A Bilingual State Of Mind – Place Names In Szekely Land: Etymological Exotica

One of my favorite travel activities takes place before I ever leave home. This involves spreading out a map and studying it while planning a travel route. For Szekely Land, I had an excellent road map of Transylvania (Erdely in Hungarian) that I purchased at a MOL petrol station in eastern Hungary. I like to buy good quality road maps of places that I plan on eventually visiting. This is in the hopes that one day I will use them. That moment had arrived. Scanning the map for potential routes I could not help but notice the very strange names of Szekely Land’s larger towns. This became more than a temporary distraction as I began to wonder less about the route I would take and more what these names could possibly mean. The fact that each town had a Hungarian and a Romanian name complicated the situation further. I found myself having so much trouble with these names, that I decided to research their actual meanings.

Multilingual sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Multilingual sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Mutually Unintelligible – Lost In Translation
On the western edge of Szekely Land was the city of Targu Mures. Though it has a Romanian majority, it is home to a very large Hungarian minority who call the city Marosvasarhely. I found these the easiest names to pronounce of the cities in Szekely Land, but while saying them was rather easy, I did not have the slightest clue as to what they meant. A bit of cursory research resulted in the discovery that both the Hungarian and Romanian names of the city meant virtually the same thing. The Romanian “Targ” and Hungarian vasarhely both mean marketplace. The meaning of these words may be synonymous, but the difference in languages could not be more distinct. Romanian, part of the Romance language family and Magyar (Hungarian), part of the Finno-Ugric family, have little in common.

As for the Mures and Maros found in the city’s names, they refer to the river which runs through the city. This being Transylvania, there is also a German name for the city. Historically it was home to a community of Saxons. Superficially that name, Neumarkt am Mieresch, looks very different from either the Romanian or Hungarian versions. Yet when literally translated the German variation means the same thing as in the other languages. The genesis of this name dates back to the early 17th century when the famous Transylvanian prince, Gabor Bethlen (an ethnic Hungarian), granted it the status of a free royal city. This brought the city special economic privileges which boosted its role as a trading hub. The economic imperative is a long running thread in Targu Mures’ history. The most striking example of which can be found in the first documentation of its name in 1349, then it was known Latin as Novum Forum Siculorum which means New Szekely Marketplace.

Bilingual street sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Bilingual street sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely) (Credit: Kulja)

If Words Could Smell – A Pungent Odorheiu
The further eastward I went on the map into Szekely Land, the stranger the names. One of my favorites was a small city that went by the name of Odorheiu Secuisec in Romanian. I knew the latter word in the name meant Szekely in Romanian, but the first word was baffling. If words could smell bad, then Odorheiu had a foul stench about it. Entering it in Google Translate did nothing to clarify its meaning. According to that program, Odorhei in Romanian means Odorhei in English. I contacted a Romanian friend of mind, whose replied that she was “Not sure if it means anything.” The German form of the city’s name, Odorhellen, was just as odious as the Romanian form and offered no better explanation. I had better luck with its Hungarian name of Szekelyudvarhely which means Szekely courtyard place. The name likely results from its historical role as a hub of Szekely power for many centuries. The name was one of the few I found much easier to pronounce in Hungarian than Romanian. It also offers an example of how the Hungarian language combines words into one long stream of consonants and vowels, while Romanian more logically – at least to my mind – spaces out the different words, even if they are still unintelligible.

Moving eastward again, I found more toponymic teasers. The city of Miercurea-Ciuc (Romanian) was noticeable for the simple fact that it looked like a word one would find on the back of a medicine bottle. The name looked and sounded just about as foreign as anything I have had the displeasure of pronouncing. The Hungarian name, Csikszereda, was a bit easier to say, but understanding its meaning a bit more mind bending. Miercurea means Wednesday in Romanian, as does szereda in Hungarian. After some research I discovered that the name derived from trade fairs held in the city on Wednesdays. I found this to be a rather delightful derivation, a reminder that trade fairs were the medieval equivalent of market days which still take place in towns both large and small in Transylvania.

Untying The Tongue –   Saying What You Mean
I found my favorite Romanian city name, Sfantu Gheorghe way down in the southeastern corner of Szekely Land. The word Sfantu literally rolled off my tongue. It was easy to remember and define, as the Romanian word for Saint. Since the second word quite obviously was the Romanian word for the name George, it meant the city was named for Saint George, who was the patron saint of its most famous medieval church. The Hungarian word for Sfantu Gheorghe was a built more difficult to enunciate. Each time I tried to say Sepsiszentgyorgy, I felt like the word was being spit out of my mouth. The Sepsis prefix added a whole new layer of meaning to the word. It is a callback to the earliest days of the Szekely in Transylvania, when they inhabited the southern frontier in the Sebes area. They were displaced from that region when the Kings of Hungary settled Saxons there beginning in the 12th century. The Szekely have kept this medieval memory alive through the name of Sepsiszentgyorgy.

The strange sounding names of Szekely Land were not confined to the largest cities. There was Sangeorgiu de Padure (Erdoszentgyorgy), Cristuru Secuiesc (Szekelykeresztur) and Targu Secuiesc (Kezdivasarhely). The map was covered in exotica to the point that one word names were relatively rare and noticeable. By going north to south, I spotted Borsec (Borzek), Balan (Balanbanya) and Baraolt (Barot). I got the distinct feeling after looking at Szekely Land, that I would need more than a road map when traveling through this remote land. A bilingual state of mind, a vocabulary guide to untie my tongue and a knowledge that all the names somehow might make sense are travel essentials if I really want to understand Szekely Land.

2 thoughts on “A Bilingual State Of Mind – Place Names In Szekely Land: Etymological Exotica

  1. Dear Chris,
    Happy Easter from Marosvasarhely where I am staying after an extensive tour of the Szekelyföld.
    Best as ever.

    • Michael,
      I hope you got to Szekelyderzs. The fortified church there is magnificent. Szekelyudvarhely is my favorite small city in Europe.
      We just moved to northeast Ohio, which has the largest Hungarian-American population in the United States.

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