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U.S. Board on Geographic Names

The US Board on Geographic Names Determines Official Geographic Names in the US


U.S. Board on Geographic Names

President Barack Obama looks at a map donated to the White House by the National Geographic Society, in the Oval Office, June 10, 2009.

White House/Pete Souza
Updated October 06, 2011
The names of natural and administrative features across the United States and its territories are standardized by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN). The Board on Geographic Names is a federal agency associated with the United States Geological Survey and is based in Reston, Virginia. The Board on Geographic Names receives hundreds of requests a year to determine official new names of geographic features or change the name of existing features, such as rivers, lakes, mountains, rock formations, glaciers, islands, cities, towns, and more. Unless asked to do so, the Board does not resolve the names of man-made features. I spoke with Mr. Lou Yost, the Executive Secretary for the BGN Domestic Names Committee, to learn how the Board makes its very significant decisions.

History of the Board on Geographic Names

Expansion into the American West greatly accelerated after the mid-19th century U.S. Civil War. Many inconsistencies with feature names caused disputes and confusion for explorers, settlers, and surveyors. A neutral federal agency became necessary. President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order in 1890, and the Board on Geographic Names was founded.

Structure of the Board on Geographic Names

Led by the United States Secretary of the Interior, and a Chairman, Vice-Chairman, and Executive Secretaries, the Board meets monthly and is composed of representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, the Government Printing Office, the Library of Congress, and the United States Postal Service. Members are appointed for two year terms and may be reappointed. The Board has worked with state geographic naming committees, geologists, cartographers, historians, and many other occupations for advice on establishing geographic names. With few exceptions, all other federal agencies accept the Board's decisions and publish signs, maps, and documents with the approved official names.

Most Important Naming Policies of the Board on Geographic Names

The Board does not in itself try to name every geographic feature. Instead, when local citizens across the country want a feature to be named or have its name changed, the Board will respond. Its main naming principle is to officially name the feature after what local citizens currently call it (local usage). However, names cannot be regarded as offensive to any gender, or racial, ethnic, or religious group. For example, many places with the word "squaw" in its name have been changed, because "squaw" can be considered a derogatory word for a Native American woman.

Additional Fundamental Naming Policies

The Board wants geographic names to be as precise, short and as easily pronounceable as possible. Features should not have the same name as another feature in the same state or a nearby state. The Board reviews the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation marks in names. The use of apostrophes in names, which indicate possession of the feature, are discouraged. Hyphens and periods are also generally not used in geographic names.

Anyone Can Propose a Geographic Name

Any person or organization can submit a proposal by mail or online to create a new name or change an existing name. They should first determine the exact location of a place, such as its latitude and longitude, and if the feature truly is unnamed. As much geographic information about the feature, such as the elevation of a mountain or the length and course of a river, should be supplied. They should also include the origin or meaning of the proposed name. Proposers should talk to members of the community and do research such as reviewing old newspapers to see if the name is in local spoken and written usage. Many people propose commemorative names to honor a significant person in the community or country. The honored person must have been deceased for at least five years. Based on all evidence provided, Board members then conduct a thorough investigation to determine the appropriate name of the place.

Controversial Geographic Names

Many disputes and controversies have arisen over geographic names. Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts once had the apostrophe removed its name. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania once had the "h" removed from its name. Local citizens in both places became strongly opposed to the new forms, and after protests and petitions, the original name forms were restored. These places are now notable exceptions to the Board's policies regarding spelling and punctuation marks.

Geographic Names Around the World

The Board on Geographic Names also helps standardize the names of some features in Antarctica, such as glaciers, coasts, and mountains. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, another federal agency involved in geographical matters, standardizes the American government's use of the names of underwater features and some foreign places. The United Nations has held conferences on standardizing geographic names throughout the world.

Less Confusing Geography

For approximately 120 years, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has standardized the names of geographic features. Exploration, settlement, administration, and maintenance of geographic features have become less confusing. People have become deeply attached to feature names, which reveal history and culture. The Board will continue to make its crucial decisions, which originate from ordinary citizens across the country.

Search for Place Names Via The Board on Geographic Names

The Board maintains the online Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). Users can search this database and find the official names of more than two million physical and human features in the United States. In addition, the Board on Geographic Names published a quarterly update of name proposals and Board decisions active lists page.
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