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Geo-Joint: What’s in a Geographic Name?

Posted on June 15 2021

Geo-Joint: What’s in a Geographic Name?

Everywhere you go, towns, cities, and physical features on the land have names. Who decided what should be called what? Was it all just from tradition and whatever the earliest settlers agreed upon, or did some bureaucrat dispense the names from on high? In this country, as in many others, there is a central agency whose job it is to keep track of all this stuff. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is the entity charged with the approval process and compilation of these myriad names, over 2.5 million at last count. The Board’s job is not to name things, but to adjudicate on names that have been proposed by governmental agencies, private groups, or individuals, and to review old names that may no longer be appropriate. They decide only after consultation with the local and county governments affected, that state’s State Names Authority, and pertinent land management agencies. Their decisions create the officially accepted names for not only domestic places and features to be used on USGS topographic mapping, but also foreign place names (as they are to be used in official US government affairs), Antarctic names, undersea feature names, and even extraterrestial place names. The latter will no doubt be a rapidly growing collection as NASA’s increasingly detailed imaging of our planetary neighbors continues.

The official seal—a map and globe with no names on them!

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names was first organized in 1890 and formally put in its present form in 1947. It consists of members drawn from governmental agencies that deal with geographic matters, as well as those involved with population, ecological, and public lands affairs. The Board came into being as a response to increased exploration and settlement in the western regions of the country after the Civil War. The innumerable peaks, valleys, rivers, and other natural features of the West gave rise to a disorganized collection of name references which were confusing to cartographers, scientists, and travellers attempting to document or move about in these little-settled lands. Of course, those already living there, the Native Americans, had plenty of names for all these places, but their unfamiliar languages were difficult for the newcomers. Moreover, there was little regard for the knowledge and traditions held by these longtime residents. So while some of those original names were preserved and have more recently been re-established, the Board at that time was mainly concerned with sorting out the duplication and accuracy of names created by white settlers and explorers. Beyond agreement on the names themselves, final decisions were also required on accepted spellings, given the wide variety of variations possible. For this, map editors who followed have been eternally grateful.  

In 2018, legislators at the Georgia state capitol petitioned the Board on Geographic Names to change the name of Runaway Negro Creek to Freedom Creek. In 2019, the Board did, having approved the alteration of some other even more offensive names in the past.

By this time in America’s history, the prominent and obvious landforms and water bodies have long been named. There still exist, however, individual unnamed peaks and other features which people wish to name after an illustrious individual, or to commemorate an event or locally important theme. Anyone can put forth a proposal for a new name or name change, but a good case must be made for the suggestion. A great deal of study and local inquiry is done to ensure that the name has support amongst those living in proximity to the feature. These days, a big part of the Board’s job is considering name changes sought by those no longer comfortable with inappropriate labels. Such names often contain references to female body parts, or include offensive racial terminology. Sometimes long-used names are found to be crude words in a foreign language, still upsetting to those in the know. With sufficient input, these names are changed to others promoted by and found most agreeable to the locals.      

As with any word-oriented undertaking, it is not long before one is in the editorial weeds of punctuation and spelling. For instance, it is almost a universal rule that names containing a possessive form, such as “Bob’s Peak,” be labeled as “Bobs Peak.” Though some think that the rule came about because the apostrophe created a mark that might be misread as non-word information on a map, it is more likely that the rule developed because one of the Board’s guiding principes is that ownership of a landmark is not sufficient reason to name it for the owner. And of course in the next breath it must be said that there are five (but only five!) natural feature names that are exceptions to the rule, with a particular argument for each case. Martha’s Vineyard, for instance, got to keep its apostrophe because of a concerted effort by local citizens back in 1933. The Board isn’t as particular about using apostrophes for what they call “administrative” entities—such things as schools, cemeteries, hospitals, or airports—the decision on those is left to the owners.  

Harney Peak, the highpoint of South Dakota, was named after a general who served in the Mexican-American, and Indian Wars. He is now in disrepute for his cruelty toward Native Americans. The USBGN approved that the name be changed to Black Elk Peak, in honor of a famous Sioux medicine man.

There are a few interesting limitations on naming and name-changing. One is that no natural feature can be named for a living person. However famous and wonderful you may have been in life, you have to be five years dead before Mount You can be christened in your honor. Presumably, your whole life plus five years is enough time to have any details about your unseemly behavior come to light. Even if the nominee’s record is clean, they must have had a long and pertinent connection with the feature or have demonstrated an impressive record of public service. As mentioned before, the name must also pass muster with the local population. Their input is so key to naming, that even a name which is found to be historically inaccurate or misspelled may not be changed if local familiarity and acceptance of it is sufficiently proved. The Board seeks merely to record names showing consistent and established usage, not to enforce unwanted changes. Thanks to the ease and speed of computer technology, changes that are made are immediately reflected in the GNIS, or Geographic Names Information System. Old names on printed topo maps and on signs will only change as regular revisions are done on their schedule.      

Got a hill you want to name? Make a proposal!

There are a few interesting limitations on naming and name-changing. One is that no natural feature can be named for a living person. However famous and wonderful you may have been in life, you have to be five years dead before Mount You can be christened in your honor. Presumably, your whole life plus five years is enough time to have any details about your unseemly behavior come to light. Even if the nominee’s record is clean, they must have had a long and pertinent connection with the feature or have demonstrated an impressive record of public service. As mentioned before, the name must also pass muster with the local population. Their input is so key to naming, that even a name which is found to be historically inaccurate or misspelled may not be changed if local familiarity and acceptance of it is sufficiently proved. The Board seeks merely to record names showing consistent and established usage, not to enforce unwanted changes. Thanks to the ease and speed of computer technology, changes that are made are immediately reflected in the GNIS, or Geographic Names Information System. Old names on printed topo maps and on signs will only change as regular revisions are done on their schedule.      

For all the officialdom of this naming process, the Board on Geographic Names does not decree what the definitions are for its many physical features. For instance, there is no quantitative or qualitative limit put on “creek” or “stream” as opposed to “river;” or “hill” or “peak” as opposed to “mountain.” If the folks in some Great Plains area have called a local rise “Wheatgrain Peak” for generations, then that is its official name, even if it’s only 30 feet higher than its surroundings. The Board leaves it to geographers to duke it out on the hierarchy of such terms. They have compiled a list of hundreds of feature types, but one you will not find is “cave.” This is due to laws prohibiting the dissemination of information to the public regarding the location of certain protected caves on public land. Many cave structures are very delicate—their general ecology is easily disturbed, and bat populations are especially at risk. Not having the ability to research and distinguish between sensitive caves and others, the Board opted to leave all caves off of topographic mapping. Sorry spelunkers, the government won’t help you find holes in the ground.

But you can help the Board on Geographic Names—they have a group called the National Map Corps which consists of ordinary citizens collecting data on new names of man-made structures, and the disappearance of old buildings and other historical points of interest. Crowdsourcing puts millions of eyes on the ever-changing landscape to keep national name databases and USGS mapping as accurate as possible. They’ll even issue you a a virtual badge for your participation! Check out the program here:  https://www.usgs.gov/core-science-systems/ngp/tnm-corps

So—what’s in a geographic name? A whole lot of research and argument and adjudication. Fortunately, a great deal of structure exists to keep it all straight and make the country more comprehensible for cartographers and everybody who uses their creations.  


Have some fun exploring the literal meanings of many place names found around the USA, on this unusual map from Kalimedia. Available from Maps.com.


PHOTO SOURCES

caption: The official seal—a map and globe with no names on them!  

source: Wikimedia Commons: United States Board on Geographic Names (Public domain)

 

caption: In 2018, legislators at the Georgia state capitol petitioned the Board on Geographic Names to change the name of Runaway Negro Creek to Freedom Creek. In 2019, the Board did, having approved the alteration of some other even more offensive names in the past.

source: Wikimedia Commons: DXR (CC by SA 4.0 International)

 

caption: Harney Peak, the highpoint of South Dakota, was named after a general who served in the Mexican-American, and Indian Wars. He is now in disrepute for his cruelty toward Native Americans. The USBGN approved that the name be changed to Black Elk Peak, in honor of a famous Sioux medicine man.

source: Wikimedia Commons: Ron Clausen (CC by SA 4.0 International)

 

caption: Got a hill you want to name? Make a proposal!

source: USGS: USGS (Public domain)

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