Place names in America and Australia


It’s an interesting exercise to reflect on the names of places. One can learn a lot about the history of a particular region by studying its toponymy. Unlike in Europe, names given to places in the New World are recent enough to carry a meaning that can be analysed quite easily. There is often written record of how these names came about or their meaning is clear without any analysis.

America abounds in names that provide testimony to the motivation of settlers. The motivation of the Pilgrim Fathers was religious but the colonies in America were also established as commercial enterprises. Therefore, many early place names are meant to honour their patrons. Jamestown, the first English settlement on the American soil, had a charter granted by King James I to establish a “plantation” in Virginia, named after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Georgia and Carolina were named after King George II and King Charles I, respectively. Maryland was named after Henrietta Maria, the Catholic wife of King Charles I. One can surmise that this name also suggests the cult of the Virgin Mary as the state was designed to be a refuge for Catholics.

Notwithstanding commercial aspirations, the motivation of the Pilgrim Fathers was primarily religious. They were fleeing persecution in England and their aim was to set up a political entity in which a religious ideal of could be realised. As the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop spoke about a “city upon a hill”.  He wanted the colony to be the “Model of Christian Charity”. New England was meant to be an improvement on the country of the original appellation. Nathaniel Hawthorne writes in Scarlet Letter that

… the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety.

The Founding Fathers changed the course of history of America, turning it away from religion.  While Puritans were religious zealots, the Founding Fathers were men of the Enlightenment. They believed in the perfectibility of Man and their optimism is reflected in the names of some places. The quintessential American, Benjamin Franklin, lived in Philadelphia whose name denotes the brotherly love. The colony of Pennsylvania was established by William Penn, a Quaker and a champion of religious freedom who could be considered as a man of the Enlightenment avant la lettre.

When the American colonies separated from the mother country, leaders of the War of Independence were honoured by the bestowal od their names on towns, including Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, La Fayette and Pulaski.


Toponymy of the south of the US provides testimony to its French provenience. Louisiana was named after King of France, Louis XIV. New Orleans, St Louis, Baton Rouge are also French creations. As the French colony, Louisiana was acquired for the US by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

The south-north part of the continent was settled by the Spanish and that’s why there are many Spanish names in California such as San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, San Bernardino and Sacramento. Interestingly, these cities are named mostly after Catholic male saints. Female saints are also represented, namely in the names of Santa Clara, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. Saintly appellations are rare in other parts of the US as the veneration of saints was an anathema to Reformed denominations.

While the US is a religious creation, subsequently turned into an enlightened republic, independent of England, Australia has never severed its ties with the mother country. There was no declaration of independence in Australia and no war of independence. The country is still a constitutional monarchy and its laws must be approved by the British Queen who reigns (but does not rule) through her viceroys or governors-general, both at the federal and state levels. The toponymy of Australia is therefore quite different from that of the US.


The first settlers stressed their links with England and emphasised their Britishness. Their emotional attachment to the mother country persisted even after the federation of Australian colonies in 1901. With the exception of Perth, capital cities of all the states were named after government officials (Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Brisbane) or a queen consort (Adelaide).  The names of Victoria and Queensland were also meant to stress the fact that the colonies were part of the mighty empire. Country towns, bays and harbours were often named after governors and local officials (Goulburn, Fremantle, Bathurst, Port Macquarie, Darling Harbour, Port Phillip Bay and Gippsland). This practice was so widespread that John Dunmore Lang couldn’t restrain himself and vented his irritation in a poem, titled Colonial Nomenclature.  He writes that in New South Wales:

… every stone there seems to get the same. “Macquarie” for a name is all the go: The old Scotch Governor was fond of fame, Macquarie Street, Place, Port, Fort, Town, Lake, River: “Lachlan Macquarie, Esquire, Governor,” for ever!

and later:

I hate your Goulburn Downs and Goulburn Plains, And Goulburn River and the Goulburn Range, And Mount Goulburn and Goulburn Vale! One’s brains Are turned with Goulburns!

Lang had a predilection for Aboriginal names:

I like the native names, as Parramatta, And Illawarra, and Woolloomoolloo; Nandowra, Woogarora, Bulkomatta, Tomah, Toongabbie, Mittagong, Meroo; Buckobble, Cumleroy, and Coolingatta, The Warragumby, Bargo, Burradoo; Cookbundoon, Carrabaiga, Wingecarribbee, The Wollondilly, Yurumbon, Bungarribbee.

His sentimental attitude to indigenous names is rather troubling. These names are testimony to the process of dispossession which commenced when the English settled on the east coast of Australia in the late eighteenth century. Over the next few decades, the original inhabitants vanished in many parts of Australia and only the names remain as silent witnesses of the injustice that was done two centuries ago. They expose the doctrine of terra nullius as a lie.


As the west coast of Australia was discovered by the Dutch, some names in that area attest to the Dutch exploration of this part of the world (Gulf of Carpentaria, Groote Eylandt, Dirk Hartog Island, and Arnhem Land).  Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, was named after Dutch colonial governor Anton van Diemen. Explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman was a Dutchman.

French explorers also visited Australia but their presence at the antipodes was temporary and most of the French names assigned to geographic features by La Perouse, D’Entrecasteaux and Baudin are now historical curiosities, appearing only on old French maps, with some exceptions. There are still several places whose names refer to French exploration of Australia (Cape Freycinet, Peron Peninsula, Fleurieu Peninsula, Cape Naturaliste, D’Estrees Bay and Point D’Entrecasteaux).

Australian toponymy reflects the composition of the early colonial society, with Englishmen and occasional Scots at the top and the Irish at the bottom. Not surprisingly, English names dominate among locations in Australia, with many of them having the same names as localities in England (Brighton, Chelsea, Newcastle, Ipswich, Cheltenham, Camberwell, Richmond and Devonport). Scottish names include Perth, Aberdeen, Aberfeldy, Inverloch, Glen Ira, Glen Huntly, Glen Waverley and Loch Sport. The names of Welsh provenience are rather rare (Anglesea and Welshpool) as are Irish names (Kilmore, Castlereagh and Lismore).

The name of Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, is an interesting case. Polish count Pawel Strzelecki named the mountain he discovered with the name of Poland’s tragic hero, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought valiantly against Russians at the end of the eighteenth century. Strzelecki made no concession to the unfamiliarity of Australians with Slavic languages.

Australia’s imperial connection was best visible in the period of the Crimean War. In Melbourne, the names of several streets and train stations commemorate the battles fought by the British on the Crimean Peninsula.  Richard Twopeny makes the following observation in Town Life in Australia:

The date of the foundation of St Kilda is evidenced by the name of its streets – Alma, Inkerman, Redan, Malakoff, Sebastopol, Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaclava, the last of which gave its name later on to a new suburb, which grew up at one end of it.

The Boer Wars were also reflected in Australian toponymy (Mafeking and Spion Kop).

There were many German names in South Australia’s Barossa Valley but they suffered from official obliteration at the beginning of the First World War. Some of these names were restored in 1935, including Hahndorf which carried the name of Ambleside for nearly two decades.  Nevertheless, there are quite a few places that carry German names, including Arkona, Dahlen and Heidelberg.

As no other ethnic group arrived to Australia as a religious community, Lutheran Prussians are the only non Anglo-Saxon immigrants who managed to impose their names on Australian soil.

The latest trend in Australian topology is the restoration of Aboriginal names to localities whose names were anglicised. This trend is an expression of the desire to right past wrongs, at least symbolically. Thus, the Grampians in Victoria are also referred to as Gariwerd and the Ayers Rock is now called Uluru.


The Australian National Placenames Survey uses the following system of toponymy (from Jan Tent and David Blair in Motivations for Naming: The Development of a Toponymic Typology for Australian Placenames):

0 Unknown

1 Descriptive – indicating an inherent characteristic of the feature

1.1 Topographic – describing the physical appearance of a feature (Cape Manifold, Steep Point, Point Perpendicular, Broken Bay)

1.2 Relative – indicating position of a feature relative to another (North Head vs South Head, Old Adaminaby)

1.3 Locational – indicating the location or orientation of a feature (Cape Capricorn, South West Cape)

1.4 Numerical/Measurement – measuring or counting elements of a feature (e.g. Three Isles, Three Mile Creek)

2 Associative – indicating something which is associated with the feature

2.1 Local – indicating something of a topographical, environmental or biological nature (Lizard Island, Shark Bay, Botany Bay)

2.2 Occupation/Activity (Fishermans Bend)

2.3 Structures (Telegraph Point)

3 Occurrent – recording an event, incident, occasion or date

3.1 Incident (e.g. Cape Tribulation, Smokey Cape)

3.2 Occasion – recognizing a time or date associated with the feature (Whitsunday Islands, Pentecost Island, Trinity Bay)

4 Evaluative – reflecting the emotional reaction of the namer to the feature

4.1 Commendatory (Fair Cape, Hope Islands)

4.2 Condemnatory (Mount Disappointment, Baie Mauvaise)

5 Shift – use of a toponym from another location or feature

5.1 Transfer – transferred from another place (Orfordness, River Derwent, Cap du Mont-Tabor)

5.2 Feature Shift (Cape Dromedary, Cap Frederick Hendrick)

5.3 Relational (East Sydney, North Brisbane)

6 Indigenous

6.1 Non-toponymic word – importing an Indigenous word, not being a toponym

6.2 Original placename – importing the Indigenous toponym already used for that location or feature (Parramatta, Turramurra)

6.3 Dual name (Uluru / Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta / Mount Olga)

7 Eponymous – commemorating or honoring a person or other named entity by using a proper name, title, or eponym substitute as a toponym

7.1 Person(s)

7.1.1 Expedition member (Tasman Island, Point Hicks, Crooms River, Labillardiere Peninsula, Huon River)

7.1.2 Other – where feature is named after an eminent person, patron, official, noble, politician, family member or friend etc. (e.g. Maria Island, Cape Byron, Terre Napoleon, Prince of Wales Island, Princess Royal’s Harbour)

7.2 Other Living Entity – using the proper name of a non-human living entity to name a feature (Norseman after a horse, Banana after a bullock)

7.3 Non-Living Entity – using the proper name of a non-living entity to name a feature

7.3.1 Vessel – named after a vessel (Endeavour River, Arnhem Land, Cap du Naturaliste, Pointe Casuarina, )

7.3.2 Other — named after a named non-living entity (Agincourt Reefs after the battle)

8 Linguistic Innovation – introducing a new linguistic form, by manipulation of language

8.1 Blend – blending of two toponyms, words or morphemes (Australind from “Australia” + “India”;

Lidcombe from “Lidbury” + “Larcombe”)

8.2 Anagram – using the letters of another toponym to create a new anagrammatic form (Nangiloc

reverse of “Colignan”)

8.3 Humor – using language play with humorous intent to create a new toponym (Bustmegall Hill,

Doo Town)

9 Erroneous – introducing a new form through garbled transmission, misspelling, mistaken meaning, etc.

9.1 Popular etymology – mistaken interpretation of the origin of a toponym, leading to a corruption of the linguistic form (Coal and Candle Creek from Indigenous “Kolaan Kandhal”)

9.2 Form confusion – alteration of the linguistic form, from a (e.g. Bendigo from prize-fighter Abednego Thompson)


1 Comment

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One response to “Place names in America and Australia

  1. Dr Raymond J. Ritchie

    Completely missing from this is the number of american place names around Sydney. Long Island, Brooklyn, Concord, Camden, Richmond, Newtown, Broadway, Saratoga to name just a few.
    This is because so many of the early governors etc were veterans from the American War of Independence. I am in fact a descendant of american loyalists that ended up in Australia.


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