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Toponymy: The Study of Place Names

There is a name for every place and thing on a map. Have you ever wondered how the places and things that you see on a map got their name? Guillaume Valtat, a Geographic Information Engineer, explains Toponymy.

What is Toponymy?

Toponymy is the study of place names. It covers the following categories;

  • Countries
  • States
  • County/parishes
  • Towns and cities
  • Streets
  • Lakes and rivers

The goal of toponymy is to study toponyms. A toponym is a proper name given to an area or a geographical feature. Toponymy is not an exact science as it is only concerned with linguistics. It can be used for historical or geographical studies but can’t be totally relied upon.

Toponyms are alive as its spelling and the area it covers can evolve with time. Usually, there is a correlation between the density of the population and the density of toponyms. With an increased population, either the area covered by a toponym starts shrinking and new toponyms start popping up, or new toponyms appear for smaller surfaces in a sort of pyramidal hierarchy.

Questions that Toponymy Answers

Does the study of Toponymy explain the naming convention of certain areas in the United States?
A lot of areas in the United States already had names given to them by the Native Americans. When the first trappers arrived, they often had to learn at least bits of the local language and use these local names. That’s how these names got ingrained in the newcomers’ language.

Some names could also have been used to honor some natives such as Seattle owning its name from Chief Sealth of the Duwamish and the Suquamish tribes.

Some names can also be found along the routes used by the Europeans to explore these new lands. For example, there is a trail of French names on a route going from Quebec, Canada to the West Coast as low as California because of the French fur trappers of the Northwest Company. The city of Bellevue, facing Seattle, is a French name. Belle Vue means Nice view in French.

A geographical feature like Grand Teton could own its name either from the Teton tribe or from the French name used to describe this kind of geomorphologic feature. Such uncertainties are just one example of why toponymy is not an exact science.

Many towns and cities have streets named after certain objects such as trees. Why is this?
Planners have to follow guidelines for street names. The more established a city is, the stricter the guidelines are…usually. Names of trees and numbers represent together the largest category of street names in the USA. While Guillaume doesn’t know the reason for naming streets after trees, he explained that streets with numbers in the name have their origin with the great drive to the West due to the explosion of the railroad. Cities were created and booming so fast that it was easier to give a number to the new streets.

Applying Toponymy

Interesting projects that Guillaume has participated in as a topographer were mapping campaigns that involved official legal documents that identified all the toponyms previously used on the same map with the intent of updating data.

The project required him to find a local person with whom he could go through the list and check the spelling, the location, the importance of the name and the category. In this experience, he learned that farmers were often the most reliable 90% of the time.

Example: If a wooded area had been cleared since the last map of the area was created, the name may still exist but its category couldn’t remain ‘woods’. ‘Woods’ would be the category that determined the font and the color of the toponyms on the map. Names could be added or removed as well. In this last case, they were not removed from the official listing but went in ‘sleeping mode’ to keep traceability.

Industries and Professions that Benefit from Toponymy

  1. Historical societiesToponymy
  2. City planning departments
  3. Researchers
  4. Cartographers (map makers)

Special Skills Needed

  1. Ability to read a map
  2. Attention to detail
  3. Courses in geographical sciences, topography, and mapping

What is the Future of Toponymy?

In this digital age, with products like Google Maps, toponymy is being relegated quickly as the last wheel of the carriage. Digital mapping is integrating all of the high-value information available (elevations, points of interest, business routes), as well as toponymy. Toponyms like city or suburb names are obviously officially updated since the need is there. Think about the necessity to have this information accurate and up to date when searching for these places on a GPS.

However, toponyms of lesser value may not be consistently updated because of the time and cost involved compared to the return on investment.

How to Learn More about Toponymy

The United Nations Statistics Division and the International Cartographic Association provide this online resource to learn more about Toponymy.

About Guillaume ValtatGuillaume Valtat

Guillaume Valtat is a French Geographic Information Engineer. He’s worked for 11 years for the Institut Géographique National, a leading European institute for mapping. He currently lives in Bellevue, Washington with his family.



zyramae tumala

Hello sir, I am currently studying on toponyms of some tourist spots here in our island. It’s for my Masteral Program. I am from Philippines by the way. I would like to seek help from you with regard preparation of my questionnaire and what methodology would be best to use. If you can give recommendations, I’d be very glad for the help you can offer, Thanks so much.

Erin Harris
Erin Harris

Hello Zyramae Tumala,

I would recommend contacting Guillaume Valtat directly. He can be found on Linkedin. He was extremely helpful when I wrote this blog.

Thank you for your comment!

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