This is literally one I've wondered about since I was about five years old. (Yes, it sometimes takes me time to get around to solving things.) I know this because Sing Sing was mentioned in a Shirley Temple movie, which we used to watch when we were over visiting at my grandmother's on weekends. (I just looked this up--it was probably Baby Take a Bow.) When I was a kid, I thought this meant that the character in question had been imprisoned in China. Sing Sing just didn't sound like an American prison to me. But it is. In New York. That much I have somehow gleaned over the decades. But why it is called Sing Sing has remained a mystery to me. Until now.
Apparently, it all starts with an American Indian tribe who were called the Sint Sink, which meant "stone upon stone". I say apparently, because that's what many of the sources say, even though there is no other reference to these people, and, really, what kind of tribe calls itself Stone Upon Stone? I thought people usually called themselves something like "The People" when referring to themselves. Without really knowing, it seems more likely that it was always the name of a place, as this site has it, and was named by the Matinecock Indians of Long Island, who do still exist and in fact have their own Facebook page. But it did have to do with stones, anyway. After the area was taken over by Dutch settlers, the name seems to have been spelled various ways: Cinque Singte, Sink Sink, Cinquesingte, Sinck Sinck, Sin Sinct, Sint Sinck and Sin-Sing. But "Sing Sing" is what triumphed in the end.
There is one variant account that, rather ingeniously suggests that the name may actually have come from the name Tsing Tsing, a celebrated governor of a Chinese city, and was brought here by a Dutch trader, who decided to name a random place on the east coast of America in his honor for reasons only he can know. To tell the truth, I don't think it's at all likely, even if it does support my childhood hearing of the name.
|Sing Sing, 1855|
Anyway, Sing Sing was built in the 1820s. By most accounts, the place had become notorious enough that the Village of Sing Sing where it was established changed its name to Ossining in 1901 to distance itself a little, although one account more charitably has it that it was in order to distinguish between goods made in the town and goods made in the prison. In any case, the supposed etymology of Ossining, according to this more contemporary account is that "ossin" means stone in Chippewa and "ossinnee" or "ossineen" is the plural.
Taking the route of stone upon stone is rapidly leading me to heights I am not qualified to scale.
But searching around has made me remember why I wanted to look into Sing Sing right now in the first place. After recently reading Falconer, learned that Cheever had gotten a lot of his material from teaching writing classes at Sing Sing. Why Sing Sing, I might have asked, if I had thought about it. But that unasked question has been answered. Cheever lived and ultimately died in Ossining.
In a perfect world, I would now link you to my review of Falconer, but that can't happen, because I haven't written it yet. Instead, I'll send you to the blog post Carol Muske-Dukes wrote on Cheever's return to Sing Sing after the book was published.
Or maybe you'd like a link to an article on the other most famous (if fictional) residents of Ossining instead...