I'm back from Yosemite! And I learned some really cool things while I was there. We went on a great tour one day and I learned some of the stories behind the native American names of places in the valley. I love this kind of stuff - in part because I love stories, and in part because I think any place with a long history will have hidden stories in it.
Hidden story #1: Yosemite
It turns out that Yosemite is not the name of the tribe that lived in the Yosemite area; it was the name of the chief's family. And it means "grizzly bear fighter." The tribal group that lived there was the Ahwahneechee, which means "gaping mouth people." The Ahwahnee hotel is named after this group.
Hidden story #2: Tule takanula = El Capitan
El Capitan, as some of you may already know, is the biggest single granite rock face in the world. Its name means "little inchworm." A little counterintuitive, I know, but it comes from a great story. The story is that two baby black bears sat down on a granite rock to have a nap, and while they were asleep it grew and grew into this gigantic rock face - trapping them at the top. The mother bear tried to climb it in order to rescue them, and left the tracks of her claws on the face, but was unable to get them down. The deer and many other animals tried, but all of them failed until - you guessed it - the inchworm gave it a shot. He climbed up the face inch by inch, and took down the baby bears one at a time. A science fiction writer might be concerned with how the inchworm was able to handle carrying a baby bear, but fortunately we're working with folklore here! Thus, the name of this giant face is that of a tiny inchworm.
Hidden story #3: Pohono Falls = Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil falls is very lovely, and I have heard that when the wind blows right in certain seasons, it can blow the entire waterfall up into spray like raising a veil. Its native American name is much more sinister: it means "evil spirit wind." The story behind it is that once long ago a woman of the Ahwahnee was standing up at the top of the falls when a gust of wind rose up from the lake above and pushed her over the edge. Ever after that, it was believed that an evil spirit resided in that lake, and that it would send out winds to push the unwary over the edge. Maybe the white settlers thought that was a bit too macabre when they renamed it - but I thought it was cool.
Finding stories like this always inspires me. As you work with a fantasy or science fictional world, think about its history. Names for places can come from the people who settled a place, or they might come from stories associated with that place. People have stories about the places where they live - even the newest. I'm guessing that the people who built a space station might give an interesting name to a place on the station where a terrible accident occurred, for example. At the very least, thinking about a place's history and trying to reflect that history in names will give a sense of depth to the world. And you may even feel inspired to give additional significance to the history of a place so that it affects the course of the story you are writing. All worlds are built in layers of individual experience over time; it's worth taking the time to explore the possibilities in your own writing.