Column: Skip to the endonym


Don’t you love when linguistics and geography collide? No, I’m not talking about the town of Noun, Alaska, where people, places, things and ideas live in harmony; I’m talking about different names for different places. Different pen strokes for different kin folks, I suppose. And, just so you know, Noun, Alaska, is not real (although it should be).

Based on my one semester as an English major and my finalist status in the fourth-grade geography bee, I am completely qualified to cover the intersection of the two topics.

Today, we’re delving into the world of endonyms and exonyms. If that sounds Greek to you, that’s because it is! Endonyms and exonyms are both toponyms, or “place names.” The suffix “-nym” translates to “name,” while “endo-” and “exo-” respectively mean “in” and “out.”

This means endonyms are place names used by people inside a place, while exonyms are those used by people outside a place. How about some examples?

We should start with the world’s tallest mountain, although it will be all downhill from here. Famously, Mount Everest was named after 19th-century Surveyor General of India George Everest. Although I can confirm Everest never climbed his eponymous mountain, legend has it that he never even set eyes on it. Mount Everest is the mountain’s exonym, while its Tibetan endonym is Chomolungma, and the Nepali endonym is Sagarmatha.

Regarding some of the world’s largest capital, their inhabitants and fellow countrymen have local names (endonyms) for them, while in the U.S. and elsewhere, we have other names (exonyms). For instance, Rome (exonym) is known locally as Roma (endonym). Russia’s capital city of Moscow (exonym) is known internally as Moskva (endonym). The capital of the Czech Republic, Prague (exonym), is called Praha (endonym) by its locals.

How about a few defunct exonyms? I have a large globe collection, and I find it fascinating that you can get a good sense of when the globe was made by the names of some of the countries on it. For instance, the Chinese capital Beijing used to be known in the English-speaking world as “Peking.” Similarly, to English speakers, Myanmar was formerly known as “Burma” until 1989. I think it’s important to stay up to date on place names so you don’t sound out of touch in your global affairs.