Who Decides What Names Go on a Map?

For 125 years, a group you’ve never heard of has been helping create a common language for the world’s place names.

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The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society first met at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1888. This 1963 painting depicts them signing the new organization’s charter. Four of these men—Henry Ogden, John Wesley Powell, Henry Gannett, and Marcus Baker—were also charter members of the U.S. Board on Geographical Names (BGN) in 1890.

Would a place by any other name smell as sweet? Maybe. But how would you find it on a map?

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) has spent the past 125 years making sure that’s not an issue. By standardizing place names on government maps, it eliminates problems that arise from inconsistencies and redundancies—a boon to mapmakers and map-readers alike.

As the BGN celebrates its quasquicentennial anniversary on Friday with a gala symposium at the Library of Congress, it’s time to look back at why the board was founded (by a group that includes several charter members of the National Geographic Society), how it works, and why it’s as essential to clear communication in 2015 as it was in 1890.

What It Is

The BGN comprises members from six federal departments and the Central Intelligence Agency, the Government Publishing Office, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Postal Service. It rules on hundreds of naming decisions each year and maintains geographical databases (available at geonames.usgs.gov) containing more than two million domestic records and over 11 million records for foreign names.

The BGN doesn’t decide what a place is called. It responds to proposals from federal agencies; state, local, and tribal governments; and the public. But, says Chairman Douglas Caldwell, its essential purpose is always the same: clarity and consistency.

“Names help us understand the world,” says Caldwell, a geospatial analyst at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “And they’re a reflection of federal government policy. To communicate clearly and unambiguously, standardization of place names, spellings, and applications is necessary.”

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Men pull a house floating on drums through the Bering Sea in this 1984 photo. One of the BGN’s first acts was to establish “Bering Sea” as the official spelling on federal U.S. maps, rather than “Behring,” “Behrings,” or “Kamchatka.”

How the West Was Mapped 

That was never more true than in the late 19th century. After the Civil War, with America’s westward expansion in full swing, place-name inconsistencies and contradictions were making maps of the new territories confusing for surveyors, cartographers, and scientists.

So on January 8, 1890, T.C. Mendenhall, superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Office, wrote a letter to ten prominent 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.”

His suggestion was taken. On September 4 of that year, President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order establishing the Board of Geographic Names: “To this Board shall be referred all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. The decisions of the Board are to be accepted … as the standard authority for such matters.”

Four Society figures—Henry Ogden, John Wesley Powell, Henry Gannett, and Marcus Baker—were among the board’s founding members. In 1899, National Geographic magazine reinforced the connection when it endorsed the BGN as “the one and only standard on geographic nomenclature, so far as the people and government of the United States are concerned.”

Two of the board’s first decisions? Establishing “Bering Sea” as the official spelling (rather than “Behring,” “Behrings,” or “Kamchatka”) and renaming the “Anacostia River” (which had been called the “Eastern Branch”) in Washington, D.C.

World War II and its aftermath led to many more name changes, says Caldwell, and the BGN started to include foreign names in its purview. In 1947 the U.S. Congress officially expanded its international scope and directed it to share power with the Secretary of the Interior.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Today the BGN has an executive committee and two other permanent ones with full authority: the 10- to 15-member Domestic Names Committee (DNC) and the 8- to 10-member Foreign Names Committee (FNC). Both comprise government employees only. Each maintains its own database.

In the first quarter of 2015, the DNC considered 77 naming proposals. It approved 34. It also voted to officially recognize the name change of South Dakota’s “Shannon County” to “Oglala Lakota County,” and to approve “Tlaxsatanjín” (a Tlingit word) as the name of a summit overlooking Juneau, Alaska, among other items.

Among the FNC’s notable actions was to officially add Bangkok’s ceremonial name—the world’s longest (hence unprintable here)—to its database.

Marcus Allsup, the BGN’s acting secretary for foreign names and a geographer at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, says international names have their own criteria.

“We don’t translate terms on maps,” he says. “We accurately depict foreign names in the Roman alphabet. For non-Roman languages, we adopt transliteration systems or create them for more obscure languages, so we have several federal linguists on staff.”

He says one of the FNC’s toughest tasks is finding quality source material in war-torn or less-developed places.

“In 2001,” says Allsup, “the only maps we had of Afghanistan had been created in the late 1950s and early ’60s. They were hopelessly out of date and sparsely populated, names-wise. That was a challenge.”

Then there are places with no sovereign authority or permanent population—places like Antarctica and the Earth’s oceans. Each has its own advisory committee on the BGN, comprising both federal employees and non-government members who have expertise in those areas.

Locals Mostly

The BGN isn’t alone in the world. More than 50 nations have some type of national naming authority, and the board works with counterparts in places like the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.

Caldwell says the BGN strongly favors established local usage when making its decisions.

“But we also have an interest in preserving long-standing names,” he says. “We don’t want to change names very frequently; that’s why the process is so deliberate. Those two policies are often in conflict—the name has been in use for a long time, but the local population no longer feels a connection to it and wants to change it.”

“There are times when an indigenous group will want to change a European name back to what it was called eons ago,” ays BGN Executive Secretary Lou Yost, a geographer at the U.S. Geological Survey. “But it’s not the BGN’s place to make things historically correct. We go with what the majority local population calls a feature or place.”

Sometimes keeping an established name is the safest thing to do.

“Fossil Point in California is on a point where no fossils had been found,” says Caldwell, “but it was an important navigation location. So you can’t just change it on maps—it would be dangerous.”

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At the BGN’s first meeting, in 1890, it officially recognized the name “Anacostia River.” Prior to that, the river—depicted in this 1833 painting, along with the U.S. Navy Shipyard—was called the “Eastern Branch,” or the “Eastern Branch of the Potomac River,” on some maps.

The BGN-NGS Connection

BGN meetings are held in federal buildings but open to the public (advance notice is required to attend), and minutes are available to anyone. At most meetings someone from the National Geographic Society attends—someone like Juan José Valdés, the Society’s Geographer.

A featured speaker at today’s BGN gala, Valdés says there are misperceptions about the Society’s long relationship with the board.

“Some people believe that we dictate to the board and vice versa,” says Valdés. “And that is not the case. We attend meetings, we sit, and we listen. When asked, we answer questions about our policies and conventions. But that’s as far as it goes.”

The Society does follow the BGN on most decisions, says Michael Fry, a map editor and librarian at National Geographic. But there are exceptions.

“They have the most comprehensive database available to us, so we base a lot of our work on what they do,” he says. “But there are definitely cases where we deviate from what they do. For instance, National Geographic recognizes, and uses, both ‘Myanmar’ and ‘Burma,’ whereas the U.S. government uses ‘Burma’ only.”

Safety and Clarity

So what happens when names on a map aren’t consistent?

“There have been cases where someone hiking uses a Forest Service or Park Service map,” says Yost, “then they get lost and communicate where they think they are. But the helicopter [trying to rescue them] is using a USGS map. It creates confusion and compromises safety.”

Consistency is also important for the military and intelligence communities. Confusion among the services during WWII was one of the things that prompted a foreign-names committee in 1947.

Today—in the age of GPS and the Internet, open-source data and homeland defense—getting geographic names right is more important than ever.

“As coordinate precision has improved over the years,” says Caldwell, “the ways people have used geographic names and information has changed. It’s more accessible than ever, and more precise.”

But there’s a downside too, says Valdés. In a world where instant gratification and access is often prized over accuracy and consideration, critical thinking is being lost.

“When people see maps today,” says Valdés, “especially on the Web, they see a name and think that because it’s there, it must be so. They take what they see at face value. They don’t question the accuracy. It’s very dangerous.”

A Sense of Place

For National Geographic and many others, the BGN remains an invaluable resource in the 21st century.

“One of the ways we keep our maps as current as possible,” says Valdés, “is that we have our finger on the pulse—the BGN.”

“[The board] is as important as ever for consistency, for standardization,” says Fry. “People can’t communicate effectively if they’re not sure they’re talking about the same thing.”

The BGN’s 125-year-old mission is to foster and improve communication. But getting names straight on a map does a few other things as well.

“Place names serve as a vehicle for identity,” says Valdés. “They represent an idea, a philosophy. A sense of place. What better way to reflect that fact than to make sure that we’re on top of place-name changes and events.”

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