What’s in a Name?: The U.S. Board on Geographic Names

First established in 1890 through a presidential order, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) standardizes and maintains the names of all natural and administrative features of the United States and its territories. In 1934, the Board on Geographic Names was integrated into the Department of the Interior and in 1947, the BGN’s administrative responsibilities were established as public law. Along with the Secretary of the Interior, BGN’s main responsibilities include: naming official geographic sites and location attributes and then determining policies and procedures related to the use of domestic and foreign names, as well as Antarctic and undersea feature names.

Current Responsibilities

The idea for the BGN was originally promulgated due to the inconsistent, often divisive naming that arose from U.S. expansion into the west. As disputes ensued between explorers, surveyors and settlers, it became clear that a neutral agency was needed to resolve tensions arising from these name discrepancies.

Along with reviewing proposed name changes, the BGN of today also makes formal decisions on new names as they crop up. Its formal responsibilities also includes the reviewing of spelling, capitalization and punctuation marks in names, although the use of apostrophes, hyphens and periods are generally discouraged by BGN.

Name proposals can also be submitted to the BGN by both nonprofit and for-profit organizations and government agencies, as well as individuals. Led by the Secretary of the Interior, the Board is also conducted by a chairman, vice-chairman and executive secretaries.  All members are appointed for a two-year term and are eligible for reappointment.

The Board of Geographic Names, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, also publishes the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), which includes topographic map names and an extensive bibliography. It acts as a kind of geographical dictionary or gazetteer and includes the titles of other documents, such as historic maps, and books that confirm cited federal names. The GNIS also includes all alternative names to official federal names.

The Geographic Names Information System

The GNIS’ database contains more than two million physical and cultural features in the U.S. and its territories. It describes the geographical features of a country, region and continent, as well as relevant social statistics. The GNIS also includes names and descriptions of other natural physical features, such as mountains, waterways and roads.

For those doing extensive research on domestic geographic sites, the GNIS also provides demographic information such as the ethnic makeup of a given population, as well as the region’s GDP, literacy rate, birth and death rates and other relevant information.

The following is a review of the main features included on the BGN website.

  • Domestic Names: The Domestic Names link include a compilation status map, the DNC’s history, and a quarterly review list. It also includes all related principles, policies and procedures that guides DNC’s work, as well as links to topical gazetteers to each U.S. state and territory. This is highly useful for anyone who needs specific information, both cultural and physical, on areas across the country. For those taking road trips, the topical gazetteers may also be interesting to review, as it provides extensive geographical and cultural descriptions about towns and cities, as well as other geographic sites and areas.
  • Foreign Names: Information regarding the foreign names of geographic sites is included in the GEOnet Name Server (GNS), as this database acts as the official repository of foreign place-name decisions. The database contains over eight million feature name and can be accessed by any user. Travelers that need to know the correct spelling of foreign geographic site will find this extremely useful. The GNS provides complete files of geographic names for each country and/or geopolitical area and also includes a link and contact information for the GNS.
  • Antarctic Names: This link contains related policy guides of the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names of the BGN, as well as information on the grouping of all of the continent’s natural features. Antarctica is unique in the sense that it currently has no permanent settlements and all discovery efforts have been made by scientists and explorers. Therefore, most sites on Antarctica have been named after these individuals.
  • Undersea Features: The Undersea Features section contains links to the Advisory Committee on Undersea Features of the BGN, which currently recommends all standardization policies concerning the naming of undersea features. It also recommends official standard names based on submitted proposals.