The decisions behind naming Washington places

The decisions behind naming Washington places

Have you ever wondered why there’s a place called “Humptulips”? What about “Medical Lake”? If you’ve ever speculated why certain places in Washington are named the way they are, you’ll probably be interested in knowing more about the Washington Committee on Geographic Names and the role the Washington State Library plays on that committee.

The Committee on Geographic Names reviews proposals submitted by the public to name geographic features in Washington State. It also works to standardize and clarify naming conflicts. After reviewing these proposals, the committee sends recommendations to the Board of Natural Resources. The Board forwards recommendations to the United States Board on Geographic Names for final approval.

Recent names recommended by the Washington Committee on Geographic Names include Reef Net Bay on Shaw Island and Swaram Creek in Okanogan County.

Per RCW 43.30.292, the State Librarian or her designee has a place on the committee. The current State Library designee is Mary Schaff. In addition to performing her duties on the committee, Mary is currently planning the annual meeting of the Council of Geographic Names Authorities (COGNA). COGNA is made up of folks involved in the geographic naming process across the United States. This year’s meeting will be held June 19-23 at the University of Washington Tacoma and will feature a meeting of the Washington Committee on Geographic Names, a meeting of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and academic papers and discussions about place name issues.

People interested in geographic place names come from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, including historians, cartographers, linguists, geographers, members of the media, and public administrators. In addition, Washington’s process for naming geographic features is very much a community-driven effort, since all name changes are spurred by community proposals to the committee. A key component to getting a positive endorsement from the committee is the presence of widespread community support for the change.

If you have an interest in Washington place names or local history, we encourage you to join us in Tacoma for the COGNA conference!

Registration information and the conference agenda, including papers to be presented and facilitated round-table discussions, is available on the COGNA website. If you have questions about the conference, please contact Mary Schaff at

— from the desk of Mary Paynton Schaff, reference librarian at the Washington State Library

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