Minhaj has a Netflix program called “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” that takes a quirky, comedic look at topics of the day. As a supplement to the program he has a YouTube channel where he does the same thing in a shorter format. Recently he posted a program called What's With The Racist Names Of So Many American Places? He pointed out that names can be changed. His focal point was Negro Point in New York City. He mentioned the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) is the place to go if you want to get a place name changed. They make the final decision on most, but not all, names you see on a map.
Full disclosure, I serve on the Idaho Geographical Names Advisory Committee (IGNAC). We have zero actual power when it comes to place names, but we do review proposals to name features or change existing names in Idaho that USBGN has received. We make our recommendations to the Board of Trustees of the Idaho State Historical Society to approve or deny a proposal based on USBGN criteria. They then decide whether to follow our recommendation or go their own way. The board then sends its recommendation to USBGN, which makes the final decision.
It is difficult to get a name changed. It should be. If names changed frequently it would lead to all kinds of cartographic confusion. There is a process one can follow and you can begin it by following the links above.
Minhaj—remember Minhaj up there in the beginning of this story? —stirred up quite a bit of interest in changing names that are racially offensive. Several groups took on the challenge and began efforts to change some of those names. In today’s internet-dominated world many of them thought gathering names on petitions was a great idea. That isn’t going to work. There is a process that anyone can follow, and it doesn’t involve petitions. It’s not a popularity contest.
Which brings us to the French lesson. One of those petitions included an Idaho place name that some thought offensive, though not racially offensive. Bitch Creek was declared a derogatory name toward women by the petitioner. So far, 60 people nationwide have agreed with the petitioner and are asking for a name change. If they really want to change it, they’ll need to go through the aforementioned process, even if they get a few thousand more names on their petition. (Late breaking news: They have begun the official process)
Bitch Creek starts in Wyoming, flows into Idaho forming the border between Fremont and Teton counties until it converges with Badger Creek, which in turn flows into the North Fork of the Teton River. We could follow its waters to the Pacific Ocean, but you probably get the picture. According to Lalia Boone’s book Idaho Place Names, A Geographical Dictionary, the original name was Anse de Biche, given to the creek by French trappers. “Anse” can mean “handle” or “cove,” the latter being more likely. “Biche” means “doe” in French.
Biche was corrupted over the years to Bitch. No doubt many have assumed that was meant to be disparaging and many have probably used it in that way. Never mind the canine term, which is the first definition of the word in English.
So, the French trappers who (sort of) named the stream Bitch Creek probably did so innocently. Not so with the name of the nearby Teton Mountains, which were originally Les Trois Tetons, or The Three Breasts. Some petitioner will probably find that offensive, too. But that’s Wyoming’s issue to deal with.