The town of Timbuktu in Mali has become so well known for its remoteness that its name has drifted into fairly regular use in English as a byword for any impossibly or inconveniently distant location—or, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the most distant place imaginable”.
To be fair, that definition has more than a little fact to back it up. The town of Timbuktu stands almost at the exact centre of the Republic of Mali in northern Africa, some three-fifths of which is covered by the Sahara Desert. The Niger river drifts past only a few miles south of the town, but due north there is little else but empty desert for the next thousand miles, with few settlements of any size lying between it and the Mediterranean coastline at Morocco.
Given that level of isolation, how did Timbuktu come to be so well known outside of Mali? Well, there has been some kind of permanent settlement at Timbuktu since the twelfth century. Originally a native Tuareg encampment, it first established itself as an important rest stop on the Saharan trade routes of the early Middle Ages, and developed quickly from a small village into a bustling trade town first recorded on European maps in the late 1300s.
The town reached its peak as part of the Songhai empire, one of ancient Africa’s grandest ruling states, in the mid fifteenth century: already wealthy and prosperous, the opening of one of the Islamic world’s most important universities in Timbuktu further established it as a major seat of medieval learning, bringing more people, wealth and prosperity to the region. But by the early 1600s, Timbuktu’s fortunes were starting to change. Competition with other towns and cities in north Africa began to affect Timbuktu’s prospects, while trade with Europe faltered as the continent became increasingly reliant on faster and more reliable trade routes with its colonies in the New World rather than Africa. As a result, the town began to dwindle.
Timbuktu’s wealth vanished, its people moved elsewhere, and by the time the first European explorers arrived in the town in the nineteenth century, it was a shadow of its former self. Nevertheless, that lengthy period of prosperity had established the town’s standing on an international stage for good. Tales of an El Dorado in the desert—an almost mythically prosperous town born out of the sands of the Sahara—had become well known across Europe, lending an air of mystique to the town. While its quirky and oddly rhythmical and idiosyncratic name (to European ears, at least) doubtless helped reinforce its place in European consciousness.
All these factors together helped earn the name Timbuktu its place in the language, and it first began to be used for any remotely far-flung, edge-of-the-world location in the late nineteenth century. At which point, we can turn to DH Lawrence:
In Nettles, one of his final written works, Lawrence coined the word Timbuktoot—an adjective used to describe anywhere unbelievably outlandish, extraordinary, or foreign-sounding.
This story—and 79 more like it—are now listed in the HH guide to geographical etymologies, Around the World in 80 Words