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BGN Geekery: New name proposals
Monday, April 21, 2008   11:46 PM

Another interesting feature of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names website is their collection of Quarterly Review Lists for domestic name changes. I spent about an hour today reading through the proposals for new official names. There were a surprising number of renaming proposals for place names that contained potentially offensive terms like squaw, sambo, and coon. For example:

This proposal is to change officially the name of Squaw Peak, the highest point inthe Phoenix Mountains, to Piestewa Peak. The change, submitted by the Governor of Arizona, is intended to eliminate a name considered by many to be derogatory, and also to honor U.S. Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa (b.1979), a Hopi Indian woman who died in the Iraqi conflict on March 23, 2003. Pfc. Piestewa is believed to be the first American Indian woman killed in combat.

For some states — I think it was Maine and Colorado — the proposal summary indicated that the renaming was mandated by a recent state law.

Since the government (in theory) won't change a name just to match the historical name or even to correct a misspelling, each renaming is accompanied by a lengthy proposal summary explaining the history of the old name and the reasoning behind the proposed change. These summaries were often quite charming.

Here are some of my favorite bits from the most recent quarterly review list:

This proposal, to name a 0.6 km (0.4 mi) long unnamed perennial spring-fed stream in Mobile County Turpentine Branch, would recall the early 1900's local history of turpentiners.

This proposal is to make official the name Sven Slab for a 91 m (300 ft) wide, 61m (200 ft) high cliff wall in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, at the north end of the McDowell Mountains. According to the proponent, the name is widely used within the hiking and rock climbing community; the name came into use because Sven power saws were used to cut a trail to the base of the wall.

This proposal is to make official the Dena'ina name Taq' Nust'in Mountain for a 722 m (2,370 ft) summit in Lake and Peninsula Borough, just west of the Newhalen River and approximately 16 km (10 mi) northwest of the village of Iliamna. The proponent, a Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, reports the name is of Dena'ina origin and means "the one that extends across the timbered lowlands."

More recent research conducted by an archivist with the Colorado Mountain Club reveals that the 1878 Wheeler Survey referred to the "unnamed" peak by the descriptive name Frustum Peak. The word "frustum" refers to "a pyramid with the top chopped off," which the author notes could refer to Kit Carson Mountain but more likely to Humboldt Peak.

The proponent reports the name Corn Church Creek was chosen because the stream lies near St. John-Hill United Church of Christ (built in the mid-18th century and long known as the "Hill Church"); the church's roof, which projected over the sides, was used not only for storm protection but also for hanging seed corn to be dried. Many of the area's early German settlers referred to the church
as "Die Welshkorn Kerche" or "Corn Church."

Although the name Saline Branch Drainage Ditch has appeared on USGS topographic maps since 1957, the proponents report that the name is misleading and cumbersome and should be changed to West Salt Fork. They suggest the use of "Drainage Ditch" is particularly objectionable because the feature is predominantly a natural one, following the original course of the stream over most of its length, having been only straightened and deepened in a few places to facilitate drainage. They also believe the name "Saline" causes people to question the salinity and therefore the safety of the water for both recreational and drinking purposes.

The BGN seems to do a great job of contacting all interested parties before going ahead with a name change, but in many cases not everyone responds. Several of the proposal summaries contain the following (fantastic!) boilerplate: "No response was received, which is presumed to indicate a lack of an opinion on the issue."

For my other BGN posts, click here.

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