Toponymy, also toponymics or toponomastics (from Ancient Greek: τόπος / tópos, 'place', and ὄνομα / onoma, 'name') is the study of toponyms (proper names of places, also known as place name or geographic name), their origins and meanings, use and typology.[1][2][3] In a more specific sense, the term toponymy refers to an inventory of toponyms, while the discipline researching such names is referred to as toponymics or toponomastics.[4] Toponymy is a branch of onomastics, the study of proper names of all kinds.[5] A person who studies toponymy is called toponymist. Toponym is the general term for a proper name of any geographical feature,[6] and full scope of the term also includes proper names of all cosmographical features.[7]


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word toponymy first appeared in English in 1876. Since then, toponym has come to replace the term place-name in professional discourse among geographers.

Toponymic typology

Toponyms can be divided in two principal groups:

  • geonyms - proper names of all geographical features, on planet Earth.[8]
  • cosmonyms - proper names of cosmographical features, outside Earth.[9]

Various types of geographical toponyms (geonyms) include, in alphabetical order:

  • agronyms - proper names of fields and plains.[10]
  • choronyms - proper names of regions or countries.[11]
  • dromonyms - proper names of roads or any other transport routes by land, water or air.[12]
  • drymonyms - proper names of woods and forests.[13]
  • econyms - proper names of inhabited locations, like houses, villages, towns or cities,[14] including:
    • comonyms - proper names of villages.[15]
    • astionyms - proper names of towns and cities.[16]
  • hydronyms - proper names of various bodies of water,[17] including:
    • helonyms - proper names of swamps, marshes and bogs.[18]
    • limnonyms - proper names of lakes and ponds.[19]
    • oceanonyms - proper names of oceans.[20]
    • pelagonyms - proper names of seas.[21]
    • potamonyms - proper names of rivers and streams.[22]
  • insulonyms - proper names of islands.[23]
  • oronyms - proper names of relief features, like mountains, hills and valleys,[24] including:
    • speleonyms - proper names of caves or some other subterranean features.[25]
  • urbanonyms - proper names of urban elements (streets, squares etc.) in settlements,[26] including:
    • agoronyms - proper names of squares and marketplaces.[10]
    • hodonyms - proper names of streets and roads.[27]

Various types of cosmographical toponyms (cosmonyms) include:

  • asteroidonyms - proper names of asteroids.[16]
  • astronyms - proper names of stars and constellations.[16]
  • cometonyms - proper names of comets.[28]
  • meteoronyms - proper names of meteors.[29]
  • planetonyms - proper names of planets and planetary systems.[30]


It can be argued that the first toponymists were the storytellers and poets who explained the origin of specific place names as part of their tales; sometimes place-names served as the basis for their etiological legends. The process of folk etymology usually took over, whereby a false meaning was extracted from a name based on its structure or sounds. Thus, for example, the toponym of Hellespont was explained by Greek poets as being named after Helle, daughter of Athamas, who drowned there as she crossed it with her brother Phrixus on a flying golden ram. The name, however, is probably derived from an older language, such as Pelasgian, which was unknown to those who explained its origin. In his Names on the Globe, George R. Stewart theorizes that Hellespont originally meant something like 'narrow Pontus' or 'entrance to Pontus', Pontus being an ancient name for the region around the Black Sea, and by extension, for the sea itself.[31]


Place names provide the most useful geographical reference system in the world. Consistency and accuracy are essential in referring to a place to prevent confusion in everyday business and recreation.

A toponymist, through well-established local principles and procedures developed in cooperation and consultation with the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN), applies the science of toponymy to establish officially recognized geographical names. A toponymist relies not only on maps and local histories, but interviews with local residents to determine names with established local usage. The exact application of a toponym, its specific language, its pronunciation, and its origins and meaning are all important facts to be recorded during name surveys.

Scholars have found that toponyms provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region. In 1954, F. M. Powicke said of place-name study that it "uses, enriches and tests the discoveries of archaeology and history and the rules of the philologists."[32]

Toponyms not only illustrate ethnic settlement patterns, but they can also help identify discrete periods of immigration.[33][34]

Toponymists are responsible for the active preservation of their region's culture through its toponymy. They typically ensure the ongoing development of a geographical names database and associated publications, for recording and disseminating authoritative hard-copy and digital toponymic data. This data may be disseminated in a wide variety of formats, including hard-copy topographic maps as well as digital formats such as geographic information systems and Google Maps.


In 2002, the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names acknowledged that while common, the practice of naming geographical places after living persons could be problematic. Therefore, the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names recommends that it be avoided and that national authorities should set their own guidelines as to the time required after a person's death for the use of a commemorative name.[35]

In the same vein, writers Pinchevski and Torgovnik (2002) consider the naming of streets as a political act in which holders of the legitimate monopoly to name aspire to engrave their ideological views in the social space.[36] Similarly, the revisionist practice of renaming streets, as both the celebration of triumph and the repudiation of the old regime is another issue of toponymy.[37] Also, in the context of Slavic nationalism, the name of Saint Petersburg was changed to the more Slavic sounding Petrograd from 1914 to 1924,[38] then to Leningrad following the death of Vladimir Lenin and back to Saint-Peterburg in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. After 1830, in the wake of the Greek War of Independence and the establishment of an independent Greek state, Turkish, Slavic and Italian place names were Hellenized, as an effort of "toponymic cleansing." This nationalization of place names can also manifest itself in a postcolonial context.[39]

Frictions sometimes arise between countries because of toponymy, as illustrated by the Macedonia naming dispute in which Greece has claimed the name Macedonia, the Sea of Japan naming dispute between Japan and Korea, as well as the Persian Gulf naming dispute. Over the years, it has also been noted that a map producer used the name Persian Gulf in a 1977 map of Iran while retaining the fictitious term Arabian Gulf in another 1977 map focusing on the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, underlying the occasional spilling of place names issues into the economic sphere.[40]

Geographic names boards

A geographic names board is an official body established by a government to decide on official names for geographical areas and features.

Most countries have such a body, which is commonly (but not always) known under this name. Also, in some countries (especially those organised on a federal basis), subdivisions such as individual states or provinces will have individual boards.

Individual geographic names boards include:

Notable toponymists

See also



Regional toponymy



  1. Wyrwas, Katarzyna. 5 December 2004. § "Czy nauka zajmująca się nazewnictwem miast to onomastyka? Według jakich kategorii dzieli się pochodzenie nazw? [Is science dealing with city names an onomastics? What categories does the origin of names fall into?]." Poradniki Językowe. Katowice, PL: Uniwersytetu Śląskiego w Katowicach.
  2. Českʹy jazyk a literatura (in Czech), 11, Státní pedagogické nakl., 1961, p. 176
  3. Ormeling Sr., F. J. (16–18 October 1989). "Terms used in geographical names standardization". In Tichelaar, T. R. (ed.). Proceedings of the Workshop on Toponymy held in Cipanas, Indonesia. Cibinong: Bakosurtanal.
  4. Marulić (in Croatian), 35, Hrvatsko književno društvo sv. Ćirila i Metoda, 2002, p. 1183
  5. Tent, Jan (2015). "Approaches to Research in Toponymy". Names. 63 (2): 65–74. doi:10.1179/0027773814Z.000000000103. S2CID 144115142.
  6. United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, London, 10–31 May 1972. New York: United Nations Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. 1974. p. 68.
  7. Room 1996, p. 13, 23, 27, 62, 80.
  8. Room 1996, p. 46.
  9. Room 1996, p. 27.
  10. Room 1996, p. 4.
  11. Room 1996, p. 20.
  12. Room 1996, p. 33.
  13. Room 1996, p. 34.
  14. Room 1996, p. 35.
  15. Room 1996, p. 25.
  16. Room 1996, p. 13.
  17. Room 1996, p. 51.
  18. Room 1996, p. 48.
  19. Room 1996, p. 56.
  20. Room 1996, p. 71.
  21. Room 1996, p. 79.
  22. Room 1996, p. 84.
  23. Room 1996, p. 54.
  24. Room 1996, p. 75.
  25. Room 1996, p. 92.
  26. Room 1996, p. 104.
  27. Room 1996, p. 49.
  28. Room 1996, p. 23.
  29. Room 1996, p. 62.
  30. Room 1996, p. 80.
  31. Stewart, George Rippey (7 August 1975). Names on the Globe (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-501895-0.
  32. Powicke, F. M. 1954. "Armstrong, Mawer, Stenton and Dickins 'The Place-Names of Cumberland' (1950–53)" (book review). The English Historical Review 69. p. 312.
  33. McDavid, R.I. (1958). "Linguistic Geographic and Toponymic Research". Names. 6 (2): 65–73. doi:10.1179/nam.1958.6.2.65.
  34. Kaups, M. (1966). "Finnish Place Names in Minnesota: A Study in Cultural Transfer". The Geographical Review. Geographical Review, Vol. 56, No. 3. 56 (3): 377–397. doi:10.2307/212463. JSTOR 212463.
  35. Eighth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names. United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2002. ISBN 9789211009156.
  36. Pinchevski, Amit; Torgovnik, Efraim (May 2002). "Signifying passages: the signs of change in Israeli street names". Media, Culture & Society. 24 (3): 365–388. doi:10.1177/016344370202400305. S2CID 144414677.
  37. Azaryahu, Maoz (2009). "Naming the past: The significance of commemorative street names". Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Place Naming. Routledge. ISBN 9780754674535.
  38. Lincoln, Bruce (2000). Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia. Basic Books. ISBN 9780786730896.
  39. Rose-Redwood, Reuben; et al. (2009). "Geographies of toponymic inscription: new directions in critical place-name studies". Progress in Human Geography: 460.
  40. Kadmon, Naftali (2004). "Toponymy and Geopolitics: The Political Use — and Misuse — of Geographical Names" (PDF). The Cartographic Journal. 41 (2): 85–87. doi:10.1179/000870404X12897. S2CID 128707537.


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