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Where Do Place Names Come From?

In June 1991, when the Soviet Union was in the final throes of collapse, residents of that country’s second-largest city cast ballots in an unusual referendum. At stake was the name of the city, which had been called Leningrad since 1924, in honor of one of the fathers of Soviet Communism, Vladimir I. Lenin.

The final tally was just decisive enough: 55 percent of the vote went to “St. Petersburg,” the name Czar Peter the Great had chosen in 1703 when he created the new Russian capital from swampland and named it after his patron saint.

The 1991 vote was historically rare, because most places on the globe aren’t named democratically. The oldest names on the map, which predate maps themselves, were bestowed anonymously and are descriptive: Oxford is “the place where oxen ford [the river],” Machu Picchu means “old mountain.” More recently named places, though, come from a variety of sources — and some are changing even as I write this.

The meanings and categories of place names are two aspects of toponomastics, the study of toponyms; both words come from the Greek roots topos (place) and onomo (name). (For more on -nyms, see Mike Pope’s May 2013 column.) But what about the names behind the -nyms? Who gets to decide what a mountain or river or town is called?

Here’s who:

People who got there first (or thought they did). Pre-literate indigenous people created many enduring place names, from Men-enfer in Egypt (now rendered as Memphis, it dates from before 3150 BCE) to Waikiki and Honolulu in Hawaii. Explorers, conquerors, and settlers who followed the original inhabitants sometimes adopted the native names, altering their spelling as they saw fit: The Iroquoian word for a cluster of dwellings, kanata, survives as Canada; missituk (“great tidal river”) became Mystic, Connecticut. But sometimes the newcomers came up with new names, inspired by events (Ford’s Terror, a fjord in southeast Alaska), or piety (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), or by the mother country (York, Ontario; New York, New York; Holland, Michigan).

People with clout. Monarchs and other autocrats can wave a scepter and presto, a place name is official. The name may be their own: Charleston (originally Charles Town), in what’s now South Carolina, was named by King Charles II of England. But Charles wasn’t a complete egoist. He also named Pennsylvania — over the protests of Quaker settler William Penn, who preferred “New Wales.” Spanish and French explorers and missionaries in the New World tended to use religion as a resource; saints’ names and Biblical references (Saint Louis, Point Concepción; Nuestra Señora de los Angeles) fill the maps of the regions they came to dominate.

A trilingual road sign in southern Colorado that tells a story in reverse chronological order. Courtesy of Orin Hargraves, who wrote about the language of road signs in April 2021.

Captains of industry. The suburbs of the 20th and 21st centuries owe their names to our contemporary sovereigns: real estate developers. There are dozens of Town Centers (or Centres) where there are no actual towns and barely any centers, or centres; Eagle Ridges with no eagles; Spruce Parkways where the last spruce was logged years ago. The master-planned community of Celebration, Florida, which opened in 1996, was created by the Walt Disney Company and often referred to as “Disney’s Town of Celebration” in its early days.

The influence of commerce on place naming goes back at least to the 19th century. Company towns, where a single business is the main or sole employer, were often named for their benefactors: Fordlandia in Brazil, Grand-Hornu in Belgium, Manville in New Jersey. In 1845, the chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad, J. Edgar Thomson, took it upon himself to rename a tiny hamlet in northern Georgia that had been known first as simply Terminus and then as Marthasville, after the daughter of an ex-governor. “Certain ungallant railroad men,” wrote George R. Stewart in Names on the Land (1945), “looked upon Marthasville as a namby-pamby name for a place which was undoubtedly to become a great center.” Thomson had a better idea: “Atlanta, the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Atlantic, masculine; Atlanta, feminine—a coined word—and if you think it will suit, adapt it.” They did.

Committees. In America, naming-by-committee goes back to 1630, when the Massachusetts General Court “began to plant the names of England in New England,” as Stewart puts it in Names on the Land. “New Town,” for example, became Cambridge, Massachusetts. As the country grew up, other committees began weighing in on place names. The Board of Geographical Names was created in 1890 “to maintain uniform geographic usage throughout the Federal Government.” The BGN established rules—names ending in “borough” should become “boro,” the use of diacritic marks should be avoided, and so on—and the postmaster general followed up with a series of orders. Thousands of post office names, and their towns, were changed, although a few resisted: Pittsburgh stubbornly retained its final “h.”

Naming-by-committee has its pitfalls. It took the newly formed University of California Board of Regents 18 months to settle on a name for the home of the institution’s first campus: Peralta. Never heard of it? That’s because while they were celebrating, one of the regents suddenly had another idea: Why not name the city after the Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who had written “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” And so Berkeley it was.

Mistakes. Some place names have resulted from errors in spelling, transcription, or understanding. Selmer, Tennessee, was supposed to be named after Selma, Alabama, but the city official misspelled the name in the paperwork he filed with the postal service. In Michigan, the sixth stagecoach stop for people leaving Detroit was labeled “No. VI.” Over time, it became — and still is—“Novi.”

Inducements. Within living memory, a few American towns have changed their names, often whimsically and usually briefly, in exchange for publicity or cash. The most famous — and lasting — is in New Mexico. In 1950, a popular radio quiz show, Truth or Consequences, offered to broadcast the tenth-anniversary episode from the first town to rename itself after it. Hot Springs, New Mexico, was happy to shed its mundane original name.

Protests and petitions. We may not vote on place names, but we the people do have the power to change names we find racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive. In 1995, in response to pressure from Native American groups and their allies, Minnesota passed a law mandating the change of any geographic name containing the word squaw, a word that had shifted in connotation from neutral (it means “woman” in Algonquian) to highly derogatory. There are hundreds of “squaw” place names in North America, and gradually they are being renamed, often with input from local Native groups. (Read more about this trend in my story for Medium.) The latest place to announce a change is the former Squaw Valley Ski Resort in California. In 2020, nearly 135,000 people signed a petition asking that members of the Washoe Tribe be allowed to rename the resort. In September 2021, the resort announced a name change to Palisades Tahoe. Not only was “squaw” no longer in the name, the word appears nowhere on the resort’s website: Every instance has been replaced by “S*.”

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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