Correction: An earlier version of this article used the incorrect preposition “of” in the name of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. This version has been corrected.
WASHINGTON — Every month, it sifts through the scattered and collected wounds of American sensibilities.
It’s just a board, another panel of bureaucrats in the federal city’s continuous loop of committees and subcommittees. But the ruminations of this obscure group — known as the Board on Geographic Names — might tell us as much about what Americans consider offensive as any poll or radio call-in show.
The board’s purpose is to decide what we name (and rename) things — streams and mountains, arroyos and plains, guts and gaps. But, in so doing, these men and women who really, really love maps have become a kind of gauge of the American lexicon. That’s because Americans keep naming and renaming the physical world around them, and they keep changing the way they feel about those names.
Enter the members of the names board, who reign over 2.2 million geographical names but usually end up talking among themselves because hardly anyone from the public attends their meetings. The board has been at the naming game for more than 120 years, tinkering with everything from offensively pejorative names to annoyingly persistent misspellings. Sometimes decency guides it: In its hands, a pointy mountain named for a part of the upper body of Saint Mary in Idaho became St. Marys Knoll. And sometimes, the board says enough is enough, even if some might be offended: Kraut Run Lake in Missouri remains as such because the suggested alternative was to name it for the long-dead beer mogul August A. Busch, who already had 67 things named after him . . . in the same county!
They can be fabulously finicky, these masters of the national map: Possessive apostrophes bug them no end. But when it comes to what insults the populace, well, they’ve learned not to be too rigid. In fact, there are only two words that the 22-member board absolutely, positively cannot abide as the name of a hill or stream or anything else: One starts with the letter “n” and rhymes with “bigger”; the other starts with a capital “J” and rhymes with “sap.” Everything else is open to debate.
“One of the things that concerns me is political correctness, our heightened sensitivities to things that offend people,” Chick Fagan, who has represented the National Park Service on the names board for 15 years, says one afternoon. “Almost everything offends somebody.”
Take, for instance, what Fagan refers to ever so delicately as “the squaw word.” Hundreds of things are known by that name — a valley in California, a creek in Arkansas, a canyon in Arizona, to name just a few. He doesn’t see the name as a big problem, and he’s checked with historians who believe the word merely refers to an Indian woman. But some “schoolgirls took [the name] on as a project,” Fagan says, and they argued that squaw is a derogatory term for a woman’s private parts. In the past decade, Fagan says, squaw “has kind of caught fire as a pejorative word.”
And so it is that the board, which tends to listen to what locals want, has slowly set about scrubbing the word from the landscape. Late last year, for example, Squaw Peak in California’s Inyo National Forest became Wunupu Peak, a Paiute name for “tall pine” or “pine-nut tree area,” and Squaw Creek in Montana became Two Moons Creek, in honor of a Cheyenne leader of the 1870s.
This business of renaming places because someone says they’re offensive can be complicated stuff. And even the best of intentions can turn messy. Back in 1962, Stewart Udall, who was the secretary of the Interior Department, decided that the
“n-word” should be erased from American maps. What ensued offers a lesson in changing sensibilities. The Board on Geographic Names set about enforcing that decision, and the solution that it often approved was to change
the n-word to another n-word: “negro.”
That worked pretty well for decades, but then attitudes began to shift about the n-word substitute. And the board started to hear about it — over and over and over. It still hears about it. Just this winter, requests have come in to rename Negrohead Creek in Alaska (to Lochenyatth Creek), Negro Creek in California (to Black Miners Creek) and Negro Hill in Colorado (to Aunt Clara Barton Hill).
They’ve been so busy with
the de-n-word-ification that 49 names that had been changed from the old offensive n-word
to the new offensive (to some) n-word have since been changed again — to something entirely different, says Lou Yost, the board’s executive secretary and a three-decade veteran of the federal naming enterprise.
Still, the board isn’t inclined to tinker if the locals make a fuss about keeping everything the same. “We’re reactive,” says Doug Caldwell, who represents the Department of Defense on the board. And the locals have reacted strongly for a long time in Garrett County, Md., where Negro Mountain straddles the Pennsylvania border. In the mid-1990s, local politicians talked the board into rejecting a Pennsylvania man’s attempt to rename it Black Hero Mountain.
And that’s why the sign still read Negro Mountain in 1998 when Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore native who had never ventured to Western Maryland, went on a tour of the area for newly elected members of the state House of Delegates. As the bus rolled past the sign, she gasped.
“I said, ‘You have got to be kidding,’ ” recalls Gladden, a Democrat. “I couldn’t stand it.”
Gladden, now a Maryland state senator, learned about the vagaries of place names last year when she introduced a bill to alter the names of Negro Mountain and another geographical feature, Polish Mountain. First off, she says, she discovered that Polish Mountain wasn’t named for natives of the East European nation, but for its polished-looking smoothness. Then she came under withering criticism from a particular Negro Mountain resident, who also happens to be a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, Wendell R. Beitzel.
The original family homestead is off Negro Mountain Road, and his ancestors have farmed there for generations. He knew well the story of the African American servant who gave his life to save a white pre-Revolutionary area colonel during a battle with Indians. And he thought Gladden’s suggestion to give the mountain the servant’s name, Nemesis, had negative connotations of its own.
“I think we’re in a time when political correctness is running amok,” Beitzel said in an interview.
Gladden wants to make another attempt. But until The Washington Post asked her, she says, she’d never heard of that board in Washington, the one that renames things. She did have a question, though: “Could you send me their link?”