Reports

Same Land, Different Brand: Investigating Variation in Place Names

June, 2021 Language Matters

Place names, or toponyms, are said to be one of the stablest aspects of language, with many toponyms carried down through generations and surviving immense transformations in the civilizations that inhabit them. And yet, there are times when a location changes its toponym or has more than one. For example, should we prefer Eswatini or Swaziland; Czech Republic or Czechia? This Language Matters article investigates why toponyms sometimes compete or change over time, and also outlines some motivations for renaming places and some important considerations when choosing which of a place’s names to use in a text.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? The study of proper names answers this very question, and one of its subfields, toponymy, specifically deals with place names. Toponymists assert that place names are interesting and worthy of study, as they can tell us a lot about the relationships between people and spaces, such as the power, identity and memories that the names seek to represent.

Toponymic Variation

All across the globe are examples of shifts in place names resulting from such factors as colonization and decolonization, changing values, tourism concerns, and pushes for standardization. Let’s look at some examples of this range of motivations for toponymic variation and change.

Colonization and Decolonization

When a region is colonized, the colonizers sometimes continue using local toponyms, while other times they impose new names. For example, a major city in Vietnam now known as Da Nang was rebaptized Tourane during French colonial rule. Tourane is an example of an exonym: a toponym that is not used or not granted by the people who live there. Later, as part of decolonization after the end of French Indochina, the city officially adopted Da Nang, which is an endonym: a toponym that is used and granted by the people who live there. This name is spelled Đà Nẵng in Vietnamese script. For considerations on incorporating foreign diacritics into English loanwords, see our article Using Accents and Diacritics in English.

Values

In situations where there are competing toponyms, they can function as shibboleths, by which a given speaker can reveal a value they have about that place based on the toponym they choose to use. For example, there is a city in Northern Ireland that is officially known as Londonderry and has informally been called Derry by locals. During the outbreak of the Troubles, the choice of name became political, with Derry associated with the Irish nationalists and Londonderry associated with the unionists. In the absence of a neutral option, some took to using both together, written as Derry/Londonderry and spoken as “Derry-slash-Londonderry”, and occasionally shortened to the humorous Slash City in a nod to this diplomatic use of the slash symbol.1

More recently, the international outcry over the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized the reconsideration of names that have racist connotations or are historically connected to slavery supporters, names including those of sports teams, high schools, commercial products, and streets. For example, Dundas Street in Toronto is under consideration for a name change to replace the reference to 19th-century Scottish politician Henry Dundas, who was involved in delaying the abolition of slavery.2 In California, the renowned Squaw Valley Ski Resort is under consideration for a new name that removes its first word, which is considered a slur for a Native American woman.3

Tourism

Some toponyms are designed or retained in an effort to stimulate tourism. Perhaps the chosen toponym holds attractive associations or exhibits something linguistically remarkable, such as an unusually long string of letters. For example, the Welsh town of Llanfairpwllgwyngwll had its toponym extended to the formidable Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in the 19th century.4 Tourists visit the town for the sole purpose of taking photographs next to strategically placed signs of the long form of the town’s name.

Penny Lane is a street in Liverpool made famous for its appearance in the eponymous Beatles song. This street takes its name from James Penny, an 18th-century Liverpudlian merchant, slave ship owner and anti-abolitionist. Because of James Penny’s position on slavery, there was a motion to rename the street in 2006, along with others in Liverpool that commemorated slave traders. But due to the popularity of the street name among Beatles fans and the resulting tourism opportunities the street name offers, the name change proposal was dropped.5

Standardization

Standardized and unambiguous toponyms are integral to reliable delivery systems, emergency services rapid response, land holding registration, environmental management, and maps for tourists, among other purposes. For example, one town in Somalia is spelled Xuddur, Oddur, Xudur, Xuudur and Huudur. This type of inconsistency has been cited as a barrier to efficient coordination of resources and security in the region.6 With these challenges in mind, many countries have official geographic name boards who choose toponyms, develop naming policies, promote usage of official toponyms, and coordinate with other naming authorities such as the United Nations.

The Long and the Short of Nations

Most countries have a shorter, common name that refers to their territory (such as Papua New Guinea, Spain, Sudan and Switzerland) and a longer, formal name that is typically reserved for when legal precision is required (such as Independent State of Papua New Guinea, Kingdom of Spain, Republic of Sudan and Swiss Confederation). The long and short names are generally understood to mean the same thing, but are not always perfectly equivalent. The more political and administrative nature of the long name often reveals details of the country’s current type of rulership (monarchy, republic, etc.) that is less longstanding than the country’s common name: Spain remained Spain through it being a monarchy, to its first republic, to a monarchy, to its second republic, and back to a monarchy; China has existed as a civilization for thousands of years, while now, politically, the word China is generally understood to mean the People’s Republic of China—without forgetting that there is another territory, Taiwan, whose constitution claims to be the rightful ruler of all of China and has the formal name Republic of China.

Some countries of course have informal or literary nicknames, such as Oz for Australia, and the Emerald Isle for Ireland.

For a country that has two prevalent names, it is best to mention both at first reference to make it clearer for readers who might not be aware of one or the other. For example, the Czech Republic is the official long-form name for a country in central-eastern Europe that was once part of Czechoslovakia, and Czechia is its official short form since 2016 when the government officialized it and appealed to the United Nations to prefer it as the country’s short form in English. However, the long form, Czech Republic, is more widely used in all contexts, perhaps because it is relatively short for a long form and because of Czechia’s possible confusion with the Russian republic of Chechnya. Due to its unanchored status in English usage, when using Czechia, it is recommended to mention its formal name Czech Republic at the first reference. As another example, Eswatini was called Swaziland until its king officially changed the name in 2018 (long form: Kingdom of Eswatini). It is recommended to use the new name but to mention that it has a former name, which readers are likely more familiar with, at the first reference.

What Marks the Spot?

Each place’s unique history must be considered when choosing between competing toponyms. For guidance, look to what form is preferred by the government having jurisdiction over the toponym, by other international naming authorities such as the United Nations, and by respected style guides such as the AP Stylebook. Also consider the endonyms preferred by the local and indigenous inhabitants. Look for labels and explanatory notes in Antidote’s definitions dictionary. And be aware of potential sensitivities around a name choice, such as when a name acts as a shibboleth.

There are some situations where a writer may choose to use an unofficial toponym. For instance, a poet may prefer the Emerald Isle to Ireland. In some cases, choosing the toponym dictated by a ruling government might go directly in opposition to the goal or tone of the text. For example, many North American indigenous people and indigenous rights activists use Turtle Island in place of North America, Canada or the United States. Turtle Island, which derives from Algonquian and Iroquoian oral histories, draws attention to the indigenous heritage of the land in contrast to the officially recognized countries that inhabit it.7

From this lay of the land, we’ve seen how toponyms can reflect important aspects of a place’s values, aspirations and human history, and how to map out the best toponym for a given context.


  1. Radding, Lisa and John Western, What’s In a Name? Linguistics, Geography, and Toponyms. Geographical Review, 100(3), p. 394. Retrieved May 31, 2021.  

  2. The Petition to Rename Dundas Street. Toronto.ca. Retrieved May 31, 2021. 

  3. Squaw Valley Name Change. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. Retrieved May 31, 2021. 

  4. Light, Duncan, Tourism and Toponymy: Commodifying and Consuming Place Names. Tourism Geographies, 16(1), p. 147. Retrieved May 31, 2021. 

  5. Idem, pp. 145–146. 

  6. Toponymy Training Manual. United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names. Retrieved June 5, 2021.  

  7. Turtle Island. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 31, 2021.  

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