Toponymy

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Toponymy is the taxonomic study of place names, their origins and their meanings. The word is derived from the Greek topos, place, and ounouma, name. It is itself a branch of onomastics, the study of names of all kinds.

A toponymist is one who studies toponymy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first occurrence of the word "toponymist" can be dated roughly to the middle of the nineteenth century. 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 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 Rippey Stewart theorized 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.

Toponymists attempt to approximate the original meaning of a place-name, their conclusions often competing with popular or spurious etymologies that may sound more poetic or attractive to tourists. Thus, the river-name “Mississippi” is claimed to mean “Father of the Waters” (though it may simply mean “Big River”), the state name “Idaho” is said to mean “Gem of the Mountains (though it may be simply an invented name), and the city name “Vladivostok” is translated as “Lord of the East” (“To rule the east” is a closer translation of the name).

Missing image
Vladivostok2.jpg
Vladivostok: "Lord of the East" or "To rule the east"?

Toponymists are sometimes used by governments in order to verify the accuracy of certain names as used by cartographers, the media, researchers, publishers, and their duties also include the inputting of new names into databases and topographical maps.

Noted Toponymists

Related articles

pl:Toponimia sl:toponomastika

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