Mount Everest was named after a British surveyor of India. Kilimanjaro is “Mountain of the God of Cold” in Swahili. K2 (or Karakoram 2) was the second peak surveyed in the Karakoram Range. Today, the names of these peaks are common knowledge, but at one point, they were little more than one expedition member saying to another, “Let’s name that one after our buddy George.” So how did the term “Mount Everest” become the universally accepted designation for that particular rock pile?
A Peak by Any Other Name
Law of the Land (And Maps)
As Americans were expanding west in the late 1800s, geographic features were being named left and right — sometimes multiple times — and maps were becoming a mess. So in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison, at the request of a frazzled superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (the precursor of the USGS), formed the Board of Geographic Names for the purpose of clearing up all “unsettled questions concerning geographic names,” adding that “the decisions of the Board are to be accepted … as the standard authority for such matters.”
Mountain of Many Names
Even though the name “Mount McKinley” became the official federal designation for the mountain following the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park in 1917, the name had a hard time sticking with local Alaskans. When the park was combined with Denali National Monument in 1980, the entire complex was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, at which time the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the peak itself, at least within Alaska, to Denali. A proposal for changing the name nationwide was passed along to the US BGN, but by that point, Mount McKinley had been the official name for more than 60 years. Established local name or long-used name? The BGN couldn’t decide, so it ducked the issue and decided not to do anything. It wasn’t until 2015 when President Barack Obama directed the Secretary of the Interior to unilaterally settle the issue by renaming the peak Denali, via her authority to act when the BGN doesn’t make a decision in a “reasonable” time period.
Most places don’t end up like Denali. So far in 2018 (as of August 10), the BGN had approved 91 new names or changes for streams, lakes, islands, valleys, waterfalls, and summits across the US and is currently looking at another 147 cases, including renaming a Colorado 14er and a creek in Georgia to make them less offensive, naming a butte in Nevada after a cartographer with the state’s department of transportation, and naming an island in New York “Trump Island” after the president’s father. To know which of these will grace maps across the country, we’ll just have to wait and see.