From Intercourse, Pa., to Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky., how U.S. places got their names

A view of the former Mount McKinley in Alaska. President Obama officially changed the name of North America’s highest peak to Denali, restoring its Native American name. (Photo: Andy Newman/Holland America Line via AP)

BORING, Md. – The Obama administration this week restored the name of America’s tallest peak from Mount McKinley to the locally preferred Denali. Couldn’t Obama also do something about the name of this town, not far from Maryland’s border with Pennsylvania? What about Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky.? Or Why, Ariz.? Or even Hell, Mich.?


Post office in Boring, Md. (Photo: Olivier Knox/Yahoo News)

The short answer is no. The federal body that oversees the process of naming cities, towns and natural features can’t just arbitrarily renaming things — and neither can a president. While individuals and local governments can petition for a name change, the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) requires evidence of broad local support before giving the go-ahead. That was the case in Alaska, where the peak had long been known as Denali, its historical name, drawn from the Athabascan, a Native American language.

In the case of Boring, which got its name 25 years after the town post office was established in 1880, the change was partly a practical question.

“The story, as I understand it, was that the town was originally called Fairview. But there were other Fairviews up and down the railroad tracks, so they could never get the mail straight,” Henry Horner, who has lived 40 of his 67 years in the area, explained to Yahoo News.

“So they ended up naming the town after the first postmaster here, Mr. Boring,” Horner said as he puffed contentedly on a Dominion cigar, seated in a wheeled office chair in the shade of the Boring volunteer fire department main hangar doors. The red-brick building is down the road from the Boring United Methodist Church. The volunteers — Horner became a driver because he was “getting too old for this run-into-a-burning-building stuff” — share their headquarters with Mason Dixon Bingo. A sign on that section advertises “Not So Boring Bingo” Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:15 p.m.


Boring, Md., resident Henry Horner relaxes outside the volunteer fire company. (Photo: Olivier Knox/Yahoo News)

The train tracks run past the fire department and the nearby post office building, which used to house a now defunct general store. Faded newspaper clippings on the post office wall attest to the fact that reporters gravitate to Boring when they are writing about place names.

A church, a post office, a fire department/bingo parlor. That’s about it for Boring, which is surrounded by thousands of acres of cornfields.

Asked whether there had been any local efforts to change the town’s name to something a little less sleepy as the 21st century heats up, Horner shrugged. “It’s laid back. Close enough to Baltimore. Washington’s not that far. If you like that sort of thing.”

The federal government’s power over place names dates back to at least 1890 and the birth of the Washington, D.C., body responsible for ratifying place names around the country. It’s largely unknown to the U.S. public, but the BGN wields quiet power by approving or rejecting new names nationwide.

“The board’s mission is to standardize geographic names for us by the departments and agencies throughout the federal government,” Lou Yost, an official with the U.S. Geological Survey who serves as the BGN’s executive secretary for domestic names, told Yahoo News. The board is not a federal agency, but convenes representatives from nearly two dozen agencies and departments that have a say in map production.


The Boring, Md., fire department/bingo parlor, post office and church. (Photos: Olivier Knox/Yahoo News)

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, backed by President Obama, ordered the change from McKinley to Denali under a 1947 statute that gave her office the power to do so under certain circumstances.

Jewell was only able to act because the statute empowered her to do so when the board, debating a name change, “does not act within a reasonable time.” In this case, while Alaskan elected officials have wanted the federal government to use the name Denali for four decades, Ohio lawmakers had continually blocked removing the name of native son William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States. The Interior Department declared that the 40-year span met the “reasonable time” aspect of the statute.

That doesn’t mean that the board will now restore traditional place names willy-nilly across the landscape, as opponents of the president have suggested the Denali change might portend.

For one thing, it has historically balked at names “shown to be highly offensive or derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender, or religious group,” according to its guidelines. In fact, “any individual or agency may request the board to change a currently used name on grounds the name is derogatory or patently offensive.” That has meant wiping federal maps clean of racist names, for instance.

That can be more art than science. In 1967, the board changed 143 place names to remove what will be referred to here as the N-word, replacing it with “Negro.” And in 1971, federal maps changed “Jap” to “Japanese.” But a search of the domestic names database still turns up some questionable monikers, including many with the term “squaw.”

Those names endure because the board “decided it’s not a universally offensive term,” Yost explained. “There are still some tribes that use the term and don’t consider it offensive.”


U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell speaks at an event at the Red Rock National Conservation area near Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

Since Jewell’s decision, “A lot of people and news outlets have gotten the impression that it’s the board’s mission to restore historic place names. It’s not,” Yost said. “We rely on current local use and acceptance. Or preference for a name that’s being used by a large majority.”

Over the years, some of the name changes seem whimsical, others necessary, given world affairs or shifting sensibilities.

In 1949, the board literally made a Mountain out of a Mole Hill — transforming the name of a small West Virginia town from the latter into the former at the locals’ request.

In 1950, the town of Hot Springs, N.M., opted to change its name to Truth or Consequences, the name of what was then a popular radio show. There’s also a Ben Hur, Texas, named after the book.

One name change with near-legendary status touched the landscape of southeastern Oregon. The site’s original name was Whorehouse Meadow. But a (probably) well-meaning federal agency renamed the site Naughty Girl Meadow in 1968. The state petitioned the board to change it back, and that’s what happened in 1983.

Not to be outdone, Utah features nearly 30 place names with the word Nipple in them, including several Mollies Nipple, a couple of Marys Nipple, and an Elsies Nipple. The board over the years has made very few exceptions to its ban on apostrophes. (Martha’s Vineyard, Ike’s Point in New Jersey, John E’s Pond in Rhode Island, Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View in Arizona and Clark’s Mountain in Oregon).

While some might relish having their name on a map, one Joseph Smyth successfully petitioned the BGN to remove his name from Joseph Smyth Pond in Pennsylvania, according to the minutes of the board’s April 30, 2014, meeting. “In submitting the name change, Mr. Smyth stated he was unaware that the body of water bore his name until he saw it on Google Maps,” according to the minutes. The vote in favor of changing the name was 8-0.

Sometimes Congress steps in. With perhaps predictable results. In 1863, it endorsed the name Idaho. Supporters claimed it was a Native American name meaning “gem of the mountains.” It was actually invented by a mining lobbyist.

When it comes to delivering gold, or at least a motherlode of trivia about place names in America, the BGN’s Frequently Asked Questions page delivers.


A woman poses outside Screams Ice Cream parlor in Hell, Mich. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

What’s the most frequently occurring community name in the United States? It’s not Springfield, which pops up 34 times. Nor is it Riverside, which appears 186 times in 46 states — “only Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Oklahoma not having a community so named.” Recently, Midway and Fairview have dueled for the top position. The latter turns up 288 times and the former 256 times.

If you’ve ever wanted to know the longest community name, including hyphens, it’s Winchester-on-the-Severn, Maryland, with 24 characters. Without hyphens, it’s a tie between Mooselookmeguntic, Maine, and Kleinfeltersville, Pa., with 17 letters each.

James Blum, whose father owns the building that houses his real estate brokerage, a two-bedroom rental unit and the Boring post office, said that there is no local effort to change the hamlet’s name. “Absolutely not,” the 23-year-old told Yahoo News.

As I prepared to drive back to Washington, Blum hurried out of the real estate office to catch my attention.

“The surgeon! The presidential candidate! Ben Carson! He has a house up the road. Thought you’d be interested,” he said.

“He might sell it if he wins, I guess,” Blum continued. “But it’s heaven on earth up here.”