After a long controversy, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has approved changing the names of a lake and creek in Washington state that included the word "coon," an insulting term for blacks. The board also agreed to three changes in Oregon involving the word "squaw," a derogatory term for women.
"Sometimes, names that were appropriate to society no longer are," said Lou Yost, the executive secretary of the low-profile board.
The debate over the names of these little-known places took on a renewed urgency after more than a year of racial tensions and protests that have roiled police departments and college campuses across the country. Confederate flag symbols sparked national debate and were removed from numerous public spaces, including the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. Streets and parks that honored pro-slavery Civil War figures have been renamed.
"We haven't seen a big upswing in the number of cases we get," said Jon Campbell, a member of the Board on Geographic Names. "But there has been increasing awareness, and there may be some larger publicity through social media."
The board was created in 1890 and is charged with establishing common usage of place names throughout the federal government. It has representatives of agencies that deal with such factors as population, ecology and management of public lands. Of the dozens of naming decisions each year, only a handful deal with questionable language.
The board operates a database that includes the names of places in the United States. But the agency does not have a total number for how many properties have questionable names because there is no universal agreement on which terms are insensitive, Yost said.
Vocativ, a news website, used its program to compare place names with a racial slur database and found 1,441 federally recognized places whose names were questionable.
Each decision to rename is made on a case-by-case basis, Yost said. The board has only banned two widespread usages: changing the N-word to "negro" in 1962 and substituting "Japanese" for its shorter derogatory term in 1974.