How Places Get Their Names

Definition of "Place Name"

Intercourse place name
One of the best known place names in the state of Pennsylvania is Intercourse, the mildly titillating name of an unincorporated village in Amish country. There are several theories regarding its origin. (Lisa J. Goodman/Getty Images)

place name is a general term for the proper name of a locality. Also known as a toponym.

In 1967, the first United Nations Congress for the Unification of Geographical Names "decided that place names in general would be geographical name. This term would be used for all geographical entities. It was also decided that the term for natural locations would be toponym, and place name would be used for locations for human life" (Seiji Shibata in Language Topics: Essays in Honour of Michael Halliday, 1987). These distinctions are commonly ignored.

A transfer name is a place name copied from another locality with the same name. New York, for instance, is a transfer name from the city of York in England.

Examples and Observations

  • "Place names are . . . a kind of fossil poetry, but, once affixed to a map, they tend to change rather less, and rather more slowly, than do other kinds of words. Because of this conservative quality, they afford a kind of folk history, a snapshot in time that enables us to read in them a record of important events and to reconstruct something of the culture of the namers at the time they assigned names to the places they saw."
    (Gregory McNamee, Grand Canyon Place Names. Johnson Books, 1997)
  • Words From Place Names
    "[T]he process of making a word out of a place-name (a toponym) is widespread. Tell someone a limerick? Drive in a limousine? Own an alsatian or a labrador? Play badminton or rugby? Run in a marathon? Dance the mazurka? You never quite know where a place-name is going to turn up."
    (David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. Profile Books, 2011)
  • Transfer Names in the U.S.
    "Many exotic American place-names are derived from transfers of place names, as Athens in Georgia and Euclid in Ohio indicate. The giving of classical place-names to American cities and towns was once fashionable. Many of them occur in the state of New York (e.g., Ithaca)."
    (Zoltan Kovecses, American English: An Introduction. Broadview, 2000)
  • Presidential Place Names
    "Naming places was a virtual art form during the nineteenth century, as the westward movement opened up vast territories for settlement and spawned literally thousands of new incorporated places of all sizes. Befitting the burgeoning nationalism of the early Republic, American presidents contributed more than their share of place-names as the nation moved west. More than 3 percent of all American place-names, in fact, contain the names of the presidents from Washington to Lincoln. Today, five presidents dominate the list of presidential place-names, contributing their names to a total of nearly 1,200 states, counties, townships, cities, and villages across the United States. Lincoln is fourth on the list, behind Washington, Jackson, and Jefferson, and he is followed by Madison."
    (Kenneth Winkle, "'The Great Body of the Republic': Abraham Lincoln and the Idea of a Middle West." The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History, ed. by Andrew R. L. Cayton and Susan E. Gray. Indiana University Press, 2001)
  • American Indian Place Names
    "[In the U.S.,] multitudinous cities, towns, villages, counties, mountains, plateaus, mesas, buttes, hills, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, bays, and other geographical locations and features have Indian-related place-names. It is estimated that New England alone has 5,000 names derived from Indian languages.
    "The etymology of Indian place-names takes various forms. Some place-names are English spellings of spoken Indian words or word-phrases—the original Indian names for geographical features, altered over the centuries through usage. Others are Indian tribal names. Some are personal names, after celebrated individuals or even mythical and fictional characters. Others are named after Indian-related events. Still others are English, French, or Spanish translations of Native concepts or objects."
    (Carl Waldman and Molly Braun, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. Infobase, 2009)
  • Can Do!
    "Sometimes a controversy serves as the basis for a place name. Cando, North Dakota, got its name after county officials proclaimed they could name the town anything they chose. Others in the community did not think that way. In time, the officials got their way and chose to use the combined words can and do in the name, reflective of their claim."
    (Gerald R. Pitzl, Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Greenwood, 2004)
  • The Changing Sounds of Place Names
    "Sounds of place names are changed as languages change, and even when the languages remain the same in an area, the sounds of a place name are in a continual process of shortening and simplification. Adramyttium, a Roman city, over the centuries changed to Edremit, Turkey, and the Roman colony of Colonia Agrippina became Cologne (or more properly, Koln), Germany. Constantinopolis became Constantinople and eventually Istanbul, Turkey."
    (Joel F. Mann, An International Glossary of Place Name Elements. Scarecrow Press, 2005)
  • Definite Articles With Place Names
    "Certain types of place-names are frequently preceded by the capitalized or lowercased article the:
    1. Names of rivers (the Susquehanna, the Nile), mountain ranges (the White Mountains, the Alps), island groups (the Aleutian Islands, the Malay Archipelago), and regions (the Midwest, the Arctic).
    2. Place-names that are plural in form (the Great Plains, The Netherlands).
    3. Place-names that are also general vocabulary terms (the South, the Continent).
    4. Place-names that are adjective/noun compounds (the Western Hemisphere, the Red Sea).
    Some place-names fall into more than one of these categories, while others, such The Bronx, the Ukraine, occur with the article for obscure, usually historically-rooted reasons."
    (Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary, 3rd. ed., 2001)
  • Fossilized Words in British Place Names
    -"[M]ost place names today are what could be called 'linguistic fossils.' Although they originated as living units of speech, coined by our distant ancestors as descriptions of places in terms of their topography, appearance, situation, use, ownership, or other association, most have become, in the course of time, mere labels, no longer possessing a clear linguistic meaning. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers that most place names are a thousand years old or more, and are expressed in vocabulary that may have evolved differently from the equivalent words in the ordinary language, or that may now be completely extinct or obscure."
    (A.D. Mills, A Dictionary of British Place-Names, rev. ed. Oxford University Press, 2011)
    - "The modern form of a name can never be assumed to convey its original meaning without early spellings to confirm it, and indeed many names that look equally obvious and easy to interpret prove to have quite unexpected meanings in the light of the evidence of early records. Thus in England the name Easter is 'the sheep-fold,' Slaughter 'the creek or channel,' and Wool 'the spring or springs.'"
    (A.D. Mills, Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names. Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • Names Ending in -chester
    "Many place names of British origin consist of a Celtic stem to which has been added an English (or other) suffix. There is the large class of names ending in -chester (or -caster, -cester, etc.). Although the majority of names with this termination refer to former Roman towns or military stations, the ending is not directly derived from the Latin word castra, 'camp,' as is sometimes thought, nor was that term used by the Romans for naming purposes, except for one place in Cumberland (Castra Exploratorum, 'camp or fort of the scouts'). Old English ceaster was adapted from the Latin word by the Anglo-Saxons while they were still on the Continent and was used by them in their new homeland to designate former Roman towns. Not every modern ending in -chester belongs to this class."
    (John Field, Discovering Place-Names: Their Origins and Meanings, 4th ed., rev. by Margaret Gelling. Shire, 2008)
  • Bill Bryson on British Place Names
    "[N]owhere, of course, are the British more gifted than with place names. Of the thirty thousand named places in Britain, a good half of them, I would guess, are notable or arresting in some way. There are villages that seem to hide some ancient and possibly dark secret (Husbands Bosworth, Rime Intrinseca, Whiteladies Aston) and villages that sound like characters from a bad nineteenth-century novel (Bradford Peverell, Compton Valence, Langton Herring, Wootton Fitzpaine). There are villages that sound like fertilizers (Hastigrow), shoe deodorizers (Powfoot), breath fresheners (Minto), dog food (Whelpo), toilet cleansers (Potto, Sanahole, Durno), skin complaints (Whiterashes, Sockburn), and even a Scottish spot remover (Sootywells). There are villages that have an attitude problem (Seething, Mockbeggar, Wrangle) and villages of strange phenomena (Meathop, Wigtwizzle, Blubberhouses). There are villages without number whose very names summon forth an image of lazy summer afternoons and butterflies darting in meadows (Winterbourne Abbas, Weston Lullingfields, Theddlethorpe All Saints, Little Missenden). Above all, there are villages almost without number whose names are just endearingly inane--Prittlewell, Little Rollright, Chew Magna, Titsey, Woodstock Slop, Lickey End, Stragglethorpe, Yonder Bognie, Nether Wallop, and the practically unbeatable Thornton-le-Beans. (Bury me there!)"
    (Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island. William Morrow, 1995)

Alternate Spellings: placename, place-name

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "How Places Get Their Names." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). How Places Get Their Names. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How Places Get Their Names." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 23, 2021).