
  • corn = peak (Corn Suvretta)
  • crap = rock (Crap Alv)
  • cuolm, culms, culmatsch etc = top (as German Kulm) (Cuolm d'Mez)
  • fil = ridge (literally: thread) (Fil Blengias)
  • fuorcla = literally: fork (see German Furka)
  • mott, motta = hill (Motta Bianca)
  • munt = mountain (Munt Pers)
  • muot, muotta, muottas = hill, slope (Muot la Greina)
  • piz = peak (Piz Bernina)
  • sass = rock (Sass dal Poss)
  • spi = ridge (Spi da la Muranza)
  • tschima = summit (Tschima da Flix)
Clouds start gathering above Pilatus on a sunny autumn day (in new window)

Clouds start gathering above Pilatus on a sunny autumn day© swissworld.org

Devils, Maidens and Pontius Pilate

Until the mountains became an object of study and recreation, the high peaks were regarded as places of mystery and very often the haunt of spirits. Thus Les Diablerets in the French-speaking part of canton Valais was called after the devils who haunted the area, playing ninepins with the rocks which sometimes fell onto the land below with catastrophic results. A similar belief is reflected in the Quille-du-Diable, the Devil's Ninepin, in the same area. Less obvious is the name of the Bundalp in the Bernese Oberland. It is named after the heathen spirits who fled there when Christianity came to the valley, and who formed a Bund, or League, to harm followers of the new religion. No-one was willing to go up the mountain or use its pastures, until a holy man managed to wall them up in a little hut and prevent them doing further mischief.

One mountain which was well and truly haunted was Pilatus near Lucerne. The spirit living there was none other than Pontius Pilate himself. One version of the story has it that after the trial of Jesus he went into exile and committed suicide by throwing himself into the lake on top of the mountain. But another story says that the emperor Tiberius fell ill with an incurable disease, and hearing of Christ's miracles ordered Pilate, as local governor, to send him to Rome. On learning that Christ had been crucified, the emperor had Pilate thrown into jail, where he killed himself. Pilate's body was thrown into the Tiber, but instantly a terrible storm arose, and only stopped when the body was taken out. The same thing happened when they threw it into a river in France. In the end it was taken to the top of a remote mountain, at that time called the Frakmont, and left in a mysterious dark pool there. But it had not lost its ability to create havoc with the weather, and the locals blamed it for the destructive storms that sometimes break over the area and on occasion flood even the city of Lucerne. As Joachim Vadianus of St Gallen remarked after climbing it in 1519: "Whether the stories about the lake are true or false is something I am not able to decide, since I could not make any experiment on which to base my judgement, and if I had been able to, I would have exposed myself to great danger." In any case, in the middle ages it was strictly forbidden to attempt to reach the summit for fearing of provoking Pilate's spirit. Those tempted to do so might well have been put off by the story that once a year Pilate appeared above the lake, dressed in ceremonial robes, and anyone who saw him would not live more than a twelvemonth. On the other hand, there was also a belief that a travelling magician had managed to cast Pilate off the rock on the summit where he used to sit and cause storms, and throw him into a bog.

As for Lake Lucerne's famous mountain, the Rigi, some people think its name comes from the Latin "regina", and that it was the "regina montium", the "queen of the mountains," while others derive it from the old German word "Riginen" meaning "stripes" referring to the strata of the mountain, and think it was named for its appearance.

Of the famous threesome in the Bernese Oberland, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the first to get its name was the Eiger, which was mentioned in the 13th century. It seems to refer to its pointed shape, although scholars differ as to whether it is related to the Latin "acer" = sharp, or the Swiss German "Ger", a javelin. Sometimes the name was used for all three, or today's Eiger was distinguished as the Ausser (or Outer) Eiger or Gross (Great) Eiger.

The Jungfrau - maiden - probably refers to the nuns of Interlaken, whose convent, dedicated to the Virgin, owned large amounts of land in the area, including pasture near its foot. As in so many cases, the name of the pasture was later applied to the mountain itself. Another version, however, claims that the shape of the snow covered peak, so near and yet so far, reminded people of nuns in their white robes. The modern name occurs on a map of 1577, but later works give it other names, including Eigers Breithorn.

The Jungfrau's neighbour, the Mönch, or "Monk," only received its present name in 1860, although for the previous 70 years it had been known as the Grossmönch. Before that, it too had had many names, or was not even mentioned on maps at all, implying that it was not a mountain in its own right. These include Inner Eiger, Klein (Small) Eiger and Eigers Schneeberg. As for the origin of its current name, it may be because the monks of Interlaken owned the pasture rights there. But despite being next to a nun, perhaps it has nothing to do with monks at all: it may be a form of the word Münch, or gelding - that name appears on a map of 1606. The name of the pasture on which these animals spent the summer was then transferred to the mountain itself.

Switzerland's most famous mountain has three quite different names. What German (and English) speakers know as the Matterhorn, is called Mont Cervin in French, and Monte Cervino in Italian. To the locals it is simply Horu. It takes its German name from the word "Matt," or meadow - as so commonly happened, the name "emigrated" from the lower, useful part of the countryside, to the peak. As for the French and Italian names, there are different theories. One is that it is named after Cervin, who accompanied the giant Gargantua through Switzerland. According to that story, the mountain was formed when the giant sat on it and squashed it, leaving only the pyramid shape where it was caught between his legs. The more commonly accepted idea is that it is a corruption of Mons Silvinus, from the Latin word "silva" or forest. Again, the name of the lower slopes has migrated to the peak. The famous explorer Saussure is blamed for changing the "s" to a "c" in the misguided belief that the word was related to "cerf", a deer.

Men and (a few) women

It was only in the 19th century that the first definitive map of Switzerland was drawn up, and it naturally included the names of the mountains. To determine these, the local people - in particular mountain users, mainly shepherds, hunters and guides - were asked their opinions, but many peaks simply had no names. It thus fell to explorers and other experts to find names themselves.

In this context, a few mountains were named after people. Often the people so honoured were those who first climbed them - not necessarily the expedition leaders, but also the guides. The Ulrichsspitze and the Niklausspitze are named for the guides Ulrich Furer and Niklaus Kohler, the Punta Carrel has the name of Jean-Antoine Carrel, the guide who led the unsuccessful party in the race to be the first up the Matterhorn. But more were named after the person in charge of the expedition. The Ulrichshorn by Saas Fee was first climbed by Melchior Ulrich, the Kingspitze in 1887 by H. Seymour King. One of the few mountains to be named after a woman is the Gertrudspitze, honouring the British climber Gertrude Bell who climbed it in 1901 (and who is better known for her exploration and political work in the Middle East in the first quarter of the 20th century.)

It is along the Swiss-Italian border that mountaineers have been most commemorated: the Punta Gnifetti, Ludwigshöhe, Parrotspitz, Pic Tyndall, Vincentpyramide and Zumsteinspitze were all named after the men who first climbed them. In the same region, the mountain once known simply as Hochspitz, or High Peak - at (4634 m/15,200 ft) Switzerland's highest - was renamed the Dufourspitze, after one of the 19th century's most distinguished Swiss public figures, Guillaume-Henri Dufour. He is chiefly remembered for leading the government troops to victory in the brief and almost bloodless civil war of 1847, but he was also an eminent cartographer.

There are also a number of peaks in the Grimsel area named after scientists. These names were chosen one day in 1840, when the expedition led by Louis Agassiz to explore the Unteraar glacier was told by their local guide that most of the peaks they could see were still unnamed. So they gave them names on the spot - including Agassiz' own. The Desorhorn, Escherhorn, Grunerhorn, Hugihorn and Scheuchzerhorn all got their names on that occasion. The men so honoured had all made contributions of some sort to mountain exploration.

Nevertheless, there has always been some unease about this practice. Even back in 1865 one member of the Swiss Alpine Club expressed his distaste that his contemporaries should "wish to make an eternal link between our fleeting lives and mountains which are hundreds of thousands of years older than we are, and which will outlive us by as many."

And - as a lady from canton Zurich learned the hard way in 1997 - finding a name is a serious business. Despite winning a name-the-mountain competition organised by a local spa hotel in Vals in the canton of Graubünden, her proposal to call an unnamed 3000 m (9,800 ft) peak "Peter Horä" was turned down by the cantonal authorities. They described it as "bad practice" to name mountains after people, and in any case disapproved of the commercial aim. Vals retorted by dumping a 10 tonne rock outside the offices of the Naming Commission. To no avail: the mountain is still unnamed, and the authorities say it will remain that way.

They reacted no more favourably to another publicity campaign by the Swiss Tourism organisation in 2004, aimed at attracting more Dutch tourists. It started as a joke by the organisation's Amsterdam branch, who wondered idly whether a spare mountain might not be named after the very popular Princess Catharina-Amalia Beatrix Carmen Victoria, second in line to the Dutch throne. The commune of Scuol in Graubünden thereupon proposed calling one of its peaks Piz Amalia, and busied itself with Amalia mania. But the Naming Commission reiterated its distaste for "using the map for publicity purposes" and refused to register the name. The princess herself made no comment: she was only six months old when the row erupted.