Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where's the Lake?

Listener Chris observed that in lake names, the word lake often shows up in different positions. For instance, it’s Lake Michigan, but Little Traverse Lake. He wonders if there’s a rule determining the location of the word.

I decided to go to those who know: the U.S. Geological Survey. They forwarded my inquiry to the Geographic Names Office, and they were kind enough to reply.

“Actually, there is no rule in the geographic naming process that determines whether the generic term appears in position one or position two (before or after the specific part of the name). This is true for Lake as well; it can appear first as in Lake Superior or last as in Great Salt Lake. We can comment that it seems more often than not that the generic Lake seems to appear in position one for very large bodies of water, but as in the example above, this cannot be presumed, and we reiterate, there is no rule.”

I also asked whether the naming process might simply depend on the whim of the cartographer. This elicited an emphatic denial:

“Regarding whether it is ‘simply the whim of the map maker who names it,’ we can say with authority and certainty that it is definitely not. Firstly, map makers (and more specifically map editors) do not ever name anything—at least those making maps or charts for the Federal government and also those who do so for State and local jurisdictions—although occasionally local authorities might not be aware fully of the existing procedures. It is, in fact, the interdepartmental United States Board on Geographic Names (the first - 1890 - of now almost 50 such organizations worldwide) that is the sole authority for the Federal Government of the United States regarding approval of geographic names and their application on products of the Federal Government, both conventional and digital.

Further, the States and local jurisdictions generally follow the lead and policies of the U.S. Board (as do most commercial map makers). All 50 States plus the two Commonwealths and the three Territories have what are generically referenced as State Names Authorities, each of which works closely with the U.S. Board to standardize (not regulate) geographic names.
An example of non-regulation is that there is no rule to determine whether the generic Lake appears in position one or position two. In the United States, the policy of paramount importance is that of local use and acceptance, so it is usually determined by perception and recommendation from local governments and quasi-official organizations as well as the various State Names Authorities. Other countries have other problems, and therefore may have requirements regarding standardizing geographic name usage.”

For Lou Yost
Manager of the Geonames Database

SIDEBAR: Large Lakes in the World

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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