Driving through the area, I've often wondered about Bethoven St. in Polish Hill. Was it named after Beethoven? If so, why is his name misspelled?
Well, the Post-Gazette archives have a bit of local history about that musical street, as well as a few of Western Pa.'s other quirky names. Check out this PG article by Torsten Ove from May 8, 1998, that explains it all:
Up in Polish Hill, there's a street named Bethoven.
As far as anyone can tell, it's a misspelling of Beethoven.
A few years back, WQED and the city made a push to get it spelled right, even creating a sign with the correct name. But most of the people who live in the neighborhood said no, leave it alone, it's always been that way.
''So what we have here is the Beethoven Street sign in our studio,'' said WQED's Jim Cunningham. ''We almost got it spelled right, but not quite.''
Bethoven Street remains, leaving passers-by and newcomers to scratch their heads and wonder:
Who the heck was Bethoven?
It's the kind of question you can find yourself asking often in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Strange and interesting names for streets and towns abound.
Consider Turkeytown and Scalp Level, Hunker and Nanty Glo, Dragon Rouge Drive and Swamp Poodle Road.
And consider the names you've heard but can't quite place in the region's rich history: Forbes, Pitt, Lawrence, Aliquippa, McKee, Duquesne, Shinghiss, Monacatootha.
''The problem is that when you live here for a while the names sound all right to you,'' said Pat Bass, who moved to Level Green from Rochester, N.Y., 25 years ago and now works for the Chamber of Commerce in Greensburg.
''When I first moved here I thought, 'You've got to be kidding.' ''
Local names reflect the crazy-quilt heritage of the region.
They're a curious blend of French (Versailles, Jumonville Street), Indian (Monongahela, Guyasuta), English (Forbes Avenue, Chatham College) and German (Steuben Street) combined with such modern oddities as Four Wheel Drive in Richland, Allegheny County.
''It's tough to keep street signs on Four Wheel Drive,'' township secretary Dean Bastianini said. ''People like to steal them.''
Most likely, Four Wheel Drive got its name because it's steep.
How many people really care what places are called?
The late A. Henry Espenshade sure did. In 1925, he wrote ''Pennsylvania Place Names,'' which detailed the origins of counties, towns and villages across the state.
''It is a cause for regret that men and women who are otherwise well-informed should be so generally ignorant of the history and the meaning of the names they use every day,'' he wrote.
''It is a mistake, however, to suppose that most people are not interested in names, that they do not care to know their origin and meaning, or that they have no sense of their fitness or beauty.''
Of course, it can be hard to see the beauty in some names, such as Pit Hole City in Venango County or Slabtown in Armstrong County.
But all local names have roots, connecting residents to a past long forgotten or never realized.
Where do they come from?
Lots of sources.
Take Turkeytown in Westmoreland County. It was named because the local folks herded flocks of turkeys and geese to market.
Or Eighty Four in Washington County. It was named because the post office opened in 1884.
Or Scalp Level in Cambria County. According to one of several stories, an early settler, Jacob Eash, wasn't satisfied with the tree stumps workers had left while clearing land for a cemetery.
So he gave them an order: ''Boys, scalp them level.'' The name caught on.
Moon was named from the ''somewhat moon-shaped'' section of the Ohio River, and when a new township was carved out of the old in 1855, it seemed only natural to call it Crescent - for the quarter-phase crescent moon.
New Paris in Bedford County got its name after a resident visited Paris and came away inspired. New Paris sounds a lot better than the old name: Mudtown.
And Richland? In 1860, it was created from the townships of Pine and Deer. But people in those townships complained that the new community was taking up too much of the ''rich land.''
Names can get tricky, especially when stories about their origins prove to be dubious.
One explanation of Ligonier, cited in Espenshade's book, is that a hunter shot a buck that was ''leisurely scratching his ear with his hind foot.'' The bullet penetrated both the ''leg an' ear.'' The name Ligonier evolved from there.
In truth, Ligonier is named for a British soldier, Field Marshal Sir John Louis Ligonier.
Another tale has it that Loyalhanna in Westmoreland County is named for an Indian woman named Hannah who stuck by her father after he had become old and could no longer hunt.
Among the settlers, the story goes, the woman became known as ''Loyal Hannah,'' and the settlement was named in her honor.
The real story: Loyalhanna is an Indian name for the nearby stream, which means simply ''middle river.''
Street names can fool you, too.
Loop Street in Aspinwall used to be called Llawnipsa Street, which sounds like an Indian name.
But it was actually Aspinwall spelled backward.
Aidyl Avenue in Brookline is like that, too. Named for landowner Lydia Flemming, Aidyl is Lydia spelled backward.
Some streets turn out to have perfectly plausible names, even though at first blush they seem scandalous.
In Pittsburgh, Philander Street brings to mind adulterous doings, but it has nothing to do with philandering.
''We're not quite French enough for that,'' said Michael Eversmeyer, former city historical preservation planner.
The street is actually named for Philander Knox, U.S. senator, secretary of state and attorney general of the United States.
Wars have always played a role in naming streets.
Pittsburgh has the Mexican War Streets with names like Buena Vista, and several streets are named after Civil War heroes, such as Meade and Sherman.
Modern history is responsible for many names, too.
New Kensington has streets named Marne Avenue and Argonne Drive, famous and bloody World War I battles. The Boulevard of the Allies was named after the World War I protagonists. And during The Great War, Berlin Road in Forest Hills was changed to Washington Road.
Some streets have very little history to draw on. When developers map out housing plans, they often name the roads after a theme, such as species of trees.
Occasionally they're more imaginative, as in the case of the King of Arms development in Richland.
That's where you'll find Dragon Rouge Drive and Lord Lyon Drive, names reminiscent from the days of King Arthur.
Richland also has a newer development where the roads are named after patterns of china, such as Lenox Court and Tiffany Court.
Out in Beaver County, you can find a few road names that are downright weird.
In Brighton, there's Windy Ghoul Drive, named for a rocky, wind-whipped region in Scotland called Windyghoul featured in the British novel ''The Little Minister'' by James Barrie, who also wrote ''Peter Pan.''
Swamp Poodle Road in South Beaver Township is another head-shaker.
But it makes sense once you understand that a swamp poodle is another word for groundhog.
A few street names defy explanation.
Many Pittsburgh alleys have bizarre names ending in ''Way,'' such as Ionic Way, Cake Way, Comet Way, Cobalt Way and Costume Way.
''It just strikes me that a committee got together,'' Eversmeyer said, ''grabbed a dictionary and chose a name.''
But most local names were established long ago.
In the 1700s, the British fought the French and their Indian allies for control of the Pittsburgh region. The British won. Prominent men on all sides lent their names to towns and roads, and so did some women.
Aliquippa, for example, is named for Queen Aliquippa (sometimes spelled Allequippa), a Seneca Indian woman known as the Queen of the Delawares.
She was born in 1680 and lived on the site of McKeesport.
In 1753, she took offense at George Washington for not paying his respects to her when he traveled across her land. So when he returned, he appeased her with a bottle of rum and a watch-coat.
Speaking of Washington, he didn't really land at Washington's Landing, according to local historian and author Hax McCullough.
Washington and his guide were marooned on an island near the 40th Street Bridge, McCullough said, when their rowboat sank. That island isn't there anymore. But McCullough said nearby Herrs Island had taken the name Washington's Landing anyway.
Many Pittsburgh streets are named for famous generals, such as John Neville, John Stanwix, John Forbes.
But Grant Street is different.
People assume it takes its name from Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero and president.
Some Grant streets in Western Pennsylvania are named for him, after all.
But the Grant Street Downtown is named for Maj. James Grant, a pompous British officer who led 300 Scotchmen to a disastrous end in 1758 during the French and Indian War.
Grant is only one name in a pantheon of historical figures, each one with a story to tell.
Carlton Bates, for example, gave his name to Bates Street.
''He was in a duel,'' McCullough said. ''It was one of those duels of honor of long ago. I think he killed the guy.''
Smithfield Street is named for Devereaux Smith, a pioneer Indian trader and one of Pittsburgh's first merchants.
General Robinson Street is named for General William Robinson, the first white child born in old Allegheny and the first mayor of that town.
Butler Street — and the town of Butler — is named for Maj. Richard Butler, a Revolutionary War soldier.
Lawrenceville was named for James Lawrence, a sea captain killed off Boston harbor during the war of 1812 who uttered the famous line, ''Don't give up the ship.''
''You go by these streets all the time and you don't know who they are,'' McCullough said. ''That's sort of silly, because the people who originally named those streets expected you would be honoring those people.''