What’s in a name? Well quite a bit, as it turns out. Who named all these mountains, when, and why? In the French alps it’s been Celts, followed by Romans, then the French themselves, with a fair bit of their local dialect, the patois, in the mix.
The further back in time we go, the more practical the names are. The locals only bothered to name a mountain if it served the useful purpose of helping them to locate something; and they were really only interested in three things: hunting, crystal gathering and livestock grazing. Look out for a ‘Pointe d’Amethystes’ or a ‘Pointe de Chamois’, or ‘le Prarion’ which is the shape of the meadow below the peak (in this case, round).
On the same theme, ‘Le Pointe de Genepi’ stands above an area with many wormwood plants artemesia umbelliformis, and bit of hooch distilling.
‘Balme’ is derived from an old word meaning cave, or shelter, and crops up in many places.
Many, if not most of the alpine summits were unnamed, because no one was in the slightest bit interested in them. Indeed, they were positively feared: for many years the whole group of mountains including Mont Blanc were called ‘les Monts Maudits’, whereas now just one summit in the massif to the east of Mont Blanc retains this name.
As time went on and people moved up the valleys, eventually climbing for the sheer joy of it, peaks were named for their looks (Dent du Geant, Les Flammes de Pierre), for patriotism (Aiguille de la Republique) and one of my favourites, the wonderfully named ‘ ecclesiastical ridge’ tumbling down from the Aiguille Verte towards the Mer de Glace, including le Cardinal, ‘l’Eveque (the bishop) l’Enfant du choeur (the choirboy) l’Aiguille du Moine (the monk’s needle) and so on – there’s a nun in there somewhere too!
Many peaks and mountain features are named now after famous mountaineers, of course (Pointe Whymper on the Grandes Jorasses). Finally, the most useful of all, above Chamonix, the Aiguille du Midi, when you’re in the middle of the town, the sun will be over the needle at noon. Time for lunch.