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April 24, 2007

Kelsie B. Harder, World-Renowned Onomastician, is Dead at 84


Harder (above) was a toponomist — an onomastician who specializes in place names.

His ruminations about why his parents gave him what sounded like a girl's name provoked his interest in proper nouns and led him to his calling.

Douglas Martin's appreciative obituary, which appeared in the April 22, 2007 New York Times, follows.

    Kelsie B. Harder, Name Expert, Dies at 84

    Kelsie B. Harder, whose ruminations about why his parents gave him what sounded like a girl’s name provoked such enthrallment with proper nouns that he became a leading onomastician — a student of names and their origins — died on April 12 at his home in Potsdam, N.Y. He was 84.

    The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Louise.

    Dr. Harder wrote or edited more than 1,000 articles, books, reviews, notes and poems, and presided over organizations like the American Name Society, whose magazine he edited. He advised the Random House Dictionary and other lexicons and headed the usage committee of the American Dialect Society.

    As a toponomist — an onomastician who specializes in place names — he was director of the Place Name Survey of the United States, and in 1990 gave the keynote address at the Library of Congress on the 100th anniversary of the United States Board on Geographic Names.

    His large achievements began with baby steps, literally. Dr. Harder learned that his parents had wanted to give him an unusual name and liked the sound of Elsie, his sister’s. They stuck a “K” in front of Elsie. Dr. Harder, like “A Boy Named Sue” in the song, spent a lifetime explaining that he was not a girl named Kelsie.

    “We are at the mercy of our name givers,” he said in a 1987 interview with The Post-Standard of Syracuse. “These things influence us for the rest of our lives, and we have nothing to do with it.”

    Dr. Harder, who taught English for a generation at the State University of New York at Potsdam, was more than a crusader for the rights of the unfortunately named, although as the author of two books on baby names, he accepted the challenge. He warned that boys named “Jr.” ended up on psychoanalysts’ couches. He noted that many baby boomer girls had names like Heather and Tammy, which he said recalled those of Playboy centerfolds.

    “It was about that time that the man of the house got into the naming business,” he said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1988. “I don’t see how the women would have done it.”

    His own experience, along with vast research, informed his work. One of his first articles was on the language of playing marbles. He also wrote about the language of his native Perry County, Tenn., including “The Vocabulary of Hog Killing,” and investigated how Sober Street in a town near Potsdam got its name when it wasn’t.

    Kelsie Brown Harder was born on a farm on Aug. 23, 1922. His father taught in a one-room school. Kelsie, a bright child, was promoted three grades beyond his age in elementary school.

    When older children bullied him, he refused to go to school for a year, a decision his parents supported.

    He fished and hunted, telling his family years later that he was such a good shot he considered it a waste of ammunition if he went out with 10 bullets and came back with only 8.

    During World War II he worked for the War Department as a civilian, then served in the Army. He used the G.I. Bill to attend Vanderbilt University, where professors blanched at his country-bumpkin dialect, his wife said.

    He graduated magna cum laude in English, with minors in philosophy and Spanish. He then earned a master’s degree in English from Vanderbilt and a doctorate in English from the University of Florida. He taught at Youngstown University before joining SUNY Potsdam in 1964. He received two Fulbright grants, one to study in India and one for Poland.

    One of his best-known books is the “Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names” (1976). Tidbits from the dictionary: Ellwood City, Pa., is named for Col. I. L. Ellwood, one of the earliest manufacturers of wire fencing. Iowa comes from a Sioux word for “the sleepy ones.” Hope, Ark., is named for Hope Loughborough, daughter of James Loughborough, a director of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad.

    Sunlight Basin, Creek and Peak in Wyoming all came to be when prospectors lost in the fog glimpsed light. The names of the Upper and Lower Sysladobsis Lakes in Maine mean “rock that resembles dogfish” in an Indian tongue. He found five towns named for Lincoln, but not Abe, and five Franklins not named for Ben. Yankeetown, Fla., got its name from migratory northerners. So did Crackertown, Fla., but that didn’t last.

    In 1992, Dr. Harder, Wolfgang Miedler and Steward A. Kingsbury edited “A Dictionary of American Proverbs,” which among its 15,000 entries has seven versions of “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

    His works also included an article urging deeper research on negative words that are reduced to their initial letters like S.O.B. (he cited use by President Truman) and B.O. (kindly citing no one).

    In addition to his wife, the former Louise Maron, Dr. Harder is survived by three sons, Gerald, of Hanford, Calif., Dennis, of Norwood, N.Y., and Frank, of Hammond, N.Y.; two daughters, Anne Leslie Bedell, of Milford, Pa., and Marcia Louise Harder, of Washington; his sister, Elsie Carrie Boyd, of Linden, Tenn.; and 11 grandchildren.

    He is also survived by his son Kelsie, of Reno, Nev., who at least is not a Jr.

April 24, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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