In taking inventory this summer, I discovered that the Maps Library has 132 books with the term "place name" in the title. Not so obviously "place-name" are books like How Georgia got Her Names, From Red Hot to Monkey's Eyebrow, or Scratch Ankle, USA. So, if you add these related books to the gazetteers which also deal with the names of locations, locales, and localities, at least 17% of our on-site books and atlases deal with named areas. Why do we need so very many place-name volumes, both national and international?
We would be lost without them, quite literally. Named places generally designate certain latitudes and longitudes. These toponyms are mappable, findable, and relatable. Historians and genealogists use place-name books to identify old, forgotten towns, ghost towns, towns that experienced name transformations, and even towns whose residents choose a name they like better, causing government maps to have an "official" name that isn't used at all. Some towns are simply no longer habitable, like the coal-mine-burning town of Centralia, PA, or are no longer needed for industry around closed mines or near decimated forests.
Since the U.S.Post Office has a rule limiting names to only one place per state, namers have had to become very creative at times. Also, early namers did not necessarily have the time to deliberate or choose an appropriate name. Places had to be named quickly to be identified on land deeds or placed on maps. Government mapmakers would ask the closest settler to identify a name. Consequently, many place-names are family names like Snellville, GA, sentimental names like Sunnybrook, KY, optimistic names like New Enterprise, PA, and respected names like Jefferson, IA.
But there are connotations to be gleaned from place name as well. A glaring example is the "Bridge to Nowhere," a specific location in Alaska connecting the 50 residents of Gravina Island with the mainland town of Ketchikan, and this location has evolved to connote "pork-barrel" spending.
The starting point for any place name is the language from which the name was derived. The original settlers, the Algonguin, named the region of Illinois, which means "tribe of superior men." Las Palomas, AZ, was named by the Mexicans for the flocks of white-winged "doves" that came each summer. And New Orleans was named before the French had even set foot or sailed past the site of this town which was to be named in honor of the patronage of regent Duc d'Orleans.
Even chemical elements have been used to name a location when that resource has been found in abundance. Examples include Barium Springs NC, Carbon, WY, and Mercury, NV. Cedar Springs and Sun City, AZ, give evidence to the abundant resources found there. Pecan City, GA was named for the local flourishing pecan industry. Deerfield, IL, was named for the abundance of deer in the area. Spanish and French pioneers, mostly Catholic, left their religious stamp on the names throughout the United States: San Bernardino, CA and St. Louis, MO, are just two. Westward expansion called for fortification to make the area safe to inhabit, so we have cities like Fort Wayne, IN and Fort Lauderdale, FL.
It will be interesting to see if and how the advent of Location Based Services (LBS) impact the chronicling of lost, forgotten, or no longer inhabited named places. Not that you would expect to find a Foursquare "check-in" at burning Centralia, but app-savvy people may be able to upload photos, journal entries, and data bites that relate to a pinpoint on a web-based map and build a story around the bare earth that once was a town.
(Place-name online resources can be found on the Geography research guide.)