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A question popped up on GIS.stackexchange.com ("geographical information systems") asking "Is there a name for a situation when the place is clearly or unclearly named?".

The example given there was the fictitious "Red Rock Mall", which would either be an accurate descriptive toponym if the mall was actually located near a red rock, or misleading if it wasn't.

There's the term aptronym, "a person's name that is regarded as amusingly appropriate to their occupation", and inaptronym has been suggested as the antonym for that. However, the use of those terms seems to be limited to names of people, not places.

I also came across the term semantic fitness, "the degree to which a name is perceived to fit with the object it identifies". The name "Red Rock Mall" would have a high semantic fitness if there were a red rock nearby. It seems that that's not a very wide spread word, though, especially in the context of toponymy.

Is there a better word to describe that a descriptive toponym is accurate or that it is misleading?

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  • 1
    aptronym is an unscientific coinage for one.
    – Kris
    Oct 16, 2013 at 11:35
  • Can you give an example of a 'non-descriptive' toponym?
    – user49727
    Oct 16, 2013 at 14:29
  • @user49727: Sydney, for example.
    – Jake
    Oct 16, 2013 at 14:30
  • A quick google search gives the following meaning: contraction of St Denis, also meaning wide meadow.
    – user49727
    Oct 16, 2013 at 14:36
  • 1
    Hm, maybe the downvoter could leave a comment explaining what I could do to improve the question?
    – Jake
    Oct 16, 2013 at 16:14

4 Answers 4

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A mistoponym as described in Urban Dictionary. I don't think there is a more formal term for this type of misnaming.

Correspondingly a correct toponym is a eutoponym.

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  • Hm, I don't think that really fits, since that would just mean "wrong place name", not "misleadingly descriptive place name" ("toponym" just means "place name", not "self-descriptive place name"). The word also doesn't seem to exist outside the Urban Dictionary
    – Jake
    Oct 16, 2013 at 10:11
  • And that's the reason I don't think that there is a more formal term. Note though that the term misleading itself contains 'mis'.
    – user49727
    Oct 16, 2013 at 10:52
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Aptronym (and inaptronym) describes the case where the person's name is coincidentally appropriate (or inappropriate) to their occupation. I say coincidentally because a person generally is given a name long before they have an occupation. So it's not a case of making a correct (or incorrect) name choice.

Misnomer is a wrong or inaccurate name, but there is no subjective standard by which to determine that a name is wrong or inaccurate. (Objective standards are easier - Greenland and Iceland are good examples of geographic misnomers.) Misnomer is the term used in a case where a name is applied after the circumstances of the named object are knowable.

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In his Classification of Place Names, George Stewart includes "false description", a subgroup of his category 1, "descriptive names":

Actual false description is rare. Most of its examples would be better classified under euphemistic names. Others are to be explained as incident names, that is, the original namers observed the place under unusual circumstances and their name perpetuates these circumstances, and does not describe the ordinary nature of the place

While this seems to be a valid answer to the question, it's so straightforward it's boring...


More interestingly, the terms "transparency" and "opacity" can be applied to toponyms, as Radding and Western did in their article "What's in a name? Linguistics, geography and toponyms". They use the example of Newcastle in England:

... few people today associate the city in northeastern England whose name is "Newcastle" with any castle, new or otherwise [...], therefore, the toponym is now close to opaque.

However, Helmar raises the valid point that the "opacity" of an opaque descriptive toponym can be due to the fact that the descriptive properties of the toponym aren't used or useful anymore (like in the Newcastle example), and not only when the description is wrong. So the term "opaque descriptive toponym" isn't a perfect answer to the question, but I'd like to keep it in this answer nonetheless. The fact that transparency/opacity is a continuum and not a dichotomy like "true/false description" reflects how place names can be connotative (indicating attributes of the named object), denotative (merely identifying the named object), or something in between (see the interesting discussion in Nicolaisen, "Are there Connotative Names?")

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  • Nice work finding an answer three years later :) But does an opaque toponym apply to names that are not associated with their literal meaning thus to all names where the town / place is so well-known that nobody thinks about the original meaning or only to those where it is also misleading? That was your original question.
    – Helmar
    Jul 21, 2016 at 15:05
  • @Helmar: You're right, it's not a perfect fit. I've expanded my answer with what seems to be a better term.
    – Jake
    Jul 21, 2016 at 17:18
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    I agree that the opaque toponym is a way cooler word than just the false description :)
    – Helmar
    Jul 21, 2016 at 17:22
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In many locales, there are regulations regarding product labeling and branding that control whether you can name something using a place indicator (e.g., Champagne). While not single words, the criteria that are considered in these systems evaluate whether the identifier is geographically descriptive or geographically misdescriptive. See, for example, the US regulations.

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  • Geography is but only one of the descriptors.
    – Kris
    Oct 16, 2013 at 11:32

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