From Mount Vesuvius in Bern to Moscow in Schaffhausen

Siberia, Africa, Le Brésil or Himalaia – these place and field names do not seem particularly Swiss. And yet they are in our country. There are probably a few hundred such ‘exotic’ surnames in Switzerland.
André Perler / Swiss National Museum

The ‘exotic’ place and field names usually arose in the past two or three centuries – with very different motives. The naming motif for Vesuvius in Heiligenschwendi BE is obvious: with its almost conical shape, the hill resembles the well-known volcano in southern Italy.

Vesuvius in Heiligenschwendi.
Vesuvius in Italy, 1926.

With many other field names the similarity to the original is less obvious – and often a bit more far-fetched. The Bresilie/Le Brésil For example, the above-mentioned corridor in Jaun FR used to have dry land and was therefore fallow. And in recent centuries, the South American country of Brazil was also thought to be unexplored, hence the name.

From the same idea, some inaccessible areas or areas not suitable for agricultural use were named Africafor example in Buchs SG or Büren SO.

The Jauntal, 1988.

It was not unusual for the ‘exotic’ surname to be given in jest. There is no other explanation for the name Himalaia for a modest wooded slope in Salenstein TG. Several places where it was particularly cold and shady and where the snow lasted longer than in the area are named after the Russian landscape, which is known for its cold and inhospitable conditions Sibiri(e) mentioned for example in Rothrist AG, Kappelen BE or above Elm GL.

Two houses named Petersburg in Fischingen TG and Ramsen SH were also mentioned in jest. The first was built by a man with the last name Peter. Because it was too big, it was nicknamed Petersburg – also based on the sophisticated capital of the Russian Empire. The builder of the second was Peter Neidhart in 1822 – the name motif is the same. In Ramsen the house names came later, analogous to Petersburg Moscow And Warsaw added.

Ramsen with the house names Warsaw, Moscow and Petersburg on the Siegfried map.

The remoteness of areas was also often expressed with appropriate names. The majority are over 20 America in German-speaking Switzerland and also with two people Canada (in Gams SG and Welschenrohr-Gänsbrunnen SO) are far away from the nearest settlements. These names date from the time when the conquest and settlement of the American double continent by Europeans was current.

When more and more Swiss emigrated to North and South America from the 18th century onwards (several hundreds of thousands between 1850 and 1930), the name America in particular acquired many connotations in this country – two of which were undoubtedly ‘far, far away’ and (at least wrongly) “unpopulated area in the west”. This is how they served America And Canada also for naming remote areas in German-speaking Switzerland.

The emigration itself is also reflected in some field names. The American magazine in Hägendorf SO got its name because this originally forested area was cut down to pay municipal debts with the proceeds of the wood sold. The community incurred debts in 1854 to pay for the journey of 128 poor Hägendorfers to America. An expensive deal that was probably worth it for the community because the emigrants were no longer a burden on the poor fund.

There is a similar story behind this American eg in Uetendorf BE: By selling this area, the municipality financed the emigration of poor citizens. And also the hallway Argentina in Niederweningen, ZH probably owes its name to the municipal sale of wood with which emigration – in this case to South America – was financed.

The now cleared Argentine corridor in Niederweningen, aerial photo.

Not all emigrants stayed in their new homeland. Some of them returned. One of them was a farmer named Kampfer, who settled in Wintersingen BL. According to the story, Kampfer often sat on a bench at his farm and, given the foresight there, is said to have said: “Now I’m against America”. The name America then fixed to the location of the bank.

National Museum


For another returnee, a floodplain on the Aare between Heimberg and Steffisburg BE, covered with wild shrubs, reminded him of California, where he had once lived. The area where construction is now taking place was therefore given the name ‘import German’ Californian.

Swiss were also involved in colonies at the time – some owned plantations there, for example the Basel Faesch family in Dutch-occupied Suriname in South America. The Faeschs gave the plantation in Suriname as a wedding gift to their daughter Margaretha Viktoria and her groom Johann Rudolf Ryhiner. Inspired by this, the couple named their estate in Kleinbasel, which was built in 1797 Little Suriname. The street name still exists there In Suriname.

District section Im Kaliforni in Heimberg.

Many emigrants fled poverty and hunger, while others hoped for greater career opportunities abroad. Fortunately, wars were not a driving force for Swiss emigration in the 18th to 20th centuries. But Switzerland was not entirely free from military conflict. And these were also reflected in one or two field names.

Three Swedish ski jump are documented in Breitenbach SO, Begdingen SH and Pfeffingen BL – there they are said to have sheltered from the Swedish troops fighting in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), including in northern Switzerland. Whether the Swedes themselves had entrenched themselves there – that can hardly be clarified.

Also two Russian ski jump there are in Obersiggenthal AG and in Ramsen SH. It is said that Russians holed up there during the Coalition Wars (1792-1815). And both too French ski jump Muotathal SZ and Unterengstringen ZH should not be missing from this list – they would also go back to the coalition wars. However, the actual presence of the troops in question cannot be proven at all these locations.

Battle of the Devil's Bridge between the troops of General Suvorov and the French.  Anonymous, around 1800.

Even when they no longer took place on Swiss territory, wars continued to influence the local field name landscape – probably mostly highly situational and somewhat random. There is one in Busswil near Büren BE Manchuria. This forest clearing was cleared during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which fought for present-day Chinese or Russian Manchuria, and thus got its name.

About fifty years later something similar happened in the same community. This time the Algerian War was fought (1954-1962) – so the deforested land soon became the Algerian capital Algiers called.

The oldest ‘exotic’ surnames mainly include those taken from the Bible Bethlehem. More than a dozen places, corridors and houses have been called this way, some since the Middle Ages. But the motives are very different. Thus became the oldest wooden house in Schwyz Bethlehem called because the poverty reminds us of the stable where Jesus was born. It was probably the same at court Bethlehem in Waldkirch SG. The similarity of the words Bethlehem and Bettelheim probably also played a role in this motif.

The hamlet probably has a so-called dream name Bethlehem in Homburg TG – it was originally inhabited mainly by pious free church immigrants from Bern. Such as the Bern district Bethlehem got its name is unclear. If not one of the two motifs mentioned above, the site may have originally represented a stop on a pilgrimage route connected to Jesus’ birthplace.

There are also two farms in the canton of Lucerne Lebanon to be called. Both are located on a slope and were probably jokingly named after the Middle Eastern mountains known at the time from the Bible. Also streams with the playful, biblical name Jordan There are several in German-speaking Switzerland – one is in Berlingen TG Jordan right next to that Öölbarg.

The Holy Land in Bern.  Bern, Bethlehemacker Development, 1982.

One of the oldest ‘exotic’ surnames still in existence in Switzerland is probably the place name Pontresina – it’s in Latin “Ponte Saraceno” back, so “Bridge of Saracen”. “Saracenus” means again “The Saracen” – the common European term for ‘Muslim’ in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the founder of Pontresina was probably not a Muslim and certainly not a Saracen, but may have owed his name to a slightly darker skin color or (alleged) Middle Eastern descent.

Postcard from Pontresina, around 1913.

For several decades of the 10th century, Muslim warriors actually raided Graubünden, Valais and even as far as St. Gall. But so far there is no archaeological evidence that the Saracens ever settled or even founded cities in what is now Switzerland – despite the adventurous toponomastic attempts of some history buffs to provide evidence.

In names like Sarrasin bite (“Suone of the Saracens”) in Anniviers US or Le Sarrasin in Ponthaux FR “Saracens” refers either to great antiquity (the idea that the Saracens had already built the bisse) or to the cultivation of buckwheat (French «(blé) sarrasin»), because this grain came to Europe via the Muslim Tatars.

By the way, the situation is similar for many people Turkeys in central and eastern Switzerland. In the eastern half of German-speaking Switzerland, maize was used until the 20th century “Türgg(e)” – it was believed that the origin of the Central American grain was in Turkey (see also Italian “granoturco”).

In summary, it can be said that the hundreds of ‘exotic’ field names in Switzerland arose over many centuries and for very different reasons. What they have in common is that they bear witness to the local experience and processing of a wide variety of international events and happenings and that they reflect the imagination of different times in a fascinating way.

André Perler / Swiss National Museum

Source: Blick



I am Ross William, a passionate and experienced news writer with more than four years of experience in the writing industry. I have been working as an author for 24 Instant News Reporters covering the Trending section. With a keen eye for detail, I am able to find stories that capture people's interest and help them stay informed.

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