Toponymy refers to the scientific study of place-names (toponym), their origins, meanings, use and typology. The first part of the word is derived from the Greek tópos (τόπος), place; followed by ónoma (ὄνομα), meaning name. It is itself a branch of onomastics, the study of names of all kinds.

A toponym is a name of a locality, region, or some other part of Earth's surface, including natural features (such as streams) and artificial ones (such as cities).

In ethnology, a toponym is a name derived from a place or a region. In anatomy, a toponym is a name of a region of the body, as distinguished from the name of an organ. In biology, a toponym is a binomial name of a plant.


A toponymist is one who studies toponymy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word toponymist first appears somewhere towards 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 R. Stewart theorized, in his book Names on the Globe, 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 popularly claimed to mean "Father of Waters" (though it may mean simply "Big River"), and the state name "Idaho" was said to mean "Gem of the Mountains" (though it is merely an invented name).

Scholars have found that toponyms provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region. As long ago as 1954 F. M. Powicke said of place-name study that it "uses, enriches and tests the discoveries of archaeology and history and the rules of the philologists. Toponyms not only illustrate ethnic settlement patterns, but they can also help identify discrete periods of immigration.

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 recording of new names into databases and topographical maps.

Noted toponymists

See also

Related concepts


NB for 'etymology' in below links, read 'toponymy'

Regional toponymy



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