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Placename Rules


In 1890, the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) was created to establish uniform place names for the various departments and agencies of the U.S. government. To accomplish this, the BGN made 13 general rules (listed below) and those rules were applied to existing place names.

While the Board's decisions were compulsory on all federal agencies (like the Post Office, the Department of Agriculture, the Treasury, etc.), they were not officially binding outside of the government. In practical terms, enforcement of the rules within the government were generally accepted elsewhere.

In 1891, the BGN published a report on their effort to standardize names. A copy of that document can be found on Google's Books:

First Report of the United States Board on Geographic Names 1890‑1891

While I call them rules, the BGN considered them as guiding principles:

It must be understood that these are not designed as rules, but as guiding principles from which the Board reserves liberty to depart whenever, in its judgment, it deems it advisable to do so.

Guidelines for Placenames

The following guidelines were found in the BGN document.

1. That spelling and pronunciation which is sanctioned by local usage should in general be adopted.

2. Where names have been changed or corrupted, and such changes or corruptions have become established by local usage, it is not in general advisable to attempt to restore the original form.

3. In cases where what was evidently originally the same word appears with various spellings sanctioned by local usage, when applied to different features, these various spellings should be regarded as in effect different names, and as a rule it is inadvisable to attempt to produce uniformity.

4. Where a choice is offered between two or more names for the same place or locality, all sanctioned by local usage, that which is most appropriate and euphonious (ie‑ pleasing to the ear) should be adopted.

5. The possessive form should be avoided whenever it can be done without destroying the euphony of the name, or changing its descriptive application.

6. In names ending in burgh, the final 'h' should be dropped.

7. Names ending in borough should be abbreviated to boro.

8. The word center, as a part of a name, should be spelled as center and not centre.

9. The use of hyphens in connecting parts of names should be discontinued.

10. The letters C.H. (Court House) appended to the names of county seats should be omitted.

11. In the case of names consisting of more than one word, it is desirable to combine them into one word.

12. It is desirable to avoid the use of diacritic characters.

13. It is desirable to avoid the use of the words city and town, as parts of names.


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This page was last modified/updated: 24 Nov 2023