Perhaps a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but when it comes to names on an official map and today’s sensitivities on race and gender, Shakespeare would have come up against a society that sees words in a new light.
After a long controversy, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names last week approved changing the names of a lake and creek in Washington state that included the word “coon,” an insulting term for African Americans. The board also agreed to three changes in Oregon involving the word “squaw,” a derogatory term for women.
“Sometimes names that were appropriate to society no longer are,” said Lou Yost, the executive secretary of the low-profile board.
The debate over the names of these little-known places took on a renewed urgency after more than a year of racial tensions and protests that have roiled police departments and college campuses across the country. The Confederate flag sparked national debate and was removed from numerous public spaces, including the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. Streets and parks that honored pro-slavery Civil War figures have been renamed.
“We haven’t seen a big upswing in the number of cases we get,” said John Campbell, a member of the Board on Geographic Names. “But there has been increasing awareness, and there may be some larger publicity through social media.”
The board was created in 1890 and is charged with establishing common usage of place names throughout the federal government. It has representatives of agencies that deal with such factors as population, ecology and management of public lands. Of the dozens of naming decisions each year, only a handful deal with questionable language.
The board operates a database that includes the names of places in the U.S. But the agency does not have a total number for how many properties have questionable names because there is no universal agreement on which terms are insensitive, Yost said.
Each decision to rename a place is made on a case-by-case basis, Yost said. The board has banned only two widespread usages: changing the N-word to “negro” in 1962 and substituting “Japanese” for its shorter derogatory term in 1974.
“The board is a reactive body,” said Yost, explaining that each request for a change begins with local officials. Then it can take months of research before federal officials act.
The fight over changing Coon Lake and Coon Creek to Howard Lake and Howard Creek in Washington’s North Cascades National Park began more than a decade ago. In 2009, the federal board rejected a state request to change the name to conform with Washington’s action to rename it in honor of an pioneering African American prospector, Wilson Howard.
But after more research was presented showing that Howard had an “association” with the lake and creek, the board approved the name change, according to a board report on the issue published by Crosscut, a website that covers the Pacific Northwest. The website helped spur the change with a story about how the state and federal government differed on the name.
Renaming had been strongly backed by top state and federal officeholders. “This name change is a small but important step toward correcting an historical wrong in our state,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
The board also changed three names in Oregon to honor local Native Americans who supported the change, Yost said. Squaw Spring, Squaw Flat and Squaw Flat Spring will now become Tuhu-u Spring, WogonagaT potso-na Flat and WogonagaT potso-na Flat Spring, officials said.
Given the history of colonization, battles over names are to be expected, said Arun Saldanha, an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota. He described his work as dealing with race issues, especially in a global context.
Naming wars can go back centuries and are part of the colonizing experience, he said. For example, when the Dutch arrived in the New World, they renamed the land, eliminating names used by the native people.
“It is part of the process for the colonizer to rename,” he said. “That is saying to the original inhabitants: ‘This is no longer the land of the people who live here.’”
Changing place names requires a popular movement to take up the cause, Saldanha said. He noted that the anti-colonialism movements of the 1960s and 1970s led some African countries to change the colonial names of places back to the names used by original inhabitants.
“The populist complaints make it really embarrassing to keep some names,” he said. In the U.S., groups fighting for African American civil rights got the N-word, which had been used in the 19th century, dropped from place names.
In addition to change, those movements can spark a backlash as well, Saldanha said.
As groups pushed to remove the Confederate flag because of its association with slavery, other groups pushed to keep it on the grounds that it represented a heritage.