Learning About Toponymy: How Place Names Evolve

Monique Elias’s Faces and Places in the World is a lovely book for children to learn more about geography and place names, which led me to discover more about toponymy.

Derived from the Greek words topos and onoma, meaning “region” and “to name,” respectively, toponymy is the study of place names, how they evolved throughout the years, where they came from, and why they exactly became the name that “stuck.”

Whereas toponymy exclusively refers to the study, a toponym is the actual object of study, i.e., the name in question.

The Different Types of Toponyms

The most common toponym is the descriptive name, which directly represents the place’s natural features. Alaska is a good example, coming from the Aleut word alaxsxaq, meaning “mainland,” which precisely describes the region.

Associative names happen when a place is named after a prominent landmark.

An example would be Chestermere, Alberta, which was named after Chestermere Lake, an artificial body of water created in 1880.

If a place is named after an individual of local renown, that is a commemorative name.

Pennsylvania is an excellent example because it was derived from the surname of its founder, William Penn.

Related to commemorative names, a commendatory name is made in praise of someone or something.

Examples include Cincinnati, Ohio, which was named in honor of the Society of Cincinnati, an organization named after the historical Roman figure Cincinnatus. T

he old name of Taiwan, Formosa, is Portuguese for “beautiful” because of the island’s natural appeal.

An incident name occurs when a past local event becomes heavily associated with the place, and the latter becomes known for the event.

The state of Florida (Spanish for “flowery”) was named as such because it was discovered during Easter when the flowers were blooming. 

Some names are used because there are no proper names at the naming period. These are called manufactured names.

Sacul, Texas is one such example, simply Lucas spelled backward.

There’s also the town of Idiotville, which just persisted without change.

Mistaken names happen when there are errors in translation or because of a factual mistake by the people naming the places.

Examples include Nome, Alaska, which came from a misreading of a map, and California, which came from a Spanish novel that depicted a Utopian island called California.

possessive name occurs when a place is named after a nearby geographical landmark.

This is where the state name of Mississippi comes from; the state was named after a river. It is the same with Connecticut. 

More often than not, when new places are discovered, there is the tendency to use preexisting names taken from the cultural background of the explorers. This phenomenon is the shift name.

The most famous example would be the state and city of New York, which were named after the settlement of York in England. Before its current name, it was called New Amsterdam, which comes from Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

How Do Place Names Evolve?

Eventually, due to several factors, like language shifts, demographic changes, and political movements, original place names evolve and, in some instances, so thoroughly that the original name is now completely forgotten.

Simple Toponymic Processes

An abbreviation is when a complicated place name is simplified. An example is the British city of Exeter, which is from the longer Escanceaster

A more dramatic example would be the ancient Roman city of Aurelianorum transforming into the French city of Orléans. 

Evolution is when the parent language has shifted so much that new words are necessary to provide specificity.

An egregious example would be the Clapton-on-the-Hill in England. “Clapton” means “Hill settlement”; therefore, a literal translation of the place would be “Hill settlement on the hill.”

Another example would be El Puente de Alcantara in Spain. “El Puente” is Spanish for the bridge, while Alcantara is Arabic for the same word, creating The Bridge of the Bridge. 

Replacement is when the parent language is replaced with another language. The old name is often kept, but in some cases, the original name has lost its attachment and is replaced by the new language.

The most famous example would be the Turkish city of Istanbul, which began as the Greek town of Byzantium and was renamed Constantinople when the Roman Empire’s power shifted to the region. When the Turkish took over, it was renamed Istanbul. 

In Conclusion

How place names evolve is fascinating and reflects the cultural and social changes that have happened and are still happening in a given region. Faces and Places in the World by Monique Elias is an excellent way to start if you want to instill in your children a love for geography, history, and language.

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