What might they be doing in Cutthroats?

Dá na to krk!

Hello and welcome to SoundCzech, our weekly programme to help you learn Czech through song lyrics, and in this case place names as well. The Czech Republic is packed with towns and villages with bizarre names, from Aš to Žabeň (the name of the latter having something to do with frogs). But just looking at some parts of Prague is enough to give you an idea. Here’s the folk singer Pepa Nos (which incidentally translates as Joe the Nose in case you’re wondering) thinking about what people from different, strangely named parts of Prague might be doing at the moment in his song “Copak asi dělá”:

A copak asi právě dělá občan Hrdlořez?
Na dělání dírek si šel koupit nebozez. A copak asi právě dělá občan Michle?
Chová se zpychle vůči vobčanu Chuchle. A copak asi právě dělá občan Dejvic?
Přemejšlí a kalkuluje, na čem by trh' nejvíc.

“What might a citizen of Hrdlořezy be doing right now,” asks Joe the Nose. Judging by the name, you wouldn’t want to know. The sinister-sounding Hrdlořezy, now a pacific residential area, was apparently once inhabited by either clumsy barbers or knife wielding murderers, because it literally means “cutthroats”, hrdlo meaning “throat”. And that’s not the only part of town that literally got a name for criminality. Měcholupy, a suburb, means “pouch thieves” – the latter part of the word coming from loupit, “to rob”. Back towards city centre then is Strašnice, a horrible-sounding place, as strašný means “horrible” and strašit“to scare”, but apparently it comes from a surname intended to frighten malevolent spirits. In any case, fear not, between these places is the much more hospitable Hostivař, where the name suggests that they cook (vařit) for their guests (hosty). Unless the original meaning was that they cook their guests...

There are of course plenty of normal place names in Prague, like Staré město (“old city”), Malá strana (“small side” – of the river), Černý most (“black bridge”), or Královské Vinohrady (“the king’s vineyards”). The district of Modřany takes its name from blue flowers that grew there, probably blue (modrá) hyacinths. In Koloděje (literally “wheelwrights”) there once lived... wheelwrights. And if I tell you that Řepy means “beets” then you can imagine what grew there long before the prefab houses started sprouting up.

Were those places named by particularly prosaic Praguers? Or is most every name ultimately prosaic? Three of the places that catch the ear of the intermediate Czech learner are Smíchov, Anděl and Ďáblice. If you go to Ďáblice looking for the saucy, “devilish women” that the name suggests, you will be disappointed, finding only an astronomical observatory and an enormous landfill. It was actually named after a family called Davel.

As for Smíchov, which sounds like a place of laughter, “smích”, the name is due neither to the nearby Staropramen brewery nor the smiling, happy consumers in the new shopping malls there. In fact, people have debated the meaning of this quarter for centuries, giving rise to many a legend, but the truth seems to come from a period of ancient zoning reforms, when people and businesses in the area were smíchaní, or “mixed”.

And In Smíchov, a hundred years ago, at the busy corner where the trams compete with people for control of the new pedestrian zone, there was a pub. And on that pub there was a golden angel, whence the building took the name “At the Golden Angel”, U Zlatého anděla. The surrounding area is now called Anděl, and where the golden angel stood is now an enormous portrait of a modern angel from the German film “Wings of Desire”, set into the glass of a swervy new business and shopping centre. That’s all the strange and wonderful names we have time for on this week’s SoundCzech, so for now enjoy Prague if you get here, and na shledanou.