Monday, October 02, 2006

Naming Places

There is a U.S. Federal agency that standardizes the use of geographical names, and which approves any changes to place names. This obsure power of the federal government, to name names, at first appears to be trivial. But to those of us who know that words are important (even critical in defining us as creatures of intellect) know that violence and injustice to words often preceeds violence and injustice to people. Recall how the political revolution of the 1970s was preceeded by a revolution in language in the 1960s.

Now, the U.S. Board on Geographical Names, for the most part, is prudent in its mission to standardize the names on our maps: it mainly uses the classical means of authority, reason, and experience to determine the proper names of geographical features. However, the Board is also influenced by the modern vice of acting according to feelings, and also the nominalistic view that names are just arbitrary denotations, just a kind of "vocal flatulence", stripped of connotations, meaning nothing. But the most distressing action of the Board is its refusal to give certain geographical features any name at all: this means that man is reduced to a brute animal, unable to use his intellect to join together words and things.

See my recent article Place Names and Poetry, which shows the beauty of place-names.

A note by Roger L. Payne, Executive Secretary, U.S. Board on Geographic Names:
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is a Federal body created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government. The Board comprises representatives of Federal agencies concerned with geographic information, population, ecology, and management of public lands. Sharing its responsibilities with the Secretary of the Interior, the Board promulgates official geographic feature names with locative attributes as well as principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of domestic names, foreign names, Antarctic names, and undersea feature names.

The original program of names standardization addressed the complex issues of domestic geographic feature names during the surge of exploration, mining, and settlement of western territories after the American Civil War. Inconsistencies and contradictions among many names, spellings, and applications became a serious problem to surveyors, map makers, and scientists who required uniform, non-conflicting geographic nomenclature. President Benjamin Harrison signed an Executive Order establishing the Board and giving it authority to resolve unsettled geographic names questions. Decisions of the Board were accepted as binding by all departments and agencies of the Federal Government.
Standardization is a good thing, so that we all can agree on what a place is called, so that a point on a map can be referred to unambiguously. And so the U.S. Board of Geographical Names tracks official names, and avoids conflicts between similar names near each other. The Board also officiates name changes.

According to the Board's document Principles, Policies, and Procedures:
The names of geographic features in the United States are a valuable reflection of the history of our country and its changing face. Names of Native American origin are found sprinkled generously across the face of the land. Strong traces of the national languages spoken by the early explorers and settlers are visible in many sections of the country, often with an accommodation in pronunciation based on local usage. Frequently, geographic naming reveals the rough and brawling nature of the environment that greeted the westward expansion. It is in these ways and many others that geographic naming gives us a clear, exciting profile of the United States that is unmatched in any other medium.
Place name study in the United States is enriched by a great lack of uniformity of name origins; take the example of California, with its Spanish Catholic heritage, and contrast that with the isolated Ozarks, which has many foreboding areas named after the Devil. Or consider the French names of the Great Lakes, and Mississippi and Missouri River valleys, or the Dutch names of the Hudson Valley.

The purpose of this Federal agency is to avoid conflicts and promote uniformity in naming, which can be an admirable practice.

The basic principle of the Board is this:
It would be ideal if in everyday language all people were to use but one name for a given geographic entity with only one entity known by that name.
A major issue is variant spellings for a single name. The solution of the Gazetteer is the same as the Dictionary: agree on one standard spelling.
A primary principle is formal recognition of present-day local usage. To this end, the Committee and its supporting staff work closely with State geographic names authorities, State and local governments, and the general public in order to determine the choice, spelling, written form, and application of each name for official use.
Whew! An agency of the U.S. government still believes in the principle of subsidiarity! Local usage is primary! Saint Petersburg won't be suddenly be changed to Leningrad on order of the Feds.

The Board also cooperates with international agencies and the U.N., so watch out for those black helicopters.
Geographic names normally originate in and are influenced by spoken language. It is important to remember this fact because many people are concerned with written forms of names, including matters of spelling, capitalization, word form, and writing marks, that may have little to do with the way names are spoken.
This paragraph is a bit ambiguous. For example, the "François" in Saint François County, Missouri, is pronounced "Francis". Does the board think that spelling ought to conform to pronunciation not?

My opinion is to keep the foreign spellings and the local pronunciation. Chamois, Missouri is pronounced "Shamoy", while Courtois is pronounced "Cote-a-way". And we should be cautious: Berger, Missouri, is pronounced "Ber-zhayr", but that is the original way French pioneers who named the town said it, and this is not a corruption. And perhaps the first two examples closely reflect the pronunciation of the early settlers also, since they were not Parisian French.

The first stage in any science is the proper naming and classification of things; with geography, this naming is called topnymy.
Most geographic names are binomial in that they have two parts, denoting the specific and the generic: Middleton (middle town), Coal Hollow, or Sierra Nevada. The generic part tells the kind of place, feature, or area to which the name refers, and the specific part uniquely identifies the particular place, feature, or area. The generic part of the name is usually a single topographic term such as brook, hill, bay, peak, mesa, or lake; the specific part may consist of one or more words such as Grosse Roche, Jenny Lind, and Casale Campo di Carne. The binomial (two-part) form is strong, and in written usage often leads to combining words in the specific part of the name, such as Threemile Run and Redhill Gulch. The names of some features can be long, especially if that specific part is a prepositional phrase: Cliffs of the Seven Double Pillars, Foot of the Mountains Run, and Canon del Rajadero de los Negros.
Classifying creatures into species and genera is quite Aristotelean. But the Board does not just recognize everyday genera:
Some names have nonce (rare) generic forms; consider, for example, colorful American names such as Bald Alley (ridge), Butlers Toothpick (pinnacle rock), Titans Piazza (hill), and Devils Racepath (ridge). Among variations of the binomial form are one-word names that require a capitalized article: The Bend, La Pica, The Cape, The Nose, and The Maze.
But we should be cautious of the vast naming power granted this Federal agency:
By law, the Board is responsible for all geographic names except those applying to offices or establishments of Federal agencies...
Technically, the Board could legally change the name of All Souls Church to All Oppressed Persons of Race and Gender Preference Church. But:
Practically, however, the Board decides primarily on the names of natural features of the land, unincorporated localities, and populated places in the United States and its territories and outlying areas. Unless asked to do so, the Board does not rule on the names of cultural features such as roads, streets, shopping centers, churches, schools, hospitals, and airports...
"Unless asked to do so".
The Domestic Names Committee has identified several factors to be considered, along with its principles, policies, and procedures, when deciding on name problems and proposals. These factors and their definitions are listed here alphabetically:

Established Usage

A geographic name that has appeared consistently in written usage and (or) has been expressed consistently in verbal usage, and that is supported by historical and (or) current written materials and (or) in folklore.

Historical Usage

A geographic name given and used during the early history of a place or feature; the name may be either obsolete or in current use.

Legal Usage

A geographic name that appears in a document generated as part of a legal procedure established by a government body; the document may either (1) establish the name, or (2) apply it incidentally in order to identify or locate an area, site, or feature important to the principal purpose of the document. This category includes "legislated usage," which, because of its importance to the naming process, is given special recognition.

Legislated Usage

A geographic name established by a legislative body--local, tribal, State, or Federal.

Local Usage

A geographic name commonly and currently used for an entity, whether in verbal and (or) written form, by persons having frequent enough contact with the entity to use the name on a regular basis.

Unnamed Feature

A geographic entity that is not known to have had a verbal or written name.

Verbal Usage

A name used by people when referring to a place, feature, or area in their own language as commonly spoken every day.

Written Usage

A geographic name in handwritten or printed form; for example, handwritten letters, diaries, and logs or names printed in newspapers or on maps or recorded in official, digital records.
OK, so a valid name is that given either by competent authority or by experience; factoring in local usage, according to the principle of subsidiarity. That's catholic.
The Board's decisions establish standard spellings of geographic names for use by the Federal Government. When determining the spelling of names in the United States, the Board recognizes that geographic names, like other proper names, are not necessarily subject to the spelling rules that apply to other words in the English language. Although these standard spellings generally conform to rules of English, they may reflect historical spellings or forms commonly used or preferred by local citizens and may therefore include what appear to be grammatically incorrect, misspelled, improperly combined, or clipped words.
This principle may be considered radically democratic, or just sloppy. But perhaps this princicple of naming just shows the virtue of humility. The Board also tends not to like accented characters, unless it would lead to confusion.

According to the document,
The following domestic geographic names principles reflect the underlying philosophy and primary guidelines used in national standardization since 1890...
Use of the Roman alphabet...
Roman? So we can't use the letters J and U? So I live officially in SAINT LOVIS? Personally, I'd be a bit more flexible, allowing Greek letters also. However, if they didn't draw the line with the Latin alphabet, we'd have Chinese, Shavian, and Elvish script, not to mention those who feel the need to invent their own alphabet. That'd be a mess.
Names in Local Usage...Exceptions occur when local spoken or written
usage is in conflict with specific Board policy.
Ah, here is the principle of subsidiarity again. But just what are those exceptions?
Names Established by Act of Congress or Executive Order...Names Established by Other Authorities...
The virtue of justice states that we should normally be obedient to competent authority.
One Name for One Geographic Entity...
This is the basic reason for the Board's existence. However, the Board's database of place-names also includes variant names; they aren't official, but they are recognized and recorded. For example, the Mississippi River was once called the Immaculate Conception River, and the Government recognizes that.

Other policies:
Geographic names and their applications specifically established by an act of Congress are official by law and, therefore, take precedence over decisions of the Board.
Rats. Saint Petersburg can still be renamed Leningrad.
Geographic names, as do other categories of proper names, perform an important reference or label function in language. Each name identifies a particular geographic feature, place, or area. This function requires a high degree of stability in the spoken and written forms of names and their applications. Consequently, changes in existing names should not be made without good reason.
This is good. I like stability and tradition. Very catholic.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names does not encourage changes in official geographic names.
The Board has a firm policy prohibiting the inclusion of a word in an official geographic name considered by the Board to be derogatory to any racial, ethnic, gender, or religious group.
Oh, oh. This could be seen either as Christian charity or as Marxist political correctness.
The Board, however, is conservative in this matter and prefers to interfere as little as possible with the use of names in everyday language because attitudes and perceptions of words considered to be pejorative vary between individuals and can change connotation from one generation to another.
This policy skews more towards reason and away from Marxism.
The Board will not adopt a name proposal that includes the word "J--" or the word "N-----" whether or not it is in current local usage and regardless of by whom proposed.
You know what those words are.
Common names are often applied over and over again in the naming process. Where duplication leads to confusion, the Board encourages requests to change names in order to eliminate duplication.
This is the main reason for the Board. Typically, there may be only one town with a given name in one state. For example, Pacific, Missouri was originally named Franklin, but had to change it because of another Missouri town with that name in Howard County. In the older states the names of towns often violate this rule, and so are grandfathered: in this case, when giving a town name, you also need to name the county.

So would you like to name a mountain after yourself? Sorry:
The Board will not consider names that commemorate or may be construed to commemorate living persons. In addition, a person must be deceased at least 5 years before a commemorative proposal will be considered.
Too often the living end up disappointing us. Call no man happy until he is dead.
The person being honored by the naming should have had either some direct and long- term association with the feature or have made a significant contribution to the area or State in which it is located.
This rule is only applicable to name changes, not to new names. So I can name a new volcano Mount Saint Gianna if I want. This actually is a good rule, to avoid a rash of unsuitable name changes offending our geography. Except:
A proposal commemorating an individual with an outstanding national or international reputation will be considered even if the person was not directly associated with the geographic feature.
So, we actually can change the name of a mountain to Saint Gianna if we want!

So far I think the Geographical Board's policies to be quite in line with natural reason and should recieve the Catholic seal of approval.

In the Wilderness Act of 1964... Congress established the National Wilderness Preservation System composed of federally owned areas to be administered:

"...for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness... ."

The act characterizes wilderness "as an area where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man [and] where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." what does this mean?
Though wilderness designations are a modern invention, a fundamental characteristic of elemental wilderness is that features are nameless and the cultural overlay of civilization is absent. No wilderness is today totally free of placenames and cultural artifacts, but a goal of Federal wilderness area administration is to minimize the impacts and traces of people...
[emphasis added]
Within wilderness areas, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not approve proposed names for unnamed features, names in local use but not published, or unpublished administrative names used by administering agencies, unless an overriding need exists, such as for purposes of safety, education, or area administration....

Name proposals commemorating persons are discouraged...
In my opinion, here the Board has crossed the line from reason to arch-heresy. A name on a map is trammeling on a wilderness????? How can that be? The only possible reason is that the Board is snubbing those of us who think that things should have names, and the right names if possible. Recall the novel 1984, by Orwell, which described a new language, Newspeak: if there is no word for freedom, then there is no concept of freedom. The Board seems to be telling us that we should have no intellectual conception of a wilderness, by having no names for things in that wilderness. If we don't name a thing, it doesn't exist, intellectually. And not having commemorative names just makes the situation worse: humanity, even the intellectual conception of humanity, is to be excluded. The death of a soul and of a nation is started by the death of language.

By all means, write your congressmen about this problem.

The Board has some policies regarding new names for previously unnamed features:
Names descriptive of topographic form or suggested by local history, folklore, or incident, or by associated natural life or other phenomena are preferred... Proposed names are expected to perform useful service as proper names. They normally should be as short as possible and easily pronounced. Preferably, the pronunciation should be apparent from the spelling... When a proposed geographic name includes both a specific and generic element, the generic term (creek, cerro, ridge, lake, col, etc.) should be appropriate to the feature and should normally be consistent with generic terms already used and understood in the area in which the feature is located.
These requirements seem mostly reasonable.

Hyphens, according to Board policy, should be used with care, and should not be used with Native American names. Ha-Ha-Tonka in Missouri is now called Hahatonka; perhaps this rule is to give these names more dignity.

The Board disturbingly has outlawed the possessive use of apostrophes. Saint Mary's, Missouri is now called Saint Marys, which just doesn't make sense and seems somewhat offensive. Their argument is thus:
Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name (Henrys Fork: not Henry's Fork). The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together become a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists.
Logically, shouldn't they rename Henry's Fork to Henry Fork? There was, after all, no one called 'Henrys'. They are being so modern, stripping words of their connotations. So why don't they just go all the way and rename everything to "denotative units" like "River 246", "City 17", Administrative District 3, and so forth? This is just bad philosophy and is another assault on language.

The actual activities of the Board are found here.

A surprisingly large percentage of proposed name changes is to eliminate the word "squaw" from geographic names, probably due to the mistaken belief that "squaw" means "prostitute". South Dakota is attempting a total elimination of all use of that name, while North Carolina also has a law to change all offensive place names. Montana has a law requesting a change of all "Squaw" names to "Indian Woman", although the Geographical Board thinks that "Indian Woman" is now rapidly becoming overused.

This illustrates the modern vice of acting according to feelings, not reason. Imagine if someone feels offended by a city name taken after a Catholic Saint: perhaps they would rename San Francisco with the "non-offensive" name of Mao Tse-Tung City.

Some items of interest from the Geographical Board's docket:
The new name Stream of Consciousness is proposed for a 0.5 km (0.3 mi) long stream in the City of Glendale [California, of course]. The proponent suggests the name “is meant to remind us of our own underappreciated consciousness and its connectedness to nature. Water is a metaphor for both life and consciousness.”

The new name Maltese Peak is proposed for a 4,119 m (13,513 ft) high summit located in the Sangre de Cristo Range [Colorado]... The Maltese Cross serves as the standard badge of honor for fire departments throughout the country.

The new name Jalapeno Hill is proposed for an unnamed 214 m (701 ft) high summit in the Town of Palmyra [New York]. The proponent, who reports he owns ninety percent of the property on which the summit is located, suggests it needs a name and that the proposed name is appropriate because “jalapenos grow well here for some strange reason.”

This proposal, to change officially the name of Frya Run to Frys Run, was submitted... a map produced in 1759 labeled the stream Fry’s Run, and that the subsequent mislabeling of Frya Run was “a misreading of some old faded map by an equally faded mapmaker.”

Gene Autry Ridge: ridge, elevation 324 m (1,064 ft); located partially within an area administered by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, overlooking Fryman Canyon; named for Gene Autry (1907-1998), recording star, actor, and famed singing cowboy; Los Angeles County, California

This proposal is to apply the new name Rehoboth Baptism Branch to an unnamed tributary of Buck Creek in the southeast corner of Spalding Creek. The proponent, a resident of Griffin, reports that the stream does not appear to have a local name, and “The boys from a nearby church have an interest in naming the creek as part of a project to earn a badge. The boys, ages 5-12, just wanted a name to get people thinking of church. Not any specific denomination: just whatever church that person goes to.” The proposal was submitted initially as Go2Church Creek, but after the learned that the Georgia State Geographic Names Authority was opposed to the name, the proposal was amended to Baptism Branch and subsequently to Rehoboth Baptism Branch. In opposing the original proposal, the State cited concerns that the name might be viewed as hortatory; that is, appearing to be a command or exhortation toward a certain behavior. In addition, “while the citizens proposing the name...refer to it as non- denominational, the name implicitly does not recognize synagogues, mosques, temples or the reflective behavior of some citizenry whose beliefs do not adhere to communal worship.”

The name Teeny Creek is proposed for a 0.5 km (0.3 mi) long stream that flows from west to east into an unnamed tributary of Frenches Pond. The other tributary is proposed to be named Tiny Creek (q.v.). Both names are descriptive. They were submitted by the Byram Township Environmental Commission, which conducted a “Name The Stream contest” among local residents... There are no other natural geographic features in New Jersey known to be named “Teeny.”

The new name Running Bear Run is proposed for a 4.5 km (2.8 mi) long tributary of Bishop Run... The Mayor of the Village of Canal Winchester suggests the new name is appropriate because, “a stone found in Canal Winchester decades ago is inscribed with ‘1771 RUNIN BER KILD’ and the initials of the perpetrator who probably carried out the dastardly deed. In recognition of Running Bear who we assume to be a Native American, we feel the stream should be named Running Bear Run in his honor.”

The new name Promise Lake is proposed for a five-acre lake in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest/Glacier Peak Wilderness, just east of Jordan Lakes. It was submitted by a resident of Bellevue, who reports that the name would recognize the promise made between him and his then fiancée, who were recently married.

This proposal was submitted by the Washington Board on Geographic Names on behalf of a resident of Poulsbo, to make official the name Royal Valley Creek for a previously unnamed tributary of Crouch Creek in Kitsap County.... “The Royal Valley name seems to have started as an argument and is still an argument.”
When asked to elaborate on this statement, the State Board explained that the name first came into local use around World War I, after two neighbors, one English and one German, accused each other of being “a Queen” and “the Kaiser.” The references to these titles of royalty persisted and reportedly led to the neighborhood being known as “Royal Valley.”

This proposal is to name an unnamed summit in the Sawatch Range in north-central Saguache County, Mount Kiamia. The name is intended to honor the nation’s “Killed in Action” and “Missing in Action” who have served in all of America’s wars.

This proposal was submitted by a resident of New Smyrna Beach, who wishes to name an unnamed body of water on his property in southern Volusia County, Little Lake X. The proponent reports that he chose the name Little Lake X because there is another, larger lake in Osceola County that is named officially Lake Conlin, but which since the 1950’s has been known informally as “Lake X.” The larger lake has long been the site of secret testing of Mercury outboard motors, and because the proponent races model boats on the smaller lake, he believes the new name would be “a fitting way to commemorate the larger lake.” A search of the Internet indicates that Lake Conlin (“Lake X”) was recently abandoned by the Mercury Marine Company in favor of a new location elsewhere in Florida, yet the informal name is still known locally.

This proposal is change officially the name of Mount Diablo, a 1,171 m (3,849 ft) high summit in east-central Contra Costa County, to Mount Kawukum. The proponent, a resident of Oakley, suggests that the existing name is “derogatory and profane” and should be changed, preferably to one of the names used by the area’s indigenous population... In his initial application to the Board, the proponent suggested that the summit could be renamed either “Kawukum” or in honor of Ronald Reagan, but was told that because of the Commemorative Naming Policy, the latter name could not be accepted until 2009 and so the Board would proceed with the former name. To this, the proponent responded that the Devil was “a living person”, so how could naming a feature “Diablo” be acceptable?

This new name was submitted by a resident of Conyers, who reports that the unnamed stream in question flows through the backyard of her family’s home... She did not provide a reason for selecting the name Soggy Bottom Creek, but the presumption is that the name is descriptive.

This proposal is to change officially the name of No Name Lake, a twelve acre lake in Glacier National Park, to Engagement Lake. The lake lies within Bighorn Basin at the southern end of the Lewis Range and in the southeastern part of the park. The proponent, a resident of Maryland, reports that he grew up in Montana but moved away to go to college and that the lake is special to him because he and his wife became engaged there.

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