Whatchamacallit: The Science of Place Names

| May-June 2009

In the hierarchy of sexy sciences, toponymy—the science of place names—ranks pretty low. But consider this: In the coming year, a rapidly urbanizing China will require 20,000 new place names. And somebody, somewhere has to put them on the map.

If a location isn’t consistently or correctly labeled, it can cause problems for humanitarian organizations, as it did in 2005 when aid workers couldn’t get help to areas in Pakistan ravaged by an earthquake. To prevent this sort of identity crisis, the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names works to standardize the naming process and make information accessible across municipalities, countries, and languages.

Fortunately, the process does not require homogenization, reports Canadian Geographic (Jan.-Feb. 2009). For instance, geographers in the Great White North met with Inuit elders to document and preserve “descriptive” place names, like Nunavut’s Qakuqtannguaq—known locally as the “fake white islands.”