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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

What's in a Name?

The Saamis Teepee in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Have you ever wondered why your hometown is called what it is? Or perhaps you have noticed a peculiar sign indicating a lake or mountain which made you its toponymic origin. Some place names may appear inconspicuous because they describe the physical properties of the location itself; others may peak our interest because they refer to a famous figure from history, while others may seem totally bizarre and mysterious. Whatever the case, we encounter place names everywhere we go, we use them to find our way around, but we rarely realize how much information a name contains about the place itself.

Although they have been used since antiquity to help people orientate themselves in their environments, place names are far more than practical labels. Often, discovering the origins of a name reveals significant details about the location's cultural, political, and geographical history. In Alberta, for instance, many places earned their names from translations of Aboriginal words when no other name could be found for example, "Medicine Hat," is a translation of the Blackfoot Indian name saamis, meaning "head-dress of a medicine man." While others, like the Scottish name, "Calgary," The Shaw’s Point Resort on the Lesser Slave Lake near Slave Lake, Alberta.were given by mid 19th Century settlers of European descent in honour of places in their homeland. Some names may paint a picture of a place different from the name's original reference. "Slave Lake," for instance, comes from the translation of a Cree word which can also mean "stranger" or "outsider." Scholars speculate that the lake was named in reference to the various other tribes that the Cree encountered on their journeys through the region.

Details such as these can change the way we think about a place, because they reveal aspects of its history that we may not have known before. Understanding the origins of a name help us contextualize that place in unfamiliar, illuminating ways, and shed light on its unique heritage.

The study of place names and their origins is called toponymy, a term which comes from the Greek words topos - meaning "place" - and onoma - meaning "name." This website is meant to serve as a toponymic encyclopedia for both the curious, casual user, as well as the scholarly researcher. Yet toponymy is by no means a field restricted to experts. Because place naming is so deeply entwined with a region's cultural heritage, it is often the common people who hold the key to unlocking the elusive origin of a given place name. The study of toponymy depends upon the knowledge and memory of everyday people. It must be engaged not just with historical records and legislative documents, but with the living communities where history also resides - the sphere of cultural narratives, practices, and traditions.

In the next section, we will provide a brief introduction to the legislative process of place-naming in Canada and Alberta.

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            For more on place names of Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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