Geographic Names

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Geographic Names


(toponyms), the names of continents, oceans, seas, currents, rivers, lakes, islands, mountains, deserts, swamps, natural landmarks, countries, cities, settlements, streets, farms, and all of the geographic objects on the surface of the earth.

The sum of geographic names forms a system or configuration of peculiarities and symbols that repeat themselves regularly in the process of the formation of toponyms and of their current relatively stable condition. Such a system in different countries of the world is always diverse in age and language, since it reflects the historical conditions of the country and the language of the people who now populate it and who have settled it in the past. Geographic names are often repeated, forming series characteristic for a given period. Thus, in the USSR several cities and settlements have such names as Komsomol’sk, Pervomaiskii (first of May) and Oktiabrskii (October). Examples of geographic names in many languages that express almost the same meaning (new city) are Novgorod (Russian), Naples (Italian), Novabad (Tadzhik), Newcastle (English), and Yengisehir (Turkic).

Among the classifications of geographic names are hydronyms—the names of rivers, lakes, and oceans. These form as a whole the most conservative group with the greatest stability. In addition, there are oronyms—the names of mountains, ranges, peaks, and hills, and econyms—the names of population centers. Such a classification, however, is still not universal. It is unclear, for example, how to relate the geographic names of ravines, gorges, gullies, and other forms of erosion relief to oronyms or hydronyms, and a similar problem applies to the names of swamps and related forms. Another class of geographic names is microtoponyms —that is, the place-names of smaller geographic objects such as forests, natural landmarks, hay mowings, common pastures, fisheries, wood-cutting areas, burned areas, pastures, wells, springs, pools, and rapids. This group of geographic names is diverse in composition and is united by a limited and narrowly local knowledge of such names only among local inhabitants.

In some cases the original meaning of a toponym is easily discovered. In other cases considerable efforts must be made to understand a place-name, and in still others, given the contemporary state of knowledge, the origin of the toponym remains a mystery. Geographic names are basically popular creations. They reflect geographic conditions, history, economics, politics, language, culture, and civilization. Therefore, the study of geographic names is of great interest for linguists, geographers, historians, and ethnologists. A very substantial practical problem is the stabilization of geographic names and the principles of translating them from one language to another. The systematic study of toponyms has developed in many countries in the second half of the 20th century, and toponymies—a branch of knowledge devoted to the study of geographic names—has been established.


Zhuchkevich, V. A. Obshchaia toponimika, 2nd ed. Minsk, 1968.
Murzaev, E. M. “Proiskhozhdenie geograficheskikh nazvanii.” Sovetskaia geografiia: Itogi i zadachi. Moscow, 1960.
Nikonov, V. A. Vvedenie v toponimiku. Moscow, 1965.
Nikonov, V. A. Kratkii toponimicheskii slovar’. Moscow, 1966.
Pospelov, E. M. Toponimika i kartografiia. Moscow, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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