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Toponymy is the scientific study of place names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, use and typology. The first part of the word is derived from the Greek tópos (τόπος), place; followed by ónoma (ὄνομα), meaning name. It is itself a branch of onomastics, the study of names of all kinds. To understand the value of toponyms, visualize each toponym (or geographical name) as the title of a story revealing some aspect of a region's cultural or natural heritage.

Toponyms are not just words on maps and signs, but vital communication tools that reflect patterns of settlement, exploration, migration, and heritage that may otherwise be overlooked by residents, visitors, and future generations. A toponym is a named point of reference in both the physical and cultural landscape on the Earth's surface. This includes natural features, such as streams (whose names are studied as hydronyms) and artificial ones (such as cities). Natural features are no more geographical than man-made features or administrative units because all such features have names that are in essence artificially applied. Toponyms are typically conservative and give insight into the buried human history of a region. For example Moses I. Finley observed, "it is significant that the bulk of the towns and districts in Greece in historical times retained their pre-Greek names"; viewed with archaeological remains, the conclusion is that speakers of proto-Greek infiltrated the region by degrees, rather than in a massive invasion, and that they found already in place a comparatively highly-developed culture.

In ethnology, a toponym is a name derived from a place or a region. In anatomy, a toponym is a name of a region of the body, as distinguished from the name of an organ. In biology, a toponym is a binomial name of a plant.



A toponymist is one who studies toponymy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word toponymy first appears in English in 1876; since then, toponym has come to replace "place-name" in professional discourse among toponymists. It can be argued that the first toponymists were the storytellers and poets who explained the origin of certain place names in order to elucidate their tales; sometimes place-names served as the basis for the etiological legends themselves. The process of folk etymology usually took over, whereby a false meaning was extracted from a name based on its structure or sounds. Thus, the toponym of Hellespont was explained by Greek poets as being named after Helle, daughter of Athamas, who drowned here as she crossed it with her brother Phrixus on a flying golden ram. The name, however, most likely is derived from an older language, such as Pelasgian, which was unknown to those who explained its origin. George R. Stewart theorized, in his book Names on the Globe, 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.

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. As long ago as 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." Toponyms not only illustrate ethnic settlement patterns, but they can also help identify discrete periods of immigration.

Toponymists are responsible for the active preservation of their regions culture through its toponymy and typically ensure the on-going development of a geographical names data base 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 digital (Geographical Information Systems & Google Map formats) and hard-copy topographic maps.

Noted toponymists

See also

Related concepts


NB for 'etymology' in below links, read 'toponymy'

Regional toponymy


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Toponymy" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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