The standardization of names was why the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) was created, coincidentally the same year as the state of Idaho. Its charge is to “maintain uniform geographic names usage throughout the Federal Government.” The Board makes sure things are spelled consistently on maps and that two mountains in the same range don’t have the same name.
Driving English majors crazy is also, seemingly, part of the charge of the USBGN. This comes about because of the institution’s phobia about apostrophes. Since its inception, the USBGN has abhorred apostrophes, particularly discouraging the use of possessive apostrophes. That’s why Glenns Ferry is not Glenn’s Ferry and the Henrys Fork is not the Henry’s Fork.
There is nothing in the Board’s archives indicating why they discouraged the use of apostrophes. They do try to justify it in… words. Here you go: “The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together become a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists.”
You’re allowed to read that again, if you like.
The takeaway is that the USBGN is adamant that possessive apostrophes are not used in the many thousands of names scattered on United States maps. But, as with the old rule of grammar, “I after E, except after C,” there are a few exceptions. Five, to be exact.
Martha’s Vineyard and its otherwise offensive apostrophe was approved in 1933 after an extensive local campaign. Ike’s Point in New Jersey was approved in 1944 because “it would be unrecognizable otherwise.” In 1963, John E’s Pond got the nod of approval because it would be confused with John S Pond. Note the lack of a period in John S Pond. The USBGN doesn’t like periods, either. Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View was approved in 1995 at the request of the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names, because “otherwise three apparently given names in succession would dilute the meaning.” In this case Joshua refers to a stand of trees. Finally, Clark’s Mountain in Oregon got to keep its apostrophe in 2002 to “correspond with the personal references of Lewis and Clark.”
Alert readers will have already noted that there is an apostrophe used often in Idaho places names. That one is in the middle of Coeur d’Alene when it refers to the city, the lake, the valley, the tribal reservation, the mountain, the mountain range, and the river. It’s not a possessive apostrophe, so USBGN lets it live.
Postal officials also put the kibosh on certain names. For instance, there is only one city named Eagle in Idaho, though not for a lack of trying. The citizens of a little town south of Sandpoint wanted to call their home Eagle in 1900. To avoid confusion, the postal bureaucracy said no. The citizens in a spate of creativity just changed the E to an S on the post office application form and Sagle was born.
Rick Just was an English major and recently served as the chair of the Idaho Geographic Names Advisory Council.