GNIS Principles, Policies, and Procedures: Domestic Geographic Names

Roger L. Payne, Executive Secretary
USGS Board on Geographic Names


[full document; EXCERPTS here]

Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)

Principles, Policies, and Procedures: Domestic Geographic Names

By Donald J. Orth and Roger L. Payne

First printing, 1987 [etc.]; Online Edition (revised), 2003


Naming is a basic human tendency; just as a name helps to create a distinct identity for an individual, a geographic name helps distinguish one place from another. Naming geographic features after individuals is one way that settlers marked the land; one way they signified that their lives on it and their contributions to it were important. Commemorative naming gave them a sense of ownership, assured the continued remembrance of them and their deeds. Naming a river, a mountain, or a valley helped create the familiar, often reminding them of another place, person, or time.

Over the years the role of the Board has changed and grown. In a Nation where numerous individuals are remembered for their accomplishments, the Board follows established principles, policies, and procedures to decide whose name may be applied to a natural feature for U.S. official maps and publications. In some cases, the Board may be able to suggest alternatives to geographic naming that might better commemorate the individual.


sec. 1
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will consider proposals for assignment of the names or nicknames of deceased persons to geographic features in the United States and areas under the jurisdiction of the United States. The Board will not consider names that commemorate or may be construed to commemorate living persons. In addition, a person must be deceased at least 5 years before a commemorative proposal will be considered.

sec. 2
The person being honored by the naming should have had either some direct and long-term association with the feature or have made a significant contribution to the area or State in which it is located.

sec. 3
A proposal commemorating an individual with an outstanding national or international reputation will be considered even if the person was not directly associated with the geographic feature.

sec. 4
All commemorative name proposals must meet the same basic criteria required of any other name proposal.


A proposal to commemorate an individual should contain evidence of local support for the proposed name and its application. Such evidence may be in the form of letters from local residents and administrative agency personnel and (or) petitions containing original signatures of local citizens.

In States with no official State names authority, approval must be obtained from local governing bodies such as the county commissioners or supervisors or the town selectmen.

Past decisions by the Board have found "direct association" or "significant contribution" when the person being commemorated was a(n):

  • early or long-time settler - 20 or more years
    * developer of the designated feature
    * restorer or maintainer of the feature
    * donor of the land to State or Federal Government
    * person who played a large part in protecting the land for public benefit.

A person's death on or at a feature such as in a mountaineering accident or plane crash, or the mere ownership of land or the feature, does not normally meet the "direct association" criterion.

The Board urges careful review of an individual's association with the intended feature, as well as the proposal's consistency with other Board policies, before submitting the proposal.

Approved by:
Board on Geographic Names
April 22, 1986 Approved by:
Secretary of the Interior
May 27, 1986


Chapter 4. Procedures and Guidelines


A nonrecorded name is one that is not currently in the GNIS. It is a name recently collected and represented as being in local usage or in established publication or legal use.

All such names are to be submitted to the Board on Geographic Names for review and approval before they may be used in Federal publications.

[Ed. note: this definition could describe the existing "Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe tributary" appellation, which is *not* in the Geographic Names Information System. Hypothetically this informal name could be submitted instead of "Burroughs Creek."]


Although the principal guide for determining domestic standard names is present-day spoken and written local usage, the Board realizes that there are occasional needs for reference or commemorative purposes to name features that are presently unnamed. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names does not initiate naming of unnamed domestic features, but it is authorized to consider proposals for new names for use with Federal maps and publications and for other uses. Any person or organization, public or private, may submit a name proposal to the Board for consideration.

A new name will affect many people for a long time; thus, it must be acceptable to local citizens, involved local, State, and Federal agencies, and other users. The Board's responsibility is to evaluate each name proposal as to appropriateness, acceptability, and need (relative to the feature, its location, and the user community) before it is adopted. This is done in cooperation with State geographic names authorities, Federal, State, and tribal agencies, local governments, and the public. As a general policy, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names avoids excessive or needless naming of features. [...]

Guidelines for Proposing Names

These guidelines apply only to features that have never been named. Names for features already established in spoken or written form among local citizens, even though the names do not appear on current maps, are given priority (see Policy II: Name Changes). A person who wishes to propose a name for an unnamed feature is expected to determine, to the best of his or her ability, whether the feature is actually unnamed. [...]

Recommended Kinds of Proposed Names: The U.S. Board on Geographic Names prefers imaginative names that are relatively distinctive provided they are not incompatible with the forms of other names existing in the areas in which they will be used. Names descriptive of topographic form or suggested by local history, folklore, or incident, or by associated natural life or other phenomena are preferred. This includes Native American and other ethnic names appropriate to the area in which the feature is located. [...]

Personal Names (see Policy III: Commemorative Names): A personal name proposed for a geographic feature will not be adopted unless it is determined to be in the public interest to honor the person or family for historical or commemorative reasons. To justify adoption of the name by the Board, the person or family being honored should have been directly associated with the feature being named or have made a significant contribution to the area of the feature or the State in which it is located. Experience shows that local citizens and other name users often resent and even resist using names that commemorate people. Ownership of land should never in itself be sufficient grounds for honoring a person in a geographic name. Proposals honoring exceptional national or international figures also will be considered.

The following established policies apply to all name proposals in which a personal name is used:

1. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not adopt names that commemorate, or may be construed to commemorate, living persons.

2. A person (persons) must have been deceased at least 5 years before a commemorative proposal will be considered.

3. The full name of a person as the specific part of a geographic name normally is not approved. Exceptions are occasionally made when a person's full name, or parts of a full name, are short and euphonious. The Board recommends that a name proposal include a surname or given name alone with an appropriate generic term. The use of a person's epithet, nickname, or title often provides a more interesting and enduring name, which may also be more readily accepted and used by the public because it is less flauntingly commemorative.


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