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Alberta Online Encyclopedia


Place Naming in the United States
and Around the World

The Mount Bourgeau Area in Banff National Park. We now know a little bit about the way Alberta and other provinces interact with the federal government as a whole to standardize and regulate the processes of place naming in Canada. However, the United States and the rest of the world have different systems of toponymic legislation, although a globally-unified system may lie somewhere in the future.

In the United States, the Board on Geographic Names is the main regulative body for place naming at the federal level. It is composed of representatives from various governmental jurisdictions, such as geographic information, population, ecology, and management of public lands. Established as Public Law in 1947, the Board on Geographic Names began as an unofficial federal body in 1890. Despite the vast differences between their histories, the United States assembled its Board for reasons not unlike those that led Canada to assemble the Geographic Board of Canada in 1897. Both legislations were attempts to standardize and inventory the vast array of new place names that arose with territorial expansion, increased settlement in the West, and a boom in industry. In the case of the United States, the years following the Civil War proved the most important for toponymic regulation.

Today, the Board of Geographic names holds sway over the naming of all domestic (and some foreign) geographic features, as well as Antarctic names, and even the names of undersea features. Unlike Canada, the United States favours a more centralized approach to toponymic procedures.

Around the rest of the globe, however, every country must set their own prerogatives for place naming. Even so, since 1959, the United Nations began devoting a division of its Economic and Social Council towards the function of global arbitration on the study of place names. As their website states, the Council provides the opportunity for "a small group of experts to meet and provide technical recommendations on standardizing geographical names at the national and international levels."

The Economic and Social Council, while maintaining the need for standardization of geographical names, emphasizes the importance of keeping locally-used names within a country, as a non-interventionist way of preserving the country's traditions and heritage. More an arbiter than an administrator, this branch of the United Nations recognizes both the autonomy of a given nation state in regards to its toponymic processes, as well as the benefits of maintaining global continuity and a common technical framework for countries to operate through.


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