Last updated

Toponymy or toponomastics [1] [2] is the study of place names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, use and typology. [3]



The word "toponymy" is derived from the Greek words tópos (τόπος) "place" and ónoma (ὄνομα) "name". Toponymy itself is a branch of onomastics, the study of names of all kinds. [4] In a more restricted sense, the term 'toponymy' refers to an inventory of toponyms, while the discipline researching such names is referred to as toponomastics. [5]

Meaning and history

Toponym is the general name for any place or geographical entity. [6] Related, more specific types of toponym include hydronym for a body of water and oronym for a mountain or hill. A toponymist is one who studies toponymy.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the word "toponymy" first appeared in English in 1876; since then, toponym has come to replace "place-name" in professional discourse among geographers.[ citation needed ] It can be argued that the first toponymists were the storytellers and poets who explained the origin of specific place names as part of their tales; sometimes place-names served as the basis for the etiological legends. The process of folk etymology usually took over, whereby a false meaning was extracted from a name based on its structure or sounds. Thus, the toponym of Hellespont was explained by Greek poets as being named after Helle, daughter of Athamas, who drowned there as she crossed it with her brother Phrixus on a flying golden ram. The name, however, is probably derived from an older language, such as Pelasgian, which was unknown to those who explained its origin. George R. Stewart theorized, in his book Names on the Globe, that Hellespont originally meant something like "narrow Pontus" or "entrance to Pontus", "Pontus" being an ancient name for the region around the Black Sea, and by extension, for the sea itself. [7]

Place names provide the most useful geographical reference system in the world. Consistency and accuracy are essential in referring to a place to prevent confusion in everyday business and recreation. A toponymist, through well-established local principles and procedures developed in cooperation and consultation with the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN), applies the science of toponymy to establish officially recognized geographical names. A toponymist relies not only on maps and local histories, but interviews with local residents to determine names with established local usage. The exact application of a toponym, its specific language, its pronunciation, and its origins and meaning are all important facts to be recorded during name surveys.

Scholars have found that toponyms provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region. In 1954 F. M. Powicke said of place-name study that it "uses, enriches and tests the discoveries of archaeology and history and the rules of the philologists". [8] Toponyms not only illustrate ethnic settlement patterns, but they can also help identify discrete periods of immigration. [9] [10]

Toponymists are responsible for the active preservation of their region's culture through its toponymy. They typically ensure the ongoing development of a geographical names data base and associated publications, for recording and disseminating authoritative hard-copy and digital toponymic data. This data may be disseminated in a wide variety of formats, including hard-copy topographic maps as well as digital formats such as geographic information systems and Google Maps.


In 2002, the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names acknowledged that while common, the practice of naming geographical places after living persons could be problematic. As such, the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names recommends that it be avoided and that national authorities should set their own guidelines as to the time required after a person's death for the use of a commemorative name. [11]

In the same vein, authors Pinchevski and Torgovnik considers the naming of streets as a political act in which holders of the legitimate monopoly to name aspire to engrave their ideological views in the social space. [12] Similarly, the revisionist practice of renaming streets, as both the celebration of triumph and the repudiation of the old regime is another issue of toponymy. [13] Also, in the context of Slavic nationalism, the name of Saint Petersburg was changed to the more Slavic sounding Petrograd from 1914 to 1924, [14] then to Leningrad following the death of Vladimir Lenin and back to Saint-Peterburg in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. After 1830, in the wake of the Greek War of Independence and the establishment of an independent Greek state, Turkish, Slavic and Italian place names were Hellenized, as an effort of "toponymic cleansing". This nationalization of place names can also manifest itself in a postcolonial context. [15]

Frictions sometimes arise between countries because of toponymy, as illustrated by the Macedonia naming dispute in which Greece has claimed the name Macedonia, as well as the Persian Gulf naming dispute. Over the years, it has also been noted that a map producer used the name Persian Gulf in a 1977 map of Iran while retaining the fictitious term "Arabian Gulf" in another 1977 map focusing on the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, underlying the occasional spilling of place names issues into the economic sphere. [16]

Notable toponymists

See also

Related concepts
Regional toponymy

Related Research Articles

The toponymy of England, like the English language itself, derives from various linguistic origins. Modern interpretations are apt to be inexact: many English toponyms have been corrupted and broken down over the years, due to changes in language and culture which have caused the original meaning to be lost. In some cases, words used in placenames are derived from languages that are extinct, and of which there are no extant known definitions; or placenames may be compounds between two or more languages from different periods. Many names predate the radical changes in the English language triggered by the Norman Conquest, and some Celtic names even predate the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the first millenium AD.

Onomastics or onomatology is the study of the etymology, history, and use of proper names.

This is a list of etymological lists.

An exonym or xenonym is an external name for a geographical place, a group of people, an individual person, or a language or dialect. It is a common name used only outside the place, group, or linguistic community in question. An endonym or autonym is an internal name for a geographical place, a group of people, or a language or dialect. It is a common name used only inside the place, group, or linguistic community in question; it is their name for themselves, self-designated, their homeland, or their language.

A hydronym is a proper name of a body of water. Hydronymy, a subset of toponymy, the taxonomic study of place-names, is the study of the names of bodies of water, the origins of those names, and how they are transmitted through history. Hydronyms may include the names of rivers (potamonyms), lakes, and even oceanic elements.

Germanic toponyms are the names given to places by Germanic peoples and tribes. Besides areas with current speakers of Germanic languages, many regions with previous Germanic speakers or Germanic influence had or still have Germanic toponymic elements, such as places in Northern France, Wallonia, Poland and Northern Italy.

Alise-Sainte-Reine Commune in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, France

Alise-Sainte-Reine (Alise-Ste-Reine) is a commune in the Côte-d'Or department in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of eastern France.

Antarctic Place-names Commission

The Antarctic Place-names Commission was established by the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute in 1994, and since 2001 has been a body affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria.

Instruction on transliteration of Belarusian geographical names with letters of Latin script

Instruction on transliteration of Belarusian geographical names with letters of Latin script is an official standard of Romanization of Belarusian geographical names.

Bulgarian toponyms in Antarctica

Bulgarian toponyms in Antarctica are approved by the Antarctic Place-names Commission in compliance with its Toponymic Guidelines, and formally given by the President of the Republic according to the Bulgarian Constitution and the established international and Bulgarian practice. Place naming is confined to nameless geographic features situated in the Antarctic Treaty area, the region south of the parallel 60 degrees south latitude.

United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names

The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) is one of the nine expert groups of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and deals with the national and international standardization of geographical names. Every five years they hold the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names.

The Macedonian onomastics is part of the Macedonistics that studies the names, surnames and nicknames of the Macedonian language. This is relatively new linguistic discipline. In Macedonia, and in the Macedonistics in general, it developed during the 19th century, where the first few research results have been provided. The onomastics for a long period of time has been considered as part of various scientific disciplines, such as geography, history or ethnography, until it became a discipline on its own in the 20th century. The Macedonian Onomastics, generally speaking, is divided into toponomastics and anthroponomastics.

Scottish toponymy derives from the languages of Scotland. The toponymy varies in each region, reflecting the linguistic history of each part of the country.

Josef Breu was an Austrian geographer and cartographer and for several years Chair of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN).

Toponymic Guidelines are up-to-date documents promoted by the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN). The aim of these documents is to compile information on toponymic issues of a certain country, especially from the perspective of standardization of geographical names.

Geographical name changes in Greece

The Greek state has systematically replaced geographical and topographic names of non-Greek origin with Greek names as part of a policy and ideology of Hellenization. The main objective of the initiative has been to assimilate or hide geographical or topographical names that were deemed foreign and divisive against Greek unity or considered to be "bad Greek". The names that were considered foreign were usually of Turkish, Albanian, and Slavic origin. Most of the name changes occurred in the ethnically heterogeneous northern Greece and the Arvanite settlements in central Greece. Place names of Greek origin were also renamed after names in Classical Greece.


  2. Českʹy jazyk a literatura (in Czech), 11, Státní pedagogické nakl., 1961, p. 176
  3. Ormeling Sr., F.J. (16–18 October 1989). "Terms used in geographical names standardization". In Tichelaar, T.R. (ed.). Proceedings of the Workshop on Toponymy held in Cipanas, Indonesia. Cibinong: Bakosurtanal.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  4. Tent, Jan (29 April 2015). "Approaches to Research in Toponymy". Names . Tandfonline. 63 (2): 65–74. doi:10.1179/0027773814Z.000000000103.
  5. Marulić (in Croatian), 35, Hrvatsko književno društvo sv. Ćirila i Metoda, 2002, p. 1183
  6. United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, London, 10–31 May 1972. 1974. New York: United Nations. Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs, p. 68.
  7. Stewart, George Rippey (7 August 1975). Names on the Globe (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-501895-0.
  8. Powicke, reviewing Armstrong, Mawer, Stenton and Dickins The Place-Names of Cumberland (1950–53) in The English Historical Review69 (April 1954), p 312.
  9. McDavid, R.I. (1958). "Linguistic Geographic and Toponymic Research". Names (6): 65–73.
  10. Kaups, M. (1966). "Finnish Place Names in Minnesota: A Study in Cultural Transfer". The Geographical Review. Geographical Review, Vol. 56, No. 3. 56 (56): 377–397. doi:10.2307/212463. JSTOR   212463.
  11. "Eighth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names". United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2002.
  12. Pinchevski, Amit; Torgovnik, Efraim (May 2002). "Signifying passages: the signs of change in Israeli street names". Media, Culture & Society. doi:10.1177/016344370202400305.
  13. Azaryahu, Maoz (2009). "Naming the past: The significance of commemorative street names". Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Place Naming. Routledge.
  14. Lincoln, Bruce (2000). Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia. Basic Books.
  15. Rose-Redwood, Reuben; et al. (2009). "Geographies of toponymic inscription: new directions in critical place-name studies" (PDF). Progress in Human Geography: 460.
  16. "Toponymy and Geopolitics: The Political Use — and Misuse — of Geographical Names" (PDF). The Cartographic Journal. 2004. doi:10.1179/000870404X12897.

Further reading