Thoughts & Views: What’s in a (street) name?



Okay, boys and girls, our new word for today is “contumacious.” According to the dictionary, that’s: con·tu·ma·cious.

Adjective. Pronounced: kon-tuh- MAY-shuhs or kon-too-MAYshuhs.

Definition: stubbornly disobedient; rebellious .

Usage in a sentence: “The judge threatened to charge the contumacious witness with contempt of court.”

Synonyms: balky, contrary, disobedient, defiant, froward [froward? drat, now I have to look up froward], incompliant, insubordinate, intractable, obstreperous, ungovernable, unruly, untoward, wayward, willful.

First known use of “contumacious”: 1583.

That’s all it says. 1583.

Really? How do we know? Used by whom? Where? Why? In what context?

Maybe two peasants were sitting around the hearth one evening and one says, “Forsooth, mine oxen hath become contumacious.”

And his friend says: “Awesome word, dude! Did’st thou just maketh that up?

How would’st thou spelleth it?” “Spelleth?

I can’t even readeth or writeth.”

Anyway, I’d like to know the whole story. Some citation would help. The trouble with research is that it often raises more questions than it answers.

These days, the word appears to be used primarily in courtrooms and legal documents. With at least one intriguing exception.

I had an assignment at Washington School in Kearny the other day, and because I can never remember which of the Belgrove Drive schools is Washington and which is Garfield (I never said I was bright), I needed to check a map. The one shown here. On which I noticed something strange.

Look at West Hudson Park. See it? A road named Contumacious Trail.

I Googled the name and the only references I could find were on a Kearny High School alumni message board that appears to have been inactive since 2006. But there I found several postings by an A.J. Perry, with such comments as: “I . . . was quite surprised to learn that most of us on this Forum probably travelled over its half-mile length multiple times without ever knowing what it was officially called. What I couldn’t figure out was why it was called that.”

“I knew what the definition was,” Perry continued. “but was unable to match it up on a search engine with the name Kearny. It makes better sense now knowing a little more about the relationship between General Kearny and his horse! I wonder why the town never acknowledged this bit of historical trivia by putting up a simple street sign.”

The historical trivia appears to refer to another poster’s citing Gen. Philip Kearny’s having to deal with a “contumacious” horse and mule during a Western expedition. But it was only an incidental comment in a book and doesn’t appear to have much importance. Certainly not enough to warrant a street name in the Town of Kearny.

There must be more to the story. And it may have nothing to do with the general at all.

If any Kearny history buff has ever solved the mystery of Contumacious Trail, contact me at The Observer. Meanwhile, somebody please put up a street sign.

– Karen Zautyk

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