Off the Map: What’s in a (geographic) name?

Off the Map

What’s in a (geographic) name?


From Antananarivo to Zanzibar, the earth is covered in a great variety of labels for virtually everything that’s visible and for many things that are not. Stretching back deep into human history, the activity of labeling geographic things is one of the most fundamental characteristics of geographic information — that is, you discover something distinct in geographic space and you provide it with attributes, the most common being a name.

Those who work in the zoological sciences are very familiar with this practice, as a new species’ name often seems as important as the species itself, or likewise how astronomers quickly lay claim to their celestial discoveries with a unique name. But unlike the labels given by zoologists or astronomers to their fresh discoveries, the names used by geographers are often in themselves the discovery, as well as a potential key to unlocking the cultural history and current events of a specific locale. In the context of localization, the cultural and historical connection of a place to its name can often be a difficult issue to handle appropriately.

The study of the origin and meaning of geographic names — equally known as “place names” — is called toponymy (from the Greek roots topos meaning place and ounouma meaning name); thus, a geographic name can more succinctly be called a toponym. While toponyms have existed since the earliest forms of maps, toponymy is a more recently evolved discipline. Having found its structured origins in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is now considered a vital aspect of cartographic science.

In fact, the cataloguing of toponyms was considered so important to national interests — because you can’t really govern well if don’t even know what lies within your own borders — that government agencies were established for that very purpose, such as the US Board on Geographic Names (BGN) or the United Kingdom’s Permanent Committee on Geographic Names. Although now mostly all managed in digital form, one of the primary products of such agencies for many decades were massive hardcopy texts of toponym records, called gazetteers, that comprised lists of names, latitude and longitude coordinates and attribute data (if the feature is a town, river and so forth).

I could go further with the more mundane aspects of toponymy, but I’d prefer to highlight two primary facets of these special names as they relate to localization: their socio-political significance and their potential sensitivity as a type of content.

On the subject of significance, a toponym often obtains a special status by codifying the physical or cultural nature of a locality while also serving as a historical point of reference. As recently as January 2006, the BGN approved changes to several toponyms in the state of Oregon that contained the name squaw in order to remove a historical legacy of western expansion because the term is considered derogatory to Native Americans (for example, the name Squaw Ridge is now Hoona Ridge, leveraging an acceptable Native American term). When the Soviet Union fragmented in 1989, many of the constituent countries were very quick to revert to their original, non-Russian toponyms with perhaps Ukraine leading the way with sweeping changes — some of which may have seemed minor but were very important to the local cultural identity, such as Kiev to Kyiv or Odessa to Odesa. In other cases, the name itself can be a distinct geographic marker, such as one of the world’s longest geographic names from northern Wales: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch, which translates into “The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave” (incidentally, the longest toponym in the world is the 157-character Thai name for the city of Bangkok, which I won’t repeat here for the sake of space). Many other examples could be cited, but it’s important to reinforce that toponyms embody a central significance to local culture and politics, on a level that is often raised to broad cultural and nationalistic levels (similar to how local people may react to an improper national flag or incorrect national map).

On the point of potential toponym sensitivity, I’d offer that there are three primary aspects that you should address to decrease the potential for this special type of content to run afoul of local governments and customers, whether translated or not. Some of these aspects may require access to more targeted subject-matter expertise to help guide the process:

  • Name currency. Do you know the date of your cartographic sources? Are the names current within the past year or so? While many who leverage geographic names may haphazardly pull them off any old map, currency is very important as it sends a message to your customers that you are both aware of and concerned about their local geography.
  • Name sensitivity. Obviously, there are some names (refer to the accompanying examples) which are considered problematic in certain locales, either for local or global use. You must ensure that a particular name may not yield serious backlash for your target locale and thus cause problems for you and/or your client.
  • Current transliteration/romanization methods. Perhaps one of the more frequent changes that occurs with toponyms is when local authorities alter their preferred transliteration or romanization schemes. This, of course, yields significantly different results. For example, in 2000 the government of Korea (South) changed its Hangul Romanization scheme, which resulted in many geographic name changes — such as changing the administrative areas of Cheju-do to Jeju-do and Kangwŏn-do to Gangwon-do.

The mention of these aspects typically leads to an inevitable question: How does one go about verifying all this information and how much cost might be involved? Well, I’m glad you asked! On the issue of cost, it depends on many factors but chiefly upon how early this work is done in your development cycle as well as how closely integrated the accountability for such a name review might be with your existing processes. On the issue of how to verify, here are some suggestions.

  • Verify with the local government agency. As you may conclude from the previous discussion, the most important step to take is to verify toponym usage with the local market’s authority on such issues. The governments in most major markets have a geographic names authority of some type, and it is prudent to check with them on the aforementioned aspects. Note: Keep in mind that sometimes the local government name could be problematic outside its local context, and your use of the name could cause problems in other locales (see the Macedonia example).
  • Verify usage against local maps and atlases. Examine your toponym usage against the most prevalent local sources (such as maps produced by the national survey agency) to get a sense of proper colloquial usage.
  • Verify usage against international maps and atlases. As per cartographic practice, leverage existing, popular cartographic sources as a means to confirm your decisions and/or help raise questions about potential usage. The goal is obviously not to copy a single source’s solution but to use many sources as a guideline for your own policy.

Here are a few toponym-related websites that I would highly recommend if you’re interested in pursuing this topic further:
The United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN):
United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN): This site also contains links to several national names authorities.
Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online:

Because toponyms encapsulate such a high value on cultural, geopolitical and historical levels, this special class of content should be managed with more care than perhaps other text content. Their level of sensitivity is, of course, also tied to their discoverability, which often makes them more sensitive in conjunction with the use of maps (a topic we will cover in the near future). If you approach toponyms as a type of text content that has the strong potential of being a “gateway” to opening deeper issues (nationalism, cultural history, colonialism, ethnicity and so on), then you are on the right path to avoiding potential rifts with your local partners and customers, including the local government who may passionately enforce the proper use of local toponyms. M

Leading examples of sensitive geographic names
Taiwan/Republic of China: This is considered perhaps the foremost toponym controversy. The name you employ for this political feature will either align or polarize you with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as the government of Taiwan. While the local name preference is clearly Republic of China (ROC), the name on mainland China is Taiwan, Province of China, which is the name reflected in the widely used ISO 3166-1 geographic names standard, for political reasons. In recent years, more creative alternatives have appeared to help minimize the sensitivity, such as Chinese Taipei, but these are not a long-term remedy. The name Taiwan is often a best choice, but you must be mindful of the target audience as well as the potential for your product to enter the PRC.

Sea of Japan/East Sea: This hydrographic feature between the Korean peninsula and Japan has long been disputed in name. The standard label of Sea of Japan will be acceptable in every country beyond Korea, but within the latter the name East Sea is required. Many cartographers have opted for a compromise solution such as Sea of Japan (East Sea) which is bittersweet to both sides. There is a long history behind this disputed name, and both Korea and Japan have gone to great lengths to convince other countries and map publishers that their particular viewpoint is historically accurate. The issue is still under consideration by the United Nations and the International Hydrographic Office based in Monaco.

(The Former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia: When Macedonia attained independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991, its admission to the United Nations was contingent upon its acceptance of the name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). While the local preference is simply Republic of Macedonia, Greece chiefly led the pressure for the new country to adopt an alternate name (as well as alternate flag design, but that’s another issue) due to the ancient connection of Greece with the Macedonian region. While FYROM is the UN-official name, some countries opt to use only Republic of Macedonia, including the US government, which changed its policy in 2005. Be careful: not using the FYROM name could be a problem if your product enters Greece.

Kurdistan: While it has been heard much more in the past few years in conjunction with the Iraq conflict, the name Kurdistan remains a flash point issue for Turkey. In many western countries the name is used typically to convey the cultural region where the Kurdish people are the majority, but in Turkey the name has a very clear political connotation. If you intend to do business in Turkey and/or have content that could be exposed to Turkish markets, be careful of how this name is used.

Tom Edwards is owner and principal consultant of Englobe, a Seattle-based consultancy for geostrategic content management. Previously, Tom spent 13 years at Microsoft as a geographer and as its senior geopolitical strategist. Questions or comments? E-mail

This article reprinted from #78 Volume 17 Issue 2 of MultiLingual published by MultiLingual Computing, Inc., 319 North First Ave., Sandpoint, Idaho, USA, 208-263-8178, Fax: 208-263-6310. Subscribe