United States Board on Geographic Names

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United States Board on Geographic Names
United States Board on Geographic Names logo.png
Board overview
FormedSeptember 4, 1890;130 years ago (1890-09-04)
Board executives
  • Tara Wallace, Chair
  • Marcus Allsup, Vice-Chair
Website www.usgs.gov/core-science-systems/ngp/board-on-geographic-names OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg

The United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is a federal body operating under the United States Secretary of the Interior. The purpose of the board is to establish and maintain uniform usage of geographic names throughout the federal government of the United States. [1]



On January 8, 1890, T. C. Mendenhall, superintendent of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey Office, wrote to 10 noted geographers "to suggest the organization of a Board made up of representatives from the different Government services interested, to which may be referred any disputed question of geographical orthography." [2] President Benjamin Harrison signed executive order 28 [3] on September 4, 1890, establishing the Board on Geographical Names. [3] "To this Board shall be referred all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. The decisions of the Board are to be accepted [by federal departments] as the standard authority for such matters." [2] [3] The board was given authority to resolve all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. Decisions of the board were accepted as binding by all departments and agencies of the federal government.

The board has since undergone several name changes. [4] In 1934, it was transferred to the Department of the Interior. [4]

The Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names was established in 1943 as the Special Committee on Antarctic Names (SCAN). [5] In 1963, the Advisory Committee on Undersea Features was started for a standardization of names of undersea features. [6] [7]

Its present form derives from a law of 1947.


The 1969 BGN publication Decisions on Geographic Names in the United States stated the agency's chief purpose as:

[Names are] submitted for decisions to the Board on Geographical names by individuals, private organizations, or government agencies. It is the Board's responsibility to render formal decisions on new names, proposed changes in names, and names which are in conflict. [The decisions] define the spellings and applications of the names for use on maps and other publications of Federal agencies [4]

The board has developed principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of domestic and foreign geographic names, including underseas. [6] The BGN also deals with names of geographical features in Antarctica via its Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names.

The Geographic Names Information System, developed by the BGN in cooperation with the US Geological Survey, includes topographic map names and bibliographic references. The names of books and historic maps which confirm the feature or place name are cited. Variant names, alternatives to official federal names for a feature, are also recorded.

The BGN has members from six federal departments as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Government Publishing Office, the Library of Congress, and the US Postal Service. The BGN rules on hundreds of naming decisions annually and stores over two million geographical records in its databases at geonames.usgs.gov. State and local governments, and private mapping organizations usually follow the BGN's decisions.

The BGN has an executive committee and two permanent committees with full authority: the 10- to 15-member Domestic Names Committee and the 8- to 10-member Foreign Names Committee. Both comprise government employees only. Each maintains its own database. [2]


Although its official purpose is to resolve name problems and new name proposals for the federal government, the board also plays a similar role for the general public. Any person or organization, public or private, may make inquiries or request the board to render formal decisions on proposed new names, proposed name changes, or names that are in conflict. Generally, the BGN defers federal name use to comply with local usage. There are a few exceptions. For example, in rare cases where a locally used name is very offensive, the BGN may decide against adoption of the local name for federal use. [8]

The BGN does not recognize the use of the possessive apostrophe, and has only granted an exception five times during its history [9] , including one for Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. [10] [11]

In federal mapping and names collection efforts, there is often a phase lag where a delay occurs in adoption of a locally used name. Sometimes the delay is several decades. Volunteers in the Earth Science Corps are used to assist the US Geological Survey in collecting names of geographic features.

The BGN does not create a place name, the BGN responds to proposals for names from federal agencies; state, local, and tribal governments; and the public. The BGN does not translate terms, but instead accurately uses foreign names in the Roman alphabet. For non-Roman languages, the BGN uses transliteration systems or creates them for less well-known languages. [2]


The BGN currently publishes names on its website. In the past, the BGN issued its decisions in various publications under different titles at different intervals with various information included. [4] In 1933, the BGN published a significant consolidated report of all decisions from 1890 to 1932 in its Sixth Report of the United States Geographic Board 1890–1932. [4] For many years, the BGN published a quarterly report under the title Decisions on Geographic Names. [4]

Other authorities

See also

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  1. "The United States Board on Geographic Names: Getting the Facts Straight" (PDF). United States Board on Geographic Names. November 2016. Retrieved 27 September 2020.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Berlin, Jeremy; 18, National Geographic PUBLISHED September. "Who Decides What Names Go on a Map?". National Geographic News. Archived from the original on 2015-09-20. Retrieved 2015-09-19.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  3. 1 2 3 Exec. Order No. 28 (September 4, 1890; in English)  President of the United States of America . Retrieved on 16 July 2017. Wikisource-logo.svg The full text of Executive Order 28 at Wikisource
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Topping, Mary, comp., Approved Place Names in Virginia: An Index to Virginia Names Approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names through 1969 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1971), v–vi.
  5. Meredith F. Burrill (1990). 1890-1990, a Century of Service: United States Board on Geographic Names. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.
  6. 1 2 "Advisory Committee on Undersea Features" Archived 2013-05-11 at the Wayback Machine Accessed 2013-10-18
  7. "Annual Report To the Secretary of the Interior Fiscal Year 2014" (PDF). Geonames. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-08-02. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  8. Donald J. Orth and Roger L. Payne (2003). "Principles, Policies, and Procedures" (PDF). United States Board on Geographic Names and Domestic Geographic Names. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 8, 2016. Retrieved July 7, 2009.
  9. Apart from Martha's Vineyard: Carlos Elmer's Joshua View, Arizona; Clarke's Mountain, Oregon; Ike's Point, New Jersey; and John E's Pond, Rhode Island. "Gardens". QI. Season 7. Episode 1. November 26, 2009. (BBC Television)
  10. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324244304578471252974458308
  11. https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/politics-and-government/obscure-federal-rule-erased-apostrophes-from-place-names/