Toponymy – the naming of places

Linguists and sociologists have, for years, been making dialect maps on which are displayed, for example, those places where people would be likeliest to refer to a water fountain as a “bubbler.” Professor Bert Vaux keeps an excellent archive here on his website at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (where, strangely enough, people sip their water from bubblers).

Another approach, which should have been obvious but never occurred to me before, is to simply use a computer to crank through place names that are already recorded in map databases. For instance, if you looked at a great big map of the US and noted down all of the waterways called “brooks” and all of the waterways called “creeks,” would you see a geographic trend? Answer: yes you would. And here is lake vs. pond.

This work is presented on a site called I can’t figure out who the author is, but it’s darn good work. Here’s another good one: of the city name suffixes -burg and -ville, does -burg reveal a German immigrant trend? So many other questions you might ask: are there more “Bear” place names in the east or the west? In California, are there more Sans than Santas or Santas than Sans? And ever since that sleepless night at Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid National Monument in Wyoming, I’ve wondered how many National Park names involve the word “Devil” in one way or another. Now the answer may finally be at hand.

NEWSFLASH! Ask and it shall be granted unto you. A very cool internet-age thing has happened: I posed three speculative questions in the preceding paragraph, and pfly himself came across this post and answered my questions in the comments section. That is indeed something worth giving thanks for. Thanks, pfly!

Go read the comment, but here are the graphical results. Bear place names. San vs. Santa. Devil in the placename. I have to say, I was amazed by the number of Devil’s This-and-That places out there. I joked about Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid, but pfly did the research to show that there actually are the following Devil body parts: tailbone, toenail, windpipe, jawbone, and bottom.

3 thoughts on “Toponymy – the naming of places”

  1. Hiya, the author pfly is me.. I thought I’d map-answer your questions:
    Seems to be about an equal number of “Bear” placenames in the east and the west. The west won in this map, but if the line between east and west was drawn a bit more west, the east might win. (also it depends on what counts as a placename.. and I’ve edited out some of the GNIS data, like churches and schools, because they seem to have been differently collected for different states, and are in many cases wrong or out of date)
    More placenames start with San- than Santa-, or Los-. This map is of the whole US, but San- wins out in just California too.
    As for Devil, there are so many.. though this map isn’t restricted to National Parks. What made me laugh in checking Devil placenames out is that there seems to be a whole Devil’s body (backbone, teeth, thumb, toenail, eyebrow, etc), Devil’s household (tea table, saltcellar, ice box, bathtub, etc), and a bunch of other strange ones (Devil’s potato patch, tater patch, turnip patch, golf course, ball diamond, cotton patch, parade ground, racecourse, etc).

    There are a bunch of other maps at
    in rough unorganized form.. some good some not so good. The GNIS map files start with “gnis.”

    Thanks for the post! This placename mapping stuff is fun and sometimes weird..

  2. Pond vs. Lake?
    Somehow, 10,000 Ponds doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as 10,000 Lakes…

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