Place Nomenclature: A Geographic Branding
Shakespeare once wrote, What’s in a name? We can never be certain because we don’t choose our names. They destine us to become something and to act particularly. To embody an identity that we have yet to accept. Some of us grow into our titles. Others of us change them, manipulate them. Redefine our very nature by altering the string of syllables relatives gave us.
Places are no different. They don’t label themselves. Instead, they stretch their patience and wait for a man with a flag to stake to earn a title, a classification-a name. Before then, was the so-called newfound land, even in existence?
Urban geography suggests all places are so without a name. They exist in the physical dimension, tangible as any marked spot. Of course, this train of thought begs dimensional questions that I, as a non-physicist, cannot explain, let alone comprehend. In true scientific argumentation, places may exist beyond the physical, as Heidegger suggests.
While a contentious phenomenon, I write to dissect place nomenclature, not the fabric of locational existence.
Early on during my career as an urban planner, I attended meetings with developers and private sector planners regarding new urban developments, including schools, residential neighborhoods, mixed-use enclaves, and commercial centers, all of which we gave temporary titles. I designed unsigned streets, discussed community centers called X, wondering what future residents would call this place-in-the-making.
It wasn’t until later in the design process that we planners considered naming these essential components. Entitling a place, like naming a person, took time. Research. Dedication to future identification.
To negate the existence of a place before development or modernity feels colonial, and in fact, it is. The grains of soil on which we establish modernity have seen other lives, molded other footprints, bury a past known or unknown. In such cases, the role of biologists, archaeologists, environmentalists, historians, and anthropologists is critical in deciphering the codes of previously lived existences.
The marriage between place history and nomenclature mimics that of genealogy and surnames and forenames of people. A sense of the past and what came before sustain. Perhaps to pay homage to lineage or to carry on the familial legacy. It is crucial for urban researchers to conduct historical analysis.
We often name places for historical events, including battles, significant persons, or events. I spent a deal of time living in Shoreditch, London. My inner historian, desperate for hidden meanings from the past, discovered how the now trendy, hipster-esque neighborhood earned its name. Documented as far back as the Roman occupation in Great Britain, Shoreditch—in East London—was once a marsh with a modest river. In medieval times, predating King Edward IV, occupants dumped sewage into the running river water, calling the area Soersditch (Sewer’s Ditch).
To each individual, natural topography evokes different responses. However, place identification signals a similar collective human perception of geological features. These include climate, terrain, proximity to lakes, seas, oceans, natural phenomena, colors, and textures.
Half Dome in Yosemite, California, was called so because the glacial path that formed the valley quite literally carved a half dome. Iceland gained its designation from the icebergs Vikings came across upon their first landing there.
Bridging geographic influence and cultural identity, the Northern Irish dubbed Giant’s Causeway—on the north Antrim coast—because of the unusual hexagonal patterns formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity and lava cooling. In folklore, the hexagons are the stones that giant Finn McCool tossed into the ocean during a scuffle with a Scotsman.
Formation of myth and salience of place can develop in tangent, rooting human geography into natural settings before physical development occurs. Geomythology gives birth to place hierarchies and why certain geological features are prioritized and denominated with elegance. Merlin’s Cave in Tintagel, where the wizard was said to rescue the legendary King Arthur from the sea waves, is another example.
All the way back to our cave-painting ancestors, humanity has given names to the locations of existence. It’s comforting to categorize an area of lived experiences. In the name, there is a sense of ownership or belonging. A familiarity that the very DNA in our genes craves. Once humankind matured from nomads to settlers, place inherently graduated in importance. In place, there is permanence and identity.
Place branding intrigues me with its ambiguity. Place nomenclature does not brand the place; rather, the culture does, and the name seems irrelevant. In other instances, place names brand the location, identity, and culture. It establishes a lifestyle: home architecture and landscape architecture, acceptable vehicle brands, and clothing trends.
I recognize place branding through nomenclature, although its percolation into human behavior remains a fascination. After writing a piece about suburban sociality, Behind the Orange Curtain: autoethnographic writing on the South Orange County Suburbs, my professor at Goldsmith University, Isaac Marrero-Guillamon, suggested I research place nomenclature, pointing out that the name of the suburbs I focused on, Coto de Caza, roughly translates to “hunting grounds” in Spanish. This ethnography focused on suburbanites’ chase for capitalistic gains, and how the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality infiltrates suburban enclaves, a modern-day hunting practice.
Politics of Place
In the same vein as branding, place identification breeds governmental likeness. The language and linguistics of a prescribed name set forth an identity. Euphonious words soften criticism of place, issuing a sense of whimsy rather than hardline political identity. However, while place names of foreign languages sound idealistic or adventurous in their peculiarity, they suggest cultural and political discernment.
Historic associations to place names are also to blame. While the word Hiroshima sounds pleasant in its phonetics, the place name evokes pain and suffering and prompts political and humanitarian questions.
Exonyms further complicate the politics of place because, in their nature, they rename geographic locations according to the national language. For example, Americans recognize Florence, not Firenze, as the world-renowned Italian city. An inevitable discord occurs with the shifting of letters and sounds, complicating politics and how international communities view each other.
Sense of place and identity embodies the memorial content of individuals over time, affecting humankind’s cognitive associations. As with personal identity, naming brands natural and artificially constructed geographies, all of which sway the social landscape.