What’s In a Geographic Name?

November 12, 2013

What’s in a Geographic Name

Photographer: Thomas McGuire
Summary Author: Thomas McGuire

The first explorers or settlers in a particular region often established local geographic names. Clearwater (Florida), the Grand Canyon (Arizona) and Mountain View (California) are obvious. Geographic names can honor a different location, such as (New) England or Paris (Texas). Native American names, or their Anglicized version, are common in North America, for instance the states of Mississippi and Alaska. Some towns express an ideal including Carefree (Arizona). Others extend from classical themes like Homer (New York).

Geographic names can be misleading. Marble Canyon near the Grand Canyon isn’t eroded through marble; its walls are limestone. Kansas City is mostly in the state of Missouri – in fact, it’s Missouri’s biggest city. Tropic (Utah) isn’t tropical or even subtropical. A few geographic names are “inappropriate words,” including the original name for S P Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona. Other place names aren’t so coy such as several towns in the Amish region of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania -- “Pennsylvania Dutch” has nothing to do with people from the Netherlands.

Moreover, some place names are given for frivolous or ironic reasons. The four-part image above shows four unusual settlements in Arizona. Why is named for a “Y” in the road. The last time I visited Nothing, almost, nothing was left -- true, ‘though a pun. These Arizona place names have been combined to form the silly question, “Why Hope for Nothing at Christmas.” By the way, note the grammatical error in the sign warning drivers who depart Hope.

According to USGS policy, a place name is just a place name. Regardless of how it got its name or how incorrect the name is, once labeled on their maps it’s the official name.