Exonym and Endonym

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An exonym is a place name that isn't used by the people who live in that place but that is used by others. Also spelled xenonym.

Paul Woodman has defined exonym as "a toponym bestowed from the outside, and in a language from the outside" (in Exonyms and the International Standardisation of Geographical Names, 2007). For example, Warsaw is the English exonym for the capital of Poland, which the Polish people call Warszawa. Vienna is the English exonym for the German and Austrian Wien.

In contrast, a locally used toponym—that is, a name used by a group of people to refer to themselves or their region (as opposed to a name given to them by others)—is called an endonym (or autonym). For example, Köln is a German endonym while Cologne is the English exonym for Köln.


  • Europe's second-longest river is the Danube--the English exonym for Donau (in German), Dunaj (in Slovak), and Duna (in Hungarian).
  • "Berber derives from the ultimate exonym (i.e. a name given by outsiders): the Greek word barbaroi, which mimicked the foreignness of a language by rendering it as something akin to 'blah-blah.' From it, we get barbarian, as well as Barbary (as in Barbary Coast, Barbary Pirates, and Barbary apes). In current usage, many exonyms can be considered insensitive (Gypsy, Lapp, Hottentot) and preference is given to the endonym (Roma, Saami, Khoi-San)."
    (Frank Jacobs, "All Hail Azawad." The New York Times, April 10, 2012) 
  • "[T]he English language exonym Mecca has been shown to be unacceptable to many Arab experts, who are uncomfortable with any alteration to the toponym of the holy place Makkah."
    (Paul Woodman, "Exonyms: A Structural Classification and a Fresh Approach," in Exonyms and the International Standardisation of Geographical Names, ed. by Adami Jordan, et al. LIT Verlag, 2007)

Reasons for the Existence of Exonyms

- "There are three main reasons for the existence of exonyms. The first is historical. In many cases, explorers, unaware of existing place names, or colonizers and military conquerors unmindful of them, gave names in their own languages to geographical features having native names...

"The second reason for exonyms stems from problems of pronunciation...

"There is a third reason. If a geographical feature extends over more than one country it may have a different name in each."

(Naftali Kadmon, "Toponymy—Theory, and Practice of Geographical Names," in Basic Cartography for Students and Technicians, ed. by R. W. Anson, et al. Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996)

- "English uses relatively few exonyms for European cities, especially ones it has come up with on its own (= not borrowed); this may be explained by geographic isolation. This could also explain the low number of exonyms that other languages use for English cities."

(Jarno Raukko, "A Linguistic Classification of Eponyms," in Exonyms, ed. by Adami Jordan, et al. 2007)

Toponyms, Endonyms, and Exonyms

- "For a toponym to be defined as an exonym, there must exist a minimum degree of difference between it and the corresponding endonym... The omission of diacritical marks usually does not turn an endonym into an exonym: Sao Paulo (for São Paulo); Malaga (for Málaga) or Amman (for ʿAmmān) are not considered exonyms."

(United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names, Manual for the National Standardization of Geographical Names. United Nations Publications, 2006)

- "If an important topographic feature is located or contained entirely within a single country, most good world atlases and maps print the endonym as the primary name, with the translation or conversion into the language of the atlas either in brackets or in smaller type. If a feature transcends political boundaries, and especially if it carries different names in the different countries, or if it lies outside the territorial waters of any one country—exonymisation or translation into the target language of the atlas or map is almost always resorted to."

(Naftali Kadmon, "Toponymy—Theory, and Practice of Geographical Names," in Basic Cartography for Students and Technicians, edited by R. W. Anson, et al. Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996)

Further Reading

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Nordquist, Richard. "Exonym and Endonym." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/exonym-and-endonym-names-1690691. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Exonym and Endonym. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/exonym-and-endonym-names-1690691 Nordquist, Richard. "Exonym and Endonym." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/exonym-and-endonym-names-1690691 (accessed March 21, 2023).