Friday, August 08, 2014

Positioning the Lake

Jim Sofonia from Traverse City, Michigan, asked, “Can you explain why some lakes are Name Lake, and others are Lake Name? Examples include Lime Lake  and Lake Ann.”

Generally, larger lakes tend to have the word lake first: Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Ontario, etc. Smaller lakes tend to have it last: Little Traverse Lake, Green Lake, Duck Lake. But it’s not totally uniform: Lake Macatawa, Lake Bellaire, and Lake Cadillac are not part of the Great Lakes. Also, if the lake name came into English from the French, the word lake is likely to be in the first position.

The same question came up five years ago, and I think that a portion of that answer is worth repeating.
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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

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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